7 yards. 21 feet. It doesn’t seem like that much in the world around us. The length of a Christmas light string. The height of a giraffe at the zoo. The distance of the three-point arc in college basketball. But to the ships carrying the 80 million tons of cargo between Lake Superior and ports downriver, 21 feet is the difference between being able to deliver their goods or being stuck in Superior or Huron. 21 feet is the difference in the water level between them, and without the Soo Locks, there would be no shipping to or from Lake Superior.
Luckily, the Soo Locks exist.
So ships, including freighters measuring 1,000′ long, can pass through the Locks, being elevated heading north (yes, Superior is the higher level) and lowered heading south to Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Erie, or further. The Soo Locks have served Great Lakes shipping in some capacity since 1855.
This morning it’s the Edwin H Gott, a 1,000′ bulk carrier heading to Lake Erie, that is passing through the locks to be safely lowered. The Gott was the second ship to pass through this March, when the locks opened for the season, and it will come back through heading home to Duluth in just a few days. But as the ship slowly lines up for entry, it gets the best view of the monumental and historically important work taking place at the Soo Locks this and every other morning. Work that will create a necessary second full-size lock for greater capacity. Work being carried out by members of Operating Engineers 324 employed by Kokosing-Alberici.
Work that will guarantee “security to the manufacturing industry,” explains US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Area Engineer Kevin Sprague.
Currently, the Soo consists of four locks – the Poe, the MacArthur, the Davis, and the Sabin. Only the first two, the Poe and the MacArthur, are currently operating. And only the Poe is large enough to accommodate the massive freighters that make up so much of the traffic on the Great Lakes. So the work is on to replace the Sabin Lock with a new, larger, modern lock. When completed, the Soo will house two locks able to accommodate shipping up to 1,000 feet in length, decreasing logjams in carrier time and speeding materials to their destination.
The project was first discussed 50 years ago but didn’t receive its first funding from the federal government until the early 2000s details USACE Project Engineer Kristina Schnettler. The first phase, upstream channel deepening, will conclude later this year.
The second phase – rehabbing the upstream approach walls – started last year and is being undertaken by Kokosing-Alberici.
“That’s rehabbing the walls leading to the lock,” says Schnettler, “because those walls are over 100 years old and in disrepair”
The final phase will be the demo and construction of the new lock itself. The project is expected to be completed by the fall of 2030.
Kokosing-Alberici, the phase two contractor, is “a project specific consortium formed by parent companies Kokosing Industrial, Inc. and Alberici Constructors, Inc. to build the Soo Locks Upstream Approach Wall project,” explains Kokosing-Alberici Project Manager Austin Dernberger.
“The project at the Soo Locks is important not just to the local community and the state of Michigan, but to the nation as a whole. Kokosing-Alberici is excited to have the opportunity to be part of the long history of heavy construction at the Soo Locks and work in the same location and on the same structures as so many tradespeople have going back to the first US lock construction in 1855.”
Expertise is a must in this phase of the project in particular because of the challenging landscape where the work is being undertaken.
“When people ask about this project site, one of the things I tend to highlight is the unique location,” says Supervisory Civil Engineer and Contracting Officer Representative Rachel Miller. “Doing construction out on that north pier, there are some challenges associated with that. Especially when it comes to things like managing the concrete trucks, or cranes. Just moving around on an almost two-mile, linear project site, that is completely accessed by water, creates unique challenges.”
Operating Engineers 324 member Pat Mackin agrees. “The biggest challenge is supplies – keeping everything that comes over on a barge sent to who needs it. Stockpiling all the stuff from a boat on a narrow strip of land.”
Because of the limited access to the construction site, all supplies – and the workers themselves – have to be brought over by boat. Because of that, Kokosing-Alberici decided the best way to get the concrete needed for the project was to erect a dual drum Erie Strayer Batch Plant on the island to produce the over 60,000 CY of USACE spec concrete mixes for the approach wall construction.
Concrete production is just one of the many tasks Kokosing-Alberici is carrying out with Operating Engineers 324 members for this project. Dernberger points out that there are also a 1500 hp tug boat and customized deck barge with roll-on-roll-off ramps for transporting materials and equipment across the federal navigation channel to the work site, 4100 Manitowoc cranes for pile driving and material handling, barge mounted excavators for underwater excavation and demolition activities. Additional numerous onsite material handling and earthmoving equipment such as; excavators, off-road dump trucks, forklifts, loaders, etc. to complete the sitework and service the batch plant and other construction activities.
OE324 Crane Operator and Steward George Herro started working at the site last April and has been primarily in charge of the 4100W Friction Crane.
“I’ve been putting in a lot of Z sheeting” Herro says. “We’re doing a lot of steel sheets and all the concrete forms.”
Assisting him on the crane has been 5th year OE324 Apprentice Bryce Retaskie. Says Retaskie, “I am oiling on a 4100 out here, and if they are shorthanded or need anything, I help out with whatever it is. Skid steer, driving a concrete truck, whatever is needed. But mostly helping with the crane, moving forms and setting pile.”
“Kokosing-Alberici Operators are safe operators first and foremost,” says Dernberger. “They take responsibility for the safe operation of their assigned equipment and bring any issues they see to Kokosing-Alberici superintendents to resolve. Secondly, they are skilled and versatile. The project’s unique requirements means that an operator may be required to operate an off-road truck one day and an excavator or dozer the next. OE324 Operators have proven that they are more than up to the task and are adding their expertise to Kokosing-Alberici operations.”
Along with Herro, he notes a few other OE324 members that have been exceptional, including Tug Captain Lee Barnhill, Batch Plant Operator Corey Tenyck, and Marine Excavator Operator Troy Merchant.
The unique sight of an excavator leaning over a barge to rake the channel bottom is just one of the many impressive sites on the project. For Retaskie, it has been a collection of learning experiences.
“There’s so much to learn out here. Like working around the water, with all the rules and safety regulations. And sheet pile – not a lot of people get experience to work with it. It’s fun – you’re always moving and doing stuff, but there’s a lot to learn, running the crane and how to swing the sheets. And of course the whole batch plant and concrete work is huge.”
“I was here last spring to run a dozer, excavator and forklift,” says Mackin. “I was the first one here. I dug footings for the plant, dug power lines, and stripped asphalt and vegetation.”
Most notably, every person working on the project – from the US Army Corps of Engineers to Kokosing-Alberici managers to the Operating Engineers 324 members on the equipment – recognizes the historical aspect of the work they are doing.
“Our goal is that each member who works on the project has a sense of pride having contributed to a project that is not just vital to the US economy but is one of the safest projects they have been a part of,” says Dernberger.
Adds Retaskie, “This is one of the biggest undertakings in modern history of America here – it’s a huge project. Kids are going to learn about it in school. So, it’s really meaningful to be on a job like this. You’re a big part of something that is long lasting and will affect the entire world, with the amount of product that comes through here.”
Schnettler notes the evolution in technology used to construct the new lock. “When the Poe was built, it was all hand drawn. The plans and drawings, everything was flat. Now we use all 3-D software – we can put on glasses and see what the project should look like completed.”
For Mackin, the project has a more personal note. Raised in Sault Saint Marie, the Soo Locks have been a constant in his life. Both his father and grandfather retired from the Locks after Army Corps of Engineer careers. Now, after a 28-year career that has sent him all over the Upper and Lower Peninsulas and dozens of projects, he has come home to work on the site he knows most of all.
And as the Edwin H. Gott gently glides out of the locks and into Lake Huron, it leaves behind the impressive team – including almost 30 OE324 Operating Engineers – working to make its future trips more efficient. These locks enabled the transport of copper and iron that won two World Wars and powered the 20th and 21st Centuries. With the partnership of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Kokosing-Alberici, and Operating Engineers 324, it’s future is brighter than ever.
*Special thanks to Carrie Fox, USACE, for assistance with site visitation