When it comes to discussions about iron ore shipping, it’s best to start with an icebreaker.
Every year on March 25, the Soo Locks in Sault Saint Marie, MI (and Ontario, Canada) open, signaling the beginning of the Great Lakes shipping season. Around the same time, United States Coast Guard cutters, with help from Canadian Coast Guard ships, make their way through the Soo Locks and get underway to break the ice on Lake Superior. This year, USCG Cutters Alder and Mackinaw, a heavy icebreaker, and CCGS icebreaker Samuel Risley took the chilly honors.
The three icebreaking ships concentrated their combined efforts in the western ports of Lake Superior. Those include Superior, WI; Duluth, Silver Bay, Taconite Harbor, and Two Harbors in Minnesota; and Thunder Bay, Ontario. USCG Alder and Mackinaw ran along the South Shore of Lake Superior, then converged on Duluth-Superior. The CCGS Samuel Risley first worked the eastern end near the Soo Locks, gradually taking a western course to arrive at Thunder Bay. The Alder and Mackinaw worked their way along the North Shore, breaking the ice and freeing the way for the iron shipping season to begin.
It was estimated that 82 – 83 percent of Lake Superior was covered in ice this past winter season. By fracturing the ice in the greatest of the Great Lakes, the ice becomes exposed to the elements, thereby increasing the rate at which the ice melts.
Upon completion of their mission, the Alder returned to its home base in Duluth, where it helped to clear remaining ice and keep shipping and tug lanes clear. The Mackinaw headed to Whitefish Bay, the Samuel Risley to Thunder Bay.
Duluth-Superior is often referred to as the “Great Lakes Bulk Cargo Capital” and for good reason. According to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, 35.9 million short tons of bulk material shipped from our side of the lake to dozens of domestic and international ports last season. The DSPA celebrated a successful year, with iron ore tonnage totaling 21.5 million tons, 60 percent of the total tonnage shipped from the Port of Duluth-Superior. It was a 23-season high in iron ore tonnage. More than 100 freighters transport iron ore across the Great Lakes, a combination of U.S.- and Canadian-flagged, and international carriers.
“Duluth-Superior is the Great Lakes’ No. 1 port by tonnage and one of the nation’s top 20. There’s no singular North American inland port that compares,” said Jayson Hron, the DSPA’s director of communications and marketing.
The Port of Duluth-Superior sits at the western tip of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway, which extends 2,342 miles through rivers and the other four Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. After the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway opened to deep-draft navigation in 1959, Duluth truly became an international port. Yet the “linchpin” of Great Lakes shipping is the city of Sault Ste Marie.
The Sault Ste Marie area has a turbulent and colorful history. Centuries before the Europeans and French-Canadian traders used the waterways for transport, Native Americans utilized the vast lake system to find food, seek shelter along their shores, and float trade goods long distances. For about 2,000 years, Native Americans inhabited the shores of the St. Marys River area, which connected what would later become lakes Superior and Huron. The area was known as Bahweting (“The Gathering Place”) and was a center for commerce and a well-known meeting area for the tribes.
Sault Ste Marie (Soo-Saint-Mah-REE) was established in 1668 by the French fur traders and is the third oldest continuous settlement in the United States. In the mid-1700s, the French and the British fought over trade in the area. In 1820, the Treaty of Sault awarded the territory to the United States. As time passed, the Great Lakes east of Lake Superior became important waterways for American and Canadian mining companies.
Nature provided the bedrock barrier that creates a 21-foot drop in elevation from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Traders realized the necessity of a canal and lock system. The first series of locks was built on the Canadian side of St. Marys River in 1797—originally called the St. Marys Falls Canal—but it was destroyed in the War of 1812. Without the United States’ installation of the Soo Locks in 1855, no shipping could have occurred between Lake Superior and the other lakes. Once the Soo Locks were installed, trade opened from as far west as Duluth-Superior east to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Locks are a series of gated, chambered canals. Gravity does the work, with 42-million gallons of water filling the gated canal chamber to the level of the next chamber. Once the water levels are right, a gate is opened, and the ship moves through. Four locks comprise the Soo Locks. Most visitors use the Poe Lock, a 1,200-feet length lock suitable for the longer ships like the ore boats carrying taconite pellets to steel mills.
The 800-feet MacArthur Lock is also in use and has been since 1943. It is the closest lock to Sault Ste Marie, and therefore the one most viewed by visitors. The Davis (1914) and Sabin (1919) Locks can also be seen. While the Sabin Lock was decommissioned in 2010, the Davis is still utilized by the Soo Area Office vessels.
Before the taconite pellets are loaded onto ships, they have to be shipped by train from the various mines on the Iron Range. At the ore docks dotting the North Shore, the pellets are loaded onto the cargo freighters that make up a portion of the 7,000 – 10,000 ships navigating the Soo Locks each shipping season. Once through the locks, the ore boats travel the busy waterway until they reach their ports, most of which are along the southern end of Lake Michigan or the southeast shores of Lake Erie.
The contribution of mining in our region is great. Iron ore shipping is an important piece of the much larger picture of shipping on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. Grain, limestone, coal, coke, cement, salt, wood products, heavy equipment, both wet and dry bulk, and more are transported domestically and internationally. In an economic impact study published in July 2018, Martin Associates of Lancaster, PA, states that cargo commerce supported 237,868 jobs in the U.S. and Canada (78,400 direct jobs) and pumped $35 billion into the economy.
