National Historic Preservation Act Turns 50

Platform looking out at the lock and canal system with cranes and boats.
View from the current observation platform.

Photo courtesy of Dena Sanford, National Park Service.

The view from the upper level of the observation platform at the St. Mary's Falls Canal National Historic Landmark (NHL) offers an unimpeded look at the impressive lock and canal system at the boundary between the United States and Canada. The NHL district in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, covers over 156 acres. It includes locks, canals, channels, piers, multi-story administration and maintenance buildings, a powerhouse, numerous operating shelters, and a designed landscape that includes two parks. The heart of the complex retains much of the Beaux Arts style appearance that marked the evolution of the lock system at the turn of the 20th century, a process begun in 1853.
Aerial view of the water canal with green bars of land.
Aerial view of the Soo Locks in Michigan between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Located between the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, USA (left) and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers.

The St. Mary's Falls Canal system, or “Soo” Locks, was created to serve as the critical transportation link in Great Lakes shipping and United States commerce. It is a role that continues today. At this location nearly all ships passing from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan pass through one of three functioning locks. A fourth is no longer in service. From the observation platform, the lucky visitor may watch massive, 1000 foot-long cargo ships gently ease into the largest lock, the 1200’ x 100’ 1968 Poe lock, to negotiate the 21 foot drop in elevation between the two lakes. Before departing the platform, a visitor might glimpse the natural feature that had impeded Great Lakes travel prior to the creation of the canals: the rapids (“sault” in the original French term) of the Saint Mary's River.
The two-story observation platform is a recent structure, built in 2011 following a design that evolved through consultation initiated by the Corps of Engineers, and involving the public, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, and the National Park Service. As with all other federal agencies, the Corps undertook this consultation because of a law that this year is celebrating its 50th birthday: The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Through the NHPA, Congress established that the preservation of the country’s historical and cultural foundations were in the public interest. In support of that status, the act and its subsequent amendments provide a legal framework for the identification and preservation of historic and prehistoric properties. The process by which the Corps’ 2011 observation platform was developed, and the history of the structures it replaced, offers an opportunity to understand the NHPA and the influence it has had on historic preservation nation-wide.
Two story black observation tower with a green grassy field in front and a building behind.
Looking at the new observation platform built in 2011. The 1966 visitor center is in the background.

Photo courtesy of Dena Sanford, National Park Service.

The 2011 platform straddles two distinct components of the NHL district, areas physically divided by a substantial security fence. North of the fence are the operational and administrative spaces associated with operation of the locks and canal system. To the south and east are the publicly accessible parks, containing manicured lawns, mature trees, ornamental plantings, paved pathways, and a fountain. The parks are evident of the popularity of the locks since the first was constructed in 1855.
When the federal government assumed ownership from the State of Michigan in 1881, new development included creation of a park system to accommodate visitors. Early in its history, visitors could walk to the very edge of the locks to watch the passage of boats. As security became increasingly important, a fence was built to keep visitors on the park side of the complex. To allow visitors improved views of the lock system, in 1946 the Corps built two observation platforms atop two of the Beaux Arts operating shelters along the McArthur Lock, the lock closest to the park. One platform was partially supported by a new guard house. The Corps provided further visitor services in 1965 with the addition of a third, freestanding platform, followed in 1966 with a visitor center built south of the 1965 platform.

