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Soo Locks photographic past comes to life

Clarke Historical Library will host exclusive collection online

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​​Positioned between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Canadian province of Ontario, the Soo Locks is considered one of the world's largest waterway traffic systems. It is estimated nearly 1 million people visit the locks each year to watch one of the estimated 7,000 vessels that pass through annually.

The economic impact of the Soo Locks — which enable ships to safely navigate the 21-foot drop in the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron — runs deeper than the state tourism dollars seen on the surface.

Vessels going through each year collectively haul nearly 86 million tons of cargo, including iron ore and taconite for steel mills. Michigan's U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow know this and are actively advocating for building a new lock to supplement the all-important, yet aging Poe Lock.

Completion of the first lock in 1855 opened the gates to commercial shipping throughout the Great Lakes and the world. Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library soon will electronically host more than 1,700 images — many of which were previously unseen — of the Soo Locks construction and development.

"The Soo Locks are fundamental to the history of the United States economy," said Frank Boles, director of Clarke Historical Library. "This collection is the best visual record of the building of the locks you will ever see."

Boles first saw the images nearly five years ago after he responded to a request for an archivist evaluation. Going through the files in a supply room at the locks, which the United States Army Corps of Engineers owns and maintains, Boles discovered the collection of glass-plate negatives chronicling the construction.

Hundreds of solid, yet simultaneously fragile, one-eighth-inch-thick glass plates were simply stored in manila envelopes stacked in several filing cabinets. Each plate — measuring anywhere from 5-by-7 to 14-by-17 inches — was a specifically labeled negative of a picture taken throughout the construction of the lock system in its current configuration.

Some dated as far back as 1885.

"I said, 'We need to better preserve these and make these available to the public,'" Boles said.

Project entails scanning over 1,700 glass-plate negatives

Following years of discussions to secure funding, a plan was worked out with the Army Corps of Engineers late last year to have Clarke Historical Library scan each negative and digitally preserve the images. Boles said such a collection would be more easily accessed and maintained if it were posted to an independent website, and the Clarke is working to create this website.

Bryan Whitledge, reformatting and imaging manager for Clarke Historical Library, spent 11 days this winter in a Soo Locks office scanning and electronically labeling each negative. It took about four minutes to scan each negative, and Whitledge was equipped with three separate scanners. He said he did his best to keep one of them going at all times throughout the work day.

The historic images will be available on the Clarke Historical Library website later this summer. The negatives, which now are stored at the Soo Locks, eventually will be transferred to the National Archives.

Having these images available to the public electronically will benefit students, professors and historians who are interested in researching the countless impacts the locks have on the state, region, nation and world, Whitledge said.

"The Soo Locks was a major engineering feat that made so much development possible," he said. "Many great American cities like Chicago and Cleveland were born on steel and, if it weren't for the Soo Locks, the ships that carried the iron ore from Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula never would have made it out of Lake Superior." ​

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