Special Report: State of the Locks

In 1855 the first lock was constructed in Sault Ste. Marie.

Since then, a new lock was built just about every 19 years to meet demand for the iron ore being mined at the west end of Lake Superior: seven locks total.

The last lock was built in 1959 and, after decades, help is finally on the way. 

Corey Adkins explains in this special report “State of the Locks.”

“We have this game in Washington we play where Congress will authorize money for a project and people think that project is going to happen, but until Congress actually appropriates the money for it then that project does not happen and that’s partially what’s been happening,” explained Fred Stonehouse, maritime historian.

Finally, 32 years after Congress approved building the new lock the money has been appropriated. But that doesn’t mean the Army Corp of Engineers turns it’s back on the two locks we still use.

“And the big one, of course, that were so concerned with today is the Poe which is 51 years old today. Even the MacArthur Lock built in 1943 is 76 years old. This is incredibly old infrastructure this needs to be repaired and needs to be replaced,” said Fred.

And it is. The Army Corp was just funded over $50 million for a major rehabilitation.

“We were able to get some additional money this year so our funding is very good this year and it’s keeping us really busy this year, which is great. We really like that,” said Kevin Sprauge, area engineer.

And that’s great, but to rehab the locks they have to be drained. And they do this during the winter when nothing is easy because of the weather.

“They are in the elements, that’s a critical job right there that has to be finished before we re-water,” said Mike Krzycki-Safety, occupational health specialist

There’s a lot going on inside the locks this winter. Something as simple as putting stairs in the chambers.

“We’re only at about a 6 foot elevation down below the cell, so we have the crews putting together and assembling these new stairwells to make it safer access down in the chamber here,” explained Mike.

When boats lock through the Poe there’s about 40 feet of water from the top to the bottom of the lock. Guess where all the debris from Lake Superior goes?

“The Poe has a unique underfloor drain system, file drainage system it gets plugged up and really causes a lot of issues with the water. So the guys are actually jetting out a lot of those pipes and trying to get that cleared up,” said Kevin.

Sometimes it has to be done by hand.

“We got about a 4-foot manhole and about 4-foot solid of small aggregate. It runs all the way down and will shut that valve off and send somebody down there to clean it up. The truck is broke right now so we have to hand it, muck it,” explained Jason Wojnaroski, lock and dam operator supervisor.

Bag by bag they muck out years of debris so these pumps can pump all the water out. You’d be surprised how old they are. The pumps are 105 years old!

They’re replacing gudgeon pins. These allow the gates to open and close.

These repairs are never easy. Imagine welding 40 feet in the air on an aerial lift, in the whipping wind.

“We’re going to identify repairs and cracks on the gates, and then go out and weld them up,” explained Matt Deplonty, lock and dam operator. “You have to work with the wind little bit and when it sways you going to get used to the motion.”

Kevin added, “Next winter we’ll be adding additional steel to it and then the third winter we will blast and paint it and that still we can extend the life of that gate for another 15 to 20 years. That will help us get through completion of a new lock.”

Incredibly important work to one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in our country.

“Once a new lock is completed there will be some major rehab items that can be taken care of on the Poe. We have some pier work, gate replacements that need to be done, and those things will be able to be done when we have a new lock because will be able to lock ships through the new lock well we’re actually doing this work and we can take the Poe out of service while doing a major rehab,” explained Kevin.

Fred said, “They have done a marvelous job of maintaining the facility the best they possibly can with the level of appropriations they have.”