In addition, maritime transportation of iron ore to steel mills is both more cost effective and environmentally positive. Modern ships, per ton of cargo, are more fuel efficient, safer, and produce less pollution than other viable means of transportation. Notably, three-quarters of the planet’s trade goods travel on waterborne vessels. The region served by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway “accounts for some 40 percent of U.S. manufacturing, produces two-thirds of Canada’s industrial output, and creates more than one-third of the continent’s gross national product.” (Source: DuluthPort.com)
“Shipping plays an integral role in bringing responsibly sourced iron ore to make cleaner American steel,” Iron Mining Association of Minnesota President Kelsey Johnson said in a March press release. Johnson also noted that, “recent studies have found American-made steel produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the same products made in other competing nations.”
The IMA press release went on to say, “More than 80 percent of the nation’s iron is mined in Minnesota, and that ore accounts for nearly 60 percent of shipments leaving the Duluth port. Iron ore led the port’s exports in the last year, with 21.5 million tons shipped— the most transported from Duluth-Superior in a single season since 1995.”
When asked her opinion of what the most beneficial aspect of shipping within the iron industry was, Johnson said, “I think shipping is the most visual way for people throughout Minnesota and the nation to see the connection between the Iron Range, Duluth, and other ports. Without our taconite many of these ports wouldn’t exist. The Iron Range wouldn’t be what it is without shipping either; shipping is one of the most efficient ways to transport taconite. Each ship (‘Lakers’) carries approximately 70,000 tons of taconite, and each ton is worth $23,000 in economic activity downstream.”
The Lakers on the Great Lakes waterways have become so iconic that they have developed a following, a particular fan-base who call themselves “boat nerds.” These enthusiasts love all things Great Lakes and Seaway shipping. BoatNerd.com is a volunteer-run website (with a correlating Facebook page) that contains hundreds of images of all types of ships sailing the Great Lakes. On their website, users can find a plethora of information on every ship running the GLSLS—photos, statistics, schedules, call signs, shipping news, and more. Even boat captains and shipping companies have gotten in on the fun of sharing about the maritime life on social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Type “Great Lakes Ship Watching” into a search engine and choose one of the many options or do a Facebook page search for the same. Websites, YouTube videos, social media sites, and news articles abound for the maritime devotee.
Social media connects the ship with the crew aboard and their mission. Followers see what life is like aboard these vessels, but also get to know more about the people whose lives are directly impacted by an area of the economy many people take for granted. A click of the mouse takes a viewer to fog-covered waters off the bow or a skyline glittering with lights as the ship pulls into a harbor. See what the ship’s chef is cooking up for breakfast or read about the latest port-call. Shipping is more than a job, more than the invisible faces below decks and the massive length above seen on the water.
Shipping companies like Algoma Central and the Interlake Steamship Company recognize this as well and have a strong social media presence. They often post images and fun facts about daily life on the waters of the Great Lakes, hoping to make shipping relatable and relevant to all walks of life.
The Interlake Steamship Company’s flagship, the M/V Paul R. Tregurtha, is popular with shoreline boat-watchers and a social media favorite. Built in 1981, she is the longest ship on the Great Lakes with an overall length of 1013.5 feet. She is known by the nickname “The Queen of the Lakes” and can carry up to 68,000 gross tons of pellets. Freighters like the Tregurtha are the key to getting our Range-produced taconite to the steel mills on the lakes to the east.
“Iron ore mined from the Minnesota range is truly one of the building blocks of America,” says Mark W. Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Company, which has a fleet of nine vessels that crisscross the Great Lakes, primarily loaded with this leading cargo. “This raw material powers the domestic steel industry and is critical to our manufacturing sectors and our national security. We are proud to be carrying it on our ships which are U.S. crewed, U.S.-built and U.S. owned.”
A good number of Lakers transporting iron ore from Lake Superior ports are 1,000-footers, and each one must pass through the Soo Locks. For dozens of years, concern was raised at the Locks. The Poe Lock is the only passage capable of supporting the long boats. Should something cause the Poe Lock to shut down, none of the longest ships would be able to pass. Critical trade would cease, including that of the iron ore produced in Minnesota necessary for U.S.-made steel products.
To counter this potentiality to our economic stability, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) proposed a “Super Lock” structure decades ago. In the fall of 2018, $922 million was authorized by Congress to construct a new lock capable of holding the long freighters. This summer, the project is scheduled to begin, with the USACE 2019 fiscal budget including $32 million commitment to begin the work. The state of Michigan will provide $52 million toward the new construction. Build time would be from seven to 10 years and add more than a thousand beneficial jobs in the Sault Ste Marie area.
Even a six-month closure of the Poe Lock could devastate the economy. It is estimated that in that scenario, a shut-down could reduce the gross domestic product by more than $1.1 trillion and cause the loss of up to 16 million jobs across North America (U.S. Department of Homeland Security report, 2015). There is no financially sound way, other than shipping, to move Minnesota’s iron ore to our country’s steel mills.
Each shipping season for our Lake Superior ports begins and ends with the Soo Locks. As the Locks are to our product, so iron ore is to the stability of our domestic economy. Eighty percent of our nation’s iron is mined in Minnesota. We depend on Great Lakes shipping for American-made steel and making it all work is a multifaceted operation. The next time you see a Laker coming into the Port of Duluth-Superior, picture the faces of the men and women crewing the freighter. They are the faces of our iron industry as well.