Howes: Soo Locks, freighters help fuel industrial heartland
Sault Ste. Marie — It’s almost July 4, and the water pouring down from swollen Lake Superior still is frigid below the Soo Locks.
Water levels are touching historic levels, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, likely hitting new monthly highs in June for lakes Superior, Erie, Ontario and the wannabe Great Lake, Lake St. Clair. Floating through it all are Great Lakes freighters, a fresh-water shipping tradition here that predates the Civil War and fuels the industrial heartland more than many of us appreciate.
Enormous "lakers" carrying grain, stone and mostly taconite, a form of iron ore, pass down through the 1,200-foot Poe Lock. For now, it's the only working set able to accommodate the thousand footers making their way to customers on the lower four Great Lakes and beyond. The smaller MacArthur Lock, 800 feet long, moves tour boats and pleasure craft.
It's an awesome sight, in every sense of the word. Steel behemoths like the American Century, which passed downriver in last Friday's gloaming carrying 73,587 tons of taconite, creep into the lock and come to rest just a few feet from the front gates. Twenty-one feet below flows the Lower St. Mary's River, tracing a roughly 70-mile run to Lake Huron and, for the American Century, on to Indiana Harbor on Lake Michigan.
Still, a weekend paddling the upper and lower St. Mary’s River separating Michigan from Ontario is a reminder of the economic might that travels through the Soo on a daily basis. The raw materials in those laker bellies power industry, provide jobs, win big wars — and that's why it's so critical construction of a back up to the Poe be funded and enabled to move ahead.
Without it, American jobs, commerce, even national security could be imperiled should an accident or malfunction force closure of the only lock capable of moving large cargo-laden lakers between Superior and the lower Great Lakes. Particularly vulnerable would be American steel producers, major employers and suppliers to the auto and defense industries, among others.
"The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region is the industrial and agricultural heartland of both the United States and Canada — with a combined GDP of more than $6 trillion U.S. dollars," says a 2017 study on the economic impacts of maritime shipping on the Great Lakes conducted by Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "This output would represent the third-largest economy in the world — behind the U.S. and China — if it were a country."
The study estimates the Soo Locks, as they're officially called by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supports more than 123,000 jobs in the United States and Canada, accounts for more than $22 billion in economic activity annually and moved nearly 135 million metric tons of goods to system ports below in just 2017 alone.
It's the "longest deep-draft inland navigation system in the world," connecting an economic ecosystem that carries in its cargo holds "the staples of everyday life." Everything from iron ore, coal, steel and cement to sugar, grain, road salt and petroleum products traverse the system each year until Mother Nature brings shipping to a halt between January and the end of March every year.
"If the Soo Locks were to stop working, the production of almost all North American appliances, automobiles, railcars, and construction, farm and mining equipment would cease within weeks," the State of Michigan says on web portal dubbed Fix the Soo Locks. "The Soo Locks upgrade was approved by Congress in 1986, but funding never followed to make the project a reality."
That's changed, thanks to singular position of the Poe, recognition that critical public infrastructure needs investment, and a president of the United States who understands the political importance of the industrial Midwest to his prospects for re-election next year. Funding a second Poe-sized lock effectively acknowledges all three.
Last weekend, Sault Ste. Marie welcomed folks attending "Engineers Day." They crowded the observation stands high above the MacArthur Lock. And they stood on the shore of Rotary Park snapping pictures as massive lakers passed, reminders of the Soo's economic heft.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.