Pictures courtesy of the Mikel Classen Collection of Historical Pictures
This is an early passenger steamer named “City of Traverse.” This view of the ship shows only ne lock and the river rapids can be seen beyond the ship.
Many old historical ship pictures were taken at the Soo Locks. The close-up vantage point for the bulky photo equipment made it a choice spot for ship photography in the early years.
Whalebacks in the Soo Locks with tugs.
Over the years there have been many kinds of ships that have sailed the Great Lakes. All of them served a valued purpose in their day, though some had some uniquely strange looks. Of course many of these at some point would wind up at the bottom of the lakes, casualties of unexpected storms.
This is a couple of schooners going through the Soo Locks.
From Sailing ships to coal fired steamers, a fascination remains of all of these different types of ships. To this day visitors flock to the Soo Locks for a glimpse of the great ships that still sail the lakes.
This early freighter is called the Zenith City. It would sink not long after this picture.
This is not a by-gone era but one that has evolved through the years. The lake ships of all kinds serve as vital a purpose now as they did in the past.
This picture is of an early wood fired side-wheeler. photos of these are few and far between.
While watching the ships of today, it is also fun to think about the ships of the past, smaller and more susceptible, battling the violent elements of the Great Lakes for their very survival. Some succeeded, many didn’t, ending in tragedy and a watery grave. Requiem for sailors of a different time and men with courage beyond most.
Pictures are from the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection except portaging picture from sign.
The State Lock after construction in 1855. It shows how the Native Village was isolated along the St. Mary’s River.
The Soo Locks began in 1855. They were dug so that ships would no longer have to either shoot the St. Mary’s River Rapids, of have the ship portaged through the town of Sault Ste. Marie rolled on logs down what is now Portage Avenue.
This is taken from an interpretive sign down on Water Street in Sault Ste. Marie. This is the only picture I’ve found that depicts the ship portaging through the city.
The St. Mary’s Rapids, sometimes called Falls because there was a drop of 21 feet from the Lake Superior level to Lake Huron river level, was the greatest obstacle to shipping in the upper Great Lakes.
This was taken in 1854 as the State Lock is nearing completion. I believe this to be the earliest picture of the Soo Locks being dug.
The digging of the Locks was an ardous task. There was an attempt in 1839 to build a canal, but it failed miserably and the project was given up. In 1852, another attempt was made, this time sanctioned by the Federal Government and fully funded. Charles T. Harvey was chosen to head the project and he began work with around 400 men . Eventually it would increase to 1700, doubling the population of the Sault. A pump system had to be set up to keep the bottom dry enough to keep working. The route took them through the local Native burial ground! Not an auspicious start for the canal. It was completed in two years. It was a mammoth project.
The gates of the old State Lock. The windlass which opens and closes the gates can be seen in the foreground.
The building of the State Lock was an achievement of engineering that still functions in essentially the same way it did when it was originally built. Though no longer controlled by a hand cranked windlass, the system of rising and lowering the water remains the same. The brilliance and the perseverance of the construction cannot be overstated. Battling water, disease, (cholera outbreak) and weather, the men had to work at sunrise to sunset no matter the weather and when cholera hit, many died where they stood. The completed lock opened in 1855. Suddenly, all of the construction workers and those employed to portage ships through town, were now unemployed creating a local depression. Out of work men were everywhere.
This is taken from an old Stereoview card from 1856. The three mast schooner is locking up on its way to brave Lake Superior.
In 1881, an additional new lock was built named the Weitzel. Traffic was increasing and a new lock was imperative. The State lock would be rebuilt in 1896 as the 1st Poe Lock.
Images are from my personal historical photos collection
Whalebacks were used to haul cargo across the Great Lakes.
Whaleback ships were a unique design that was adopted to ship ore across the Great Lakes and particularly Lake Superior. Their shape was designed to lessen the impact of turbulent surf. When fully loaded they looked more like a submarine than a surface ship. They were used mostly as a tow barge, schooners had mostly been used before this.
Whalebacks at the Soo Locks towing each other a common practice in ore shipping.
Whalebacks were fairly common throughout the early 20th century. 44 of them were built between 1887 and 1898. Most of them were built in Duluth, MN or Superior, WI as freighters for the iron range. None of them are left except one that is a museum ship in Superior, WI, the SS Meteor. (here is a link to the Whaleback Museum: https://superiorpublicmuseums.org/ss-meteor/)
Whalebacks taking on ore in Escanaba.
When loaded whalebacks were hard to see and were often run into by ships that couldn’t see them. Their hatches tended to leak and bend during stress which made them a hazard. The Whaleback is the forefather to the modern ore freighter that we commonly see now, like the neanderthal to the modern man.
Whaleback in the Soo Locks. A heavily loaded one can be seen behind it.