Monday, March 6, 2017

Michelle Briggs Opens the Clarke's New Exhibit

By Frank Boles

On February 23, 2017 the Clarke Library opened its newest exhibit, “As Remote as the Moon: The Soo Locks in Photos” with a presentation by Michelle Briggs, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Park Ranger responsible for operating the USACE Visitor Center at the Soo. Briggs talk told the story of the canal through the calendar year, illustrated by a spectacular array of photographs largely taken by herself.

Although tourists flock to the Soo to see the locks, Briggs made clear the purpose of the locks, and the reason the USACE has been charged to operate and maintain them, has nothing to do with tourism. The Corps graciously works to educate and entertain the many visitors who come to see the locks, but the Soo Locks exist to support the American economy. Eighty million tons of cargo moves through the locks each year. Virtually all of the iron ore mined in America still comes from the Lake Superior region, and about 80 percent of that ore reaches steel mills by boat. Every one of those boats passes through the Soo Locks. Without the Soo Locks, America’s industry would simply stop because it lacked the necessary raw material.

Much of Briggs’ presentation focused on the work done by the USACE when tourists are few and far between – during the winter. The Soo Locks close in mid-January and reopen in March. During that time, the locks are drained, making access easy to a variety of structures that are normally submerged and difficult to maintain or repair. Everything, however, works on a scale in which parts often weigh tons and are moved by huge cranes. The age of the locks also complicates upkeep and repairs. The parts often have to be custom built onsite because their size and unique character is such that there is no manufacturer making or selling such a thing. Ace is not the place where the Corps can find much of what it needs for work in the locks.

During the winter at the Soo, “easy” work is a relative term. While the water inside the locks and their component tunnels is largely gone, (leaking gates are a persistent problem) rapid formation of ice, snow, cold weather, and other weather related issues make daily work challenging. Work crews approach their tasks with a “get ‘r done” philosophy. Photos of workers “warming” material with propane torches, so that the items can be drilled or otherwise manipulated, made it clear just what a challenge it is getting done even the simplest tasks during February at the Soo.

The locks open for boats every year at midnight, March 25. The Observation Platform, normally closed in the cold weather months, is opened that evening so the most serious lock fans can see the event. In the best of conditions the “first boat” arrives a few hours early, ties up, and waits for the clock to strike midnight. Local officials at the Soo invariably make much of the first passage of the year, which one once compared to the opening of baseball season in Detroit. Officials board the docked ship. Gifts are presented. The captain often offers a boat tour. Television crews get wonderful footage. And everyone enjoys the wait until the lock gate swings open at midnight and the spectators in the Observation Platform get to add another “first passage” to their list.

But when the weather is bad, and the first boat arrives late, perhaps several days after the official opening of the locks, the ship’s captain keeps ceremony to a minimum. In the 20 minutes or so it normally takes for the boat to lock through, the captain will usually come off the ship, accept whatever “swag” is being given to the first ship of the season, say something nice, but short, to the waiting tv crew, and then get back on the boat to be ready to move out as soon as the far lock gate opens. The captain’s job that day is to keep the boat moving, not make nice with the local community.

Passage through the locks in early spring or late fall, however, often takes more than the “average” 20 minutes. Ice is the problem. The largest lock, the Poe, is 110 feet wide, while the largest freighters are 105 feet wide. Briggs photographs made it clear just how narrow five feet of water is, when it is the only thing between a 105 foot wide boat and a 110 foot wide fall. If ice accumulates along the sides of the lock, or is pushed in front of the boat as it enters the lock and creates an obstacle such that the far lock gate cannot swing properly, locking through becomes impossible.

Coast Guard icebreakers, and a specially equipped USACE tugboat that can scrape ice off the sides of the lock, have to break the ice, which is then “flushed” from the lock. If the ice extends below the reach of the floating icebreakers and tug, special tools attached to a ship-mounted crane are dragged along the side of the lock to break up the submerged ice, which also has to be “flushed.” These complications can make what in the summer is a quick 20 minute passage into an event taking many hours, and adding a great deal of frustration to the impatient captain’s day.

Briggs fascinating and well-illustrated presentation made clear the continuing importance of the Soo Locks to the United States economy, the challenges faced by the USACE in operating and maintaining the locks, and the dedication and ingenuity shown by the Corps military and civilian workers in carrying out their important task. Briggs presentation also explained why about 400,000 people visit the Soo Locks annually, even though United States Senator Henry Clay, when asked to fund construction of a lock at the Soo in the early nineteenth century, voted against the idea, declaring that there was no need to spend federal dollars at a place as remote as the moon.