SAULT STE. MARIE, MICH. — The dispatch tower above the Soo Locks on a fine July day offers a spectacular view, but there is little time to admire it. There are five telephones and five radios, and at 9 a.m. a radio squawks. “Go ahead, captain,” says Chris Albrough, lockmaster with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Can I have the upper and lower water levels?” asks someone who turns out to be captain of the M/V Burns Harbor, owned by the American Steamship Co.
“Upper is plus 24 inches, lower is plus 31 inches,” Albrough replies, reading from one of five screens. Translation: the water in Lake Superior today is 24 inches above its mean level, whereas the St. Mary’s River is 31 inches above. He watches as the mammoth bulk carrier ship slips from the Poe Lock into Lake Superior.
Few people ever think about locks. But the two U.S.-owned ones here, the MacArthur Lock and the Poe Lock, are linchpins of the Canadian and U.S. economies. More than 4,000 huge lake vessels each year haul treasure — especially iron ore and wheat — through the Poe, the only lock large enough to fit the big lakers.
In other words, the Poe is the only link from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, and it’s living on borrowed time. In two years, the Poe turns 50, and, with Congress reluctant to fund a new lock, concerns are growing about its reliability. The lock broke earlier this week, blowing an O ring on a hydraulic line that feeds the gate activator. Luckily, mechanics fixed it in 45 minutes.
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