Unit History

Sector Northern Great Lakes, renamed from Sector Sault Sainte Marie in 2023, was originally established on June 27, 2005, when Group Sault Sainte Marie and the Marine Safety Office combined, is responsible for all missions on Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, northern Lake Michigan, and northern Lake Huron. It reports to the Ninth Coast Guard District, located in Cleveland, Ohio, which is responsible for all Coast Guard operations throughout the five Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, including 6,700 miles of shoreline and 1,500 miles of the border with Canada.

Sector Northern Great Lakes' area of responsibility encompasses 1,850 miles of shoreline and 560 miles of international maritime border with Canada. Sector has oversight of a Marine Safety Unit (MSU), two Aids to Navigation Teams (ANT), and seven year round and two seasonal Coast Guard Stations. The Coast Guard Stations conduct and support all Coast Guard missions. The MSU is located in Duluth, Minnesota, and is responsible for a zone that includes hundreds of miles of international border waters, as well as two of the nation's top 25 tonnage ports. The Sector's two ANTs are responsible for the proper operation and correct positioning of over 550 navigational aids, including the placement/removal of almost 150 seasonal aids. The Sector also operations the St. Marys River Vessel Traffic Service, which annually directs the nation's largest domestic icebreaking operation through Operation Taconite.

Michigan's birthplace, Sault Sainte Marie, is a land of vast natural beauty that forms the nexus between countries, lakes, and cultures. The state's first city is found on the shores of the St. Marys River - a vital waterway that connects the Great Lakes. With a rich history comprised of Native American, French, and British influences, the community affectionately known as "The Soo" offers much to see and do. The Soo is also home to the Soo Locks - a canal system that uses water to raise and lower ships and other vessels six meters between Lake Superior and Lake Huron levels. Built 160 years ago, the locks provide passage for more than eight million tons of grain, coal, iron ore, and other important natural resources distributed throughout the Great Lakes region. The Sault Sainte Marie Coast Guard and surrounding community have some very interesting history.


Above: Sault Locks Complex, Army Corps of Engineers. Photo by Walter Matrna.   Above: A Coast Guard vessel traffic lookout tower provides direction to freighters on the St. Marys River

In 1896, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service assumed responsibility for the St. Marys River Vessel Traffic Management System and merged with the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1915 to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Thus, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in Sault Sainte Marie since the very beginning.

Above: Car ferry to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada. Circa 1950.   Above: The old Coast Guard barracks can be seen at the right side of the picture.

The Great Lakes form an important internal navigable channel connecting the Atlantic Ocean to central North America's natural resources. Being the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world by total area, the Great Lakes have a history of marine transportation since the 17th century. However, traversing through these waters isn't very easy and many mariners have run into distress throughout our vast area of responsibility. In many cases, the men and women of Sector Northern Great Lakes played an important role in the rescue of mariners in distress. In other cases, the vessel succumbed to the elements and were lost to the lakes. According to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, these waters have caused the sinking of around 6,000 ships. Some historians estimate there may be up to 25,000 shipwrecks on the bottom of the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard has had involvement in a couple famous cases as outlined below.

November 23, 1953 was a stormy night across the Great Lakes. It was also the night an Air Force jet mysteriously disappeared over Lake Superior. Near the U.S.-Canadian border, U.S. Air Defense Command noticed a blip on the radar where it should not have been - an unidentified object in restricted air space over Lake Superior, not far from Soo Locks. An F-89C Scorpio jet, from Truax Air Force Base in Madison, Wisconsin, took off from nearby Kinross Air Force Base to investigate, with two crew members onboard - First Lieutenant Felix Moncla and Second Lieutenant Robert Wilson observing radar. Neither returned.