These 1940s and 1960s developments were undertaken before passage of the NHPA, examples of the sweeping changes made to the American built environment nationally, energized by a booming economy and a growing post-World War II population. Historic buildings and landscapes disappeared under the march of public and private development and the banner of urban renewal. For those concerned with the wholesale destruction of tangible connections to the past, few federal laws existed that could be called upon to stop or delay such actions. No national policy on historic preservation existed beyond those focused on the protection of antiquities on public lands (the 1906 Antiquities Act), or documentation of historic resources for potential inclusion within a federal park system (the 1935 Historic Sites Act). To the contrary, federally initiated programs such as the interstate highway system, and the Urban Renewal Program, actively destroyed countless historic resources. But this changed in 1966, following a successful grassroots effort carried out by countless individuals and organizations including the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the advocacy of Lady Bird Johnson. In October 1966, Congress passed NHPA. With passage of the act, historic preservation became an official national policy of the federal government. It is codified in Title 54 U.S.C. 300101, et seq.
The NHPA and its amendments have a number of components, including the creation of a partnership involving federal, state, tribal, and local governments along with the private sector. The NHPA created the National Register of Historic Places to provide federal recognition of significant properties. It also authorized a grant program, and established the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a cabinet- level advisory body of Presidentially appointed citizens. Section 106 of the act requires that prior to undertaking any federally funded, licensed, or permitted action on a National Register-listed or eligible property, the responsible federal agency must follow a process to consider the impacts such proposed actions would have on historic resources. Section 106 stipulated a consultation process among the various partners, and directed that agencies consider methods by which potential adverse impacts could be avoided, minimized or mitigated. A 1980 amendment, Section 110, made more explicit the requirements for a preservation ethic within federal agencies, and required that all agencies assume better responsibility for the preservation of resources under their ownership or control. Section 110(f) focused on the importance of NHLs, directing federal agencies “to the maximum extent possible” undertake planning and actions as necessary to minimize harm to such resources. In the words of the Advisory Council, the NHPA has transformed the federal government “from an agent of indifference… to a facilitator, an agent of thoughtful change, and a responsible steward for future generations.” [1]

The Corps of Engineers certainly cannot be faulted for planning and undertaking developments prior to the passage of the 1966 act. Indeed, the Corps undertook actions to best meet the dual needs of safe and efficient operation of the locks, while providing for improved interpretation and education opportunities for an interested public. In 1970 and again in 1973, the two existing platforms were modified to provide sheltered spaces and seating. It is easy in hindsight to consider that perching boxy, highly modern platforms upon pre-existing Beaux Art style buildings might not have been the best choice to support preservation of the historic resources. But this was not a concern at the time. Using existing, aging buildings as platform bases would have been cost-effective, space-saving, and innovative. The Corps also cannot be faulted for non-compliance with the new law: the canal complex was evaluated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places within a month of passage of the NHLPA. Ten years later, the St. Mary's Falls Canal Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Over the following decades, the Corps continued to balance operational and security needs with historic preservation requirements. More recent activities that have involved the NHPA Section 106 and 110(f) consultation process included the development of improved security fencing by installing a stouter but more historically appropriate fencing system to replace chain link. The Corps developed a Master Plan for restoration of the park landscape to the 1940s era, and generated rehabilitation plans for various historic buildings within the district.

Given their accessibility problems and deteriorating condition, in 2010 the Corps turned their attention to the observation platforms. As the platforms deteriorated, they made maintenance of the operating shelters (underneath) more difficult. The planning process for their replacement offered the opportunity to reconsider how to best provide for visitor services and ADA accessibility, while minimizing new development within the nationally significant historic district. The decision was made to remove all three platforms. In their place would be one platform, located in the area of the freestanding 1965 platform that stood front of the visitor center. The new platform not only accommodates more visitors than the three original platforms, combined, but it also moved the public access point farther from the lock access gate. Thus, it improved lock security.

The platform’s size, materials and placement were carefully considered, and evolved over the course of the consultation process. The final design for the roofed and linear platform is narrow and open on the lock side; spans of glass offer locations for greater shelter in inclement weather. Intermittent, slender piers are clad in limestone, a nod to the siding used on most of the historic buildings in the district. A switch-back ramp is tucked against the rear of the platform, meeting accessibility needs while minimizing the extent of new construction within Canal Park. While taller and longer than the 1965 platform, the new design is as open as possible to facilitate views through the structure.

The final design of the 2011 viewing platform represents a successful application of Sections 106 and 110(f) to balance a variety of laws, mandates and operational needs. Given its critical role in the United States economy, operation and future development of the Soo Locks will continue to be a major responsibility for the Corps of Engineers. Thanks to their appreciation of the national historical significance of the site, the Corps continues to successfully incorporate the NHPA into their planning processes. In this way, they ensure that the character-defining qualities that make this NHL unique will remain, long into the future.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 11, 2016, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.


Last updated: June 15, 2018