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Taconite pellets are conveyed into large stockpiles near the Canadian National Railway Co.’s ore docks in West Duluth on Aug. 8. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Duluth-Superior port hums with activity

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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The speed of industry often is illustrated in a rapid montage of images intended to show in a hurry just how much it takes to make the world go round.

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The speed of industry eight stories above Interstate 35 is a lot more deliberate than that.

Hundreds of feet out on the Canadian National Railway Co.’s Dock 6 that extends half a mile out into Lake Superior, the train wheels turn slowly enough to track the individual revolutions. The workers step cautiously over taconite pellets spilt everywhere like so many marbles.

Up here, everything is coated in fine dust. It makes for a nostalgic, almost sepia-toned view of the world.

Even if — when the bomb bay doors fly open under an ore car — it takes only 10 seconds for the hulk of ore pellets to freefall out, it’s just one in a lineup of 140 cars dumping their payloads one at a time.

Up here, in the rust-colored steel matrix where ore meets water, Mark Erickson spends some of his family’s last days in industry. The Duluth port manager for CN, Erickson is within a year of his  impending retirement. But this day, he’s got to oversee the stockpiling onto shore of some 100,000 tons of iron ore. This, before instantly changing over the operation to reclaim ore for loading onto the next ship into dock: a vessel called the American Integrity that already is waiting in port.  

“I call it ‘calling audibles,’ ” Erickson said. “We juggle a lot.”

 Had he worked aboard a ship  as opposed to loading them, they’d have said Erickson “worked his way up the hawse pipe,” a phrase used to describe a merchant seaman who climbs the ladder to become a ship’s officer without requiring any traditional maritime schooling.

As it is, Erickson rode the rails all the way to becoming the boss at the end of the rail line.  

“I was a third generation DM&IR locomotive operator,” Erickson said. “My family’s bloodlines with the railroad go back to 1906, and we’ll have stayed till June 2015.”

That’s 109 years of industrial know-how coming to an end. There’s a lot of value in that sort of knowledge.

“We’ve got a whole group in their mid-50s who will be retiring in the next 10 years,” said Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “It’s a lot different industry than it once was. It’s more high tech.”

The Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Transportation & Logistics Management program are producing the next wave of local industry leaders. And even if it’s not so easy to work up the hawse pipe anymore, there’s still work, and plenty of it.  

The Duluth-Superior port appears to be humming with activity in the wake of a spring slowed by stubborn weather. Thick formations of ice lingered deep into spring and stalled shipping on Lake Superior’s ports. But by summer, shipping was back and better, in some respects, than it has been in years. In July, iron ore shipments totaled 7.2 million tons through the Soo Locks that link Lake Superior with the other Great Lakes. It was the highest iron ore tonnage shipped for that month since 2008. Steel mills in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are stockpiling iron ore in an effort to outlast another potentially lingering winter.    

“Higher water levels have helped the trade rebound after suffering endless delays in March and April, when heavy ice formations covered the lakes,” reported Glen Nekvasil of the Lake Carriers’ Association based in Ohio.

Higher water allows for increased load capacities.  

Thousand-foot lake vessels like the American Integrity, which was in port through Aug. 9, wear the wounds of the early season, with hulls that are marked with paint scrapes from battling the ice.

During a shipping tour Aug. 8 with an expert guide in Yorde, News Tribune staff walked by the Canadian Algoma Spirit as it was being weighed down with wheat at the CHS dock in Superior.

Unlike the openly exposed iron ore piles or the coal stockpiles at the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal that get turned over by bulldozers working constantly to prevent spontaneous combustion,  the wheat and grain industry is flagging in the port. The United States taught the Ukraine how to grow its own grains, and Australia is coming on as an international supplier, hurting demand for U.S. grains, Yorde explained.

Still, durum wheat with some of the highest manufacture specs continues to leave America’s heartlands and make its way out of Duluth-Superior to the Mediterranean region. There, it remains a staple of international pasta and couscous makers.

“They’re very particular about it,” Yorde said. “The specs are very important.”

Bulgur wheat, too, for flour, bread baking and cereal still leaves the Duluth-Superior port. But 2012’s grain total of 1.065 million tons shipped was the lowest since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened modern shipping traffic between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean in 1959. Compare that to 1978, when 10.2 million tons of grain left the port.

Just as a longshoreman wouldn’t mix bulgur and durum wheats, an ore docker doesn’t mix Minntac and UTAC iron ores. Despite looking similar, the products, from mines in Mountain Iron and Forbes/Eveleth, respectively, are unique.

“They cannot mix,” Erickson said from the dock high above the ore piles. “There’s a chemistry to them and the blast furnace needs to know what pellet they’re using.”

The Duluth-Superior port shipped a record 64 million tons of ore to domestic steel factories in 1953, during the height of the Korean War. Ore shipments may never see those levels again. But there are heydays, and there’s today.

Today, the shipping industry remains vital.

More than 15 million metric tons of international cargo moved in July through the Canadian and American waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“The month of July was extremely busy for our ports on the Great Lakes-Seaway System as they handled high-value cargoes like steel, wind components and machinery that arrived from 13 different countries,” said Rebecca Spruill, director of trade development for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

Some of that cargo reached Duluth, where the Duluth Seaway Port Authority operates the only general cargo terminal on its Clure Public Marine Terminal. Ironically, the terminal sees renewable wind energy components  coming and going from its dock, which features the only gantry crane in the Twin Ports.

That the wind energy industry moves parts both easterly and westerly across the globe might seem appropriate considering the nature of wind itself.

But there’s nothing so fickle about the present-day shipping trade. Just as long-depleted red magnetite ore gave way to present-day taconite, and grains give way to cargo, the shipping trade adjusts and moves forward — at the steady speed of industry.

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