Once airborne, Lieutenant Wilson had difficulty tracking the unknown object, which kept changing course. Therefore, with ground control directing the pilots over the radio, they gave chase. The jet, travelling at 500 piles per hour, pursued the object for 30 minutes, gradually closing in. On the ground, the radar operator guided the jet down from 25,000 feet to 7,000 feet, watching one blip chase the other across the radar screen. Gradually, the jet caught up to the unknown object about 70 miles off Keweenaw Point in upper Michigan, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, approximately 160 miles northwest of Soo Locks. At that point, the two radar blips converged into one - "locked together" and then, the F-89 simply disappeared from station's radar scope. The United States Air Force, United States Coast Guard, and Canadian Air Force conducted an extensive search and rescue effort. No wreckage or sign of the pilots were ever found.

According to the History Channel's research, the Air Force's official news release about the disappearance stated that the vanished jet "was followed by radar until it merged with an object 70 miles off Keweenaw Point in upper Michigan." The Air Force soon retracted the statement and changed its story saying ground control radar operator has misread the scope that, in fact, the F-89 had successfully completed the mission, intercepting and identifying the UFO as a Dakota - a Royal Canadian Air Force C-47 aircraft - flying some 30 miles off course. Lieutenant Moncla, probably stricken with vertigo, crashed into the lake during the return to base. Canadian officials refuted the account - no flights had taken place in the area that night. Meanwhile, investigators from the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) discovered any mention of the mission had been expunged from official records and hypothesize that there may be more to the story. In 1968, local newspaper reported military jet fragments discovered near the shore of Lake Superior, but the find was never verified. Not enough?

Above: Felix Moncla by a T-33 at Truax Field in Madison, Wisconsin, 1953.   Above: Edmund Fitzgerald, Ste. Marys River, 1975. Photo by Bob Campbell.

On November 10, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior killing all 29 crewmembers - it is the worst single accident in Lake Superior's history. The ship launched in 1958 and at 13,000 tons and 730 feet long was the biggest carrier in the Great Lakes at the time. It was also the first ship to carry more than a million tons of iron ore through the Soo Locks.

The Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, on November 9th headed to Detroit, Michigan. The following afternoon, Ernest McSorely, the captain and 44-year veteran, reported that his ship had encountered "one of the worst seas he had ever been in." The Fitzgerald had lost its radar and was listing badly to one side. A few hours later, another ship made contact and was told that the Fitzgerald "was holding its own." Minutes later, it disappeared from radar. The Coast Guard out of Sault Sainte Marie, then "Group Soo," initiated a search for the ship with aircraft and two cutters including the USCGC WOODRUSH from Duluth, Minnesota. The Fitzgerald was ultimately found by side-scan sonar in 530 feet of water 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point. A subsequent investigation showed that the sinking occurred suddenly; no distress was sent and the condition of the lifeboats indicated little or no attempt was made to abandon the ship.

The disaster was immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." At the request of family members, Fitzgerald's 200 lb. bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995. This expedition was conducted jointly with the National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The bell is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew. Annually, on November 10, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum joined by members of Aids to Navigation Team Sault Sainte Marie holds a memorial service in honor of the lost crewmembers.

In early winter 1989, the USCGC MESQUITE began her usual duties picking up her buoys before advancing ice could damage them as part of Ninth District's annual Operation Fall Retrieve. With one of the District's other cutters, USCGC SUNDEW, late coming out of shipyard repairs, the MESQUITE was once again tasked with removing some of her buoys as well. MESQUITE retrieved at least 35 of SUNDEW's aids to navigation before she pulled the light buoy which marked a shoal off Keweenaw Point. With the buoy aboard, she got underway, but at approximately 2:10 AM on December 4, 1989, ran onto the shoal the buoy had been marking and went aground. The hull was pierced and despite the crew's best efforts, the wind and waves were enough to pound the ship on the rocks. After three hours, the flooding became uncontrollable, the Commanding Officer ordered "abandon ship" and the crew was safely evacuated to a passing cargo vessel, Mangal Desai, which had responded to MESQUITE's distress calls. The cutter remains on the bottom of Lake Superior as a recreational dive site.

For more about the Sector and our missions, please visit our Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/SectorNorthernGreatLakes.

Above: USCGC MESQUITE grounded off the Keweenaw Peninsula.   Above: Sector Sault Sainte Marie grounds and pier in January 2020.