On June 18, 1855, the steamer Illinois became the first boat to pass through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie. The trip past the rapids of the St. Mary’s River took less than an hour. Although the Soo Locks were difficult to build, they soon played an important role in America’s industrial growth. Today, they celebrate 150 years of serving America and the world.
For years, Michigan had urged the U.S. government to support building a canal and locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Michiganians argued it would benefit both Michigan and the nation. Not everyone agreed. During one congressional debate, a southern senator said that the Upper Peninsula was “beyond the remotest settlement of the United States” and digging a canal there would be like placing one on “the moon.”
This attitude changed in the mid-1840s with the discovery of copper and iron ore in the western Upper Peninsula. The minerals had to be shipped to Cleveland and Detroit for processing. Because of the rapids, all goods had to be removed from the boats and portaged around the rapids. This process took time and cost money.
In August 1852, the federal government gave Michigan 750,000 acres of land to finance the building of the canal.
Digging began during the summer of 1853. At the height of operations almost 1,700 men were working on the canal. The men worked twelve-hour days and were paid $20 a month. The work was hard, especially during the winter. On some wintry mornings, workers had to look for tools that were covered by the previous night’s heavy snowfall. A cholera epidemic also killed many workers.
The Soo Locks were completed in May 1855. To bypass the rapids, boats went through two locks. Each lock was 350 feet long, 70 feet wide, and had a lift of nine feet. The locks were connected to a one-mile canal.
During the first summer, boats carried almost 1,500 tons of iron ore through the locks. Five years later, that figure was 120,000 tons.
In 1881 the state of Michigan transferred control of the locks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over time, as boats got larger, bigger locks were built. The newest Soo lock opened in 1968. It is 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide and 50 feet deep. Today, the Soo Locks remain among the world’s busiest locks.
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