Soo Locks’ first ship of 2019 is Great Lakes’ first 1,000-foot freighter
Mar 25, 2019 01:27PM
By Tanda Gmiter of mlive.com - March 25, 2019
SAULT STE. MARIE, MI - The Great Lakes 2019 navigation season officially kicked off at 12:01 a.m. today, with the first 1,000-footer to ply the inland seas snagging this year’s bragging rights as the first ship through the Soo Locks.
The Stewart J. Cort arrived at the lock system just before midnight. Ship enthusiasts had been tracking her progress through the Lower Great Lakes. Fans gathered near the huge lock system in Sault Ste. Marie as the Cort pulled into the Poe Lock, which handles all the big freighters upbound for Lake Superior.
The Soo Locks had been closed for its annual winter maintenance work since late January. More than 73 million gallons of water were drained from the Poe and MacArthur locks - the only two of the four locks still in operation. Repairs were made, the bottoms of the locks were cleaned out, and then refilled last week.
Less than a week ago, a trio of Coast Guard cutters from the U.S. and Canada were the first vessels to lock through into Lake Superior, where they began breaking up ice so freighters could start making their way to the Soo for the opening of the shipping season.
In past years, there’s been some close jockeying by freighters to see who will enter the St. Marys River first and make the big date at the Soo Locks. This year, the Cort was clearly ahead of her competition.
With the Stewart J. Cort coming in first, more than a little history was locked through the Soo today.
In 1972, she became the first 1,000-footer on the Great Lakes, and began in the service of Bethlehem Steel Corp.
“Her bow and stern sections, built by Ingalls Shipbuilding, Pascagoula, Mississippi, were joined together and called “Stubby” for the trip to the Great Lakes. At Erie Marine, Erie, Pennsylvania, ‘Stubby’ was cut apart and joined with the midbody built there,” according to her current owner, Interlake Steamship Co.
There are now a handful of 1,000-footers on the Great Lakes. But the Cort is the only one that has her pilot house forward.
She can haul 58,000 gross tons of cargo.
Early today, the big freighter was met by an official welcoming committee made up of local leaders, who had some Soo Locks swag for the Cort’s captain.
“An annual tradition, dignitaries from the City of Sault Sainte Marie, the Soo Locks Visitor Center Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau came to greet the first ship and present Captain Sipper with plaques and other commemorative gifts,” said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, which oversees the lock system.
At daybreak today, a marine tracking system showed the Stewart J. Cort and fellow 1,000-footer the American Century stopped around Whitefish Point. It’s unknown if they were stopped because of ice, but the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw was shown to be nearby.
Each year, the locks handle more than 4,500 vessels carrying up to 80 million tons of cargo on the Great Lakes. Iron ore, limestone and coal make up the bulk of what is coming through on the big freighters.
The locks, located in the St. Marys River, help ships and boats move from the lower-level waters of Lake Huron to the higher-level entrance to Lake Superior. A new lock is expected to be added in the future.
The three big Coast Guard cutters working in Lake Superior - two from the U.S. and one from Canada - will soon be joined by other vessels, the military said. They will be working areas including Michigan’s Whitefish Bay and Duluth, Minn. before breaking ice in western Lake Superior ports like Silver Bay, Two Harbors and then Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada.
By the end of March, they expect to break out any ice left near Michigan’s Marquette and the Keweenaw Waterway.