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Time tested: Superior's Fraser Shipyards celebrates 125 years

James Farkas, Fraser Shipyards senior vice president of operations, talks about the process of building a Lake Assault boat at the shipyard on Wednesday. Fraser and its predecessors have been in Superior for 125 years. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Fraser boilermaker Al Jacobson cuts steel. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
A 45-foot-long U.S. Coast Guard response boat is shrouded in plastic in preparation for painting at Fraser Shipyards. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Fraser moved into this new office building in late 2012. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
The sign along the highway outside of Fraser Shipyards helps illustrate how diversified the business has become. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
The forward end of the Great Lakes freighter Charles M. Beeghly sits 96 feet from its aft end in a dry dock at Fraser Shipyards in Superior in this News Tribune file photo from December 1971. The ship, which was lengthened from 710 to 806 feet, still is sailing on the Great Lakes - but now as the Hon. James L. Oberstar. The shipyard is marking its 125th year in 2015. (News Tribune file photo)6 / 6

In the shadow of the Blatnik Bridge, with traffic streaming noisily overhead, shipyard mechanics and crewmembers crawled about a rapid response craft belonging to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The vessel was on blocks like a coupe in the driveway, but in the water it can hit upwards of 55 mph. There aren’t many vessels on the water that can outrun it, said James Farkas, senior vice president of operations for Fraser Shipyards Inc.

The twin-engine vessel wouldn’t be finished until it received a fresh coat of paint.

“The Coast Guard is very particular about the look of their vessels,” Farkas said.

The Coast Guard craft seemed to stand as a metaphor for Fraser Shipyards. Now celebrating its 125th year, the 60-plus-acre shipyard has experienced a series of iterations — becoming more nimble with each one.

It’s still a home to some of the more modest-sized wintering lake freighters that will anchor or nestle into its two dry docks for maintenance and repairs.

“We’re more of a repair yard now,” said Farkas in talking about lake freighters, “as opposed to a construction yard.”

Lately, Fraser Shipyards also has embraced mining by fabