A winter's day on the Soo Locks - Soundings Online

A winter's day on the Soo Locks

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Ice cakes the bow and hangs off the anchor chains of the Great Lakes steamer Queen City. Soo Locks, the passageway between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes, was barely 50 years old when this shot was taken in 1904 - and one of the world's busiest stretches of water. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., allowed the deep-draft ships of a growing nation to skirt the rapids of the St. Marys River and bring the harvest of the North American Midwest around the globe.

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Rapids, indeed. The St. Marys plummeted 21 feet between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, making passage between the two impossible. A small-boat bypass less than 40 feet long was built in 1797 and sufficed for a time. By the mid-19th century, the booming region demanded vessels far larger. The need for a full-scale lock system became obvious.

In 1855, two side-by-side locks were opened, each 350 feet long, and the steamer Illinois was the first vessel through. Thousands more would follow, and the legends of Great Lakes men and ships were born. For while the locks brought prosperity, Lake Superior - capable of shrieking winds and great rolling waves, fog, ice and snow - brought tragedy.

Shipwrecks abounded. The Samuel Mather went down in bad weather in 1891; all hands survived. In 1907, the steamer Cyprus rolled in a winter storm - 22 died. Two years later, the John B. Cowle went down in a foggy collision, with 14 lost. Leaving the lake behind, a skipper thanked his lucky stars he had reached the Soo Locks safely; coming in from the east, he steeled himself for the impending passage.

Today, the "Shipwreck Coast" west of the locks harbors some 200 historic wrecks. Perhaps the most famous is the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank off Whitefish Point Light with all hands in 1975. Twenty years later, the freighter's bronze bell was recovered and is now on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Mich.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.