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But What About Niagara Falls?

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Niagara Falls from New YorkWhile there are many benefits to maritime transportation, there are some limitations as well. Obviously, waterways are needed to allow the ship access to the point of delivery for its cargo. Where ships can get reasonably close, intermodal transport can get the cargo the rest of the way to its destination. In some areas of the country, shipping is simply impractical as a means of transport. The location of the Great Lakes, between the source of several bulk commodities and their users, makes this system invaluable to the region and to the world.

As you might imagine, ships have a real problem navigating rapids and waterfalls. Water in the Great Lakes moves from the headwater systems of Lakes Superior and Michigan, down through Lakes Huron and Erie, into Lake Ontario and out the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. There are three places where barriers to shipping are encountered.

As water moves out of Lake Superior and through the St. Marys River at Sault Saint Marie (Michigan and Ontario), the water drops 21 feet. Next, at the outlet of Lake Erie at Niagara Falls (New York and Ontario) the water level drops an additional 327 feet. Finally, as water moves out of Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence River, rapids representing a drop in elevation of 225 feet are encountered. It is impossible for ships to navigate these barriers without some serious help. That help comes in the form of a system of locks that lift these great ships up and down over the rapids and waterfalls, permitting them to travel among the lakes.