Sault Ste. Marie— The Soo Locks are getting a technological upgrade this summer with the replacement of a half-century-old master control system that opens and closes the waterway passage for Great Lakes freighters and leisure boats.
The new computer system meets the demands of an increasingly high-tech maritime transportation industry, even while the two functional shipping lanes show signs of aging.
“It’s just part of the general direction of the industry — everything is getting more digital and automated,” said Jim Peach, assistant area engineer at the Soo Locks.
The automation upgrades come as Michigan’s congressional delegation continues to lobby colleagues in Washington, D.C., for the more than $500 million needed to build a new 1,200-foot-long lock to mirror the Poe Lock, which handles the largest freighters carrying iron ore.
“We’re starting to make some traction with this, but it’s a lot of conversations,” said U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, and vice chair of the Homeland Security Committee.
Last fall, President Barack Obama’s administration authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a $1.35 million cost-benefit study of an additional shipping lock that would take more than two years to complete, corps spokesman Jeff Hawk said.
While the planning and lobbying for a new lock continue, the Army Corps is trying to keep up with rapidly changing technology in the shipping industry and head off a failure of a lock system that sees nearly 80 million tons of goods and raw materials pass through each year.
The new control panels being installed in the lockmaster’s tower and a pier-side shelter are funded within the Army Corps of Engineers’ $31 million annual operating budget for the Soo Locks.
The Soo Locks have four narrow canals for vessels to navigate the St. Mary’s River rapids by lowering them 23 feet into the waterway that winds along the international border to Lake Huron.
But only two are functional.
The Davis Lock, built in 1918, is rarely used, in part because few people at the 100-worker facility know how to even operate it, said lockmaster Tom Soeltner, a 14-year veteran of the Soo Locks facility.
Soeltner controls the flow of freighters coming south from Lake Superior or north through the St. Mary’s River from a small control tower poking out of the roof of the 119-year-old Soo Locks administration building, which sits between the Poe and MacArthur locks.
To get to his perch, there’s a small elevator in a shaft that used to be a chimney, followed by a narrow set of stairs. Inside, the control room has a small two-burner stove and mini-fridge as each lockmaster puts in 12-hour shifts to operate the around-the-clock maritime passageway.
“It’s kind of like a fancy prison cell,” Soeltner said jokingly while a Detroit News reporter and photographer were given a tour of the surface and underground Soo Locks infrastructure.
The 97-year-old Sabin Lock, the lock that sits closest to the Canadian border in the middle of the St. Mary’s River, has been decommissioned and dammed up in preparation for reuse.
If Congress approves the more than $500 million, the 80-foot lock will be widened to 110 feet and the concrete rubble will be used to fill in the Davis Lock, Peach said.
The 48-year-old Poe Lock handles 70 percent of the freight that flows through the locks during the 10-month shipping season.
The need for a third functioning lock become more evident last summer when the 73-year-old MacArthur Lock was closed for 19 days to repair a broken gate in the middle of the shipping season.
The MacArthur Lock and a smaller lock on the Canadian side in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, both handle small tugboats, the popular lock-touring boats and recreational boats passing through.
If the Poe Lock were shut down for an extended period of time, the 1,000-foot freighters “would be trapped in the upper and lower lakes,” Peach said.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security report issued last month warned that a six-month closure of the Poe Lock could single-handily spark a national economic recession by halting the transportation of steel needed for building cars and appliances.
“It would be a real mess,” Peach said last Monday during a tour of the facility.
“Everybody that depends on iron ore and steel would feel it. It wouldn’t be pretty. It wouldn’t be graceful.”
A third lock matching the size of Poe would make routine and major maintenance easier, he said, by allowing one lock to remain open while the other is repaired.
Because of the treacherous Upper Peninsula winters, the locks close to boat traffic from Jan. 15 until March 25 each year.
“Right now we can only do major maintenance at the worst time of the year,” Peach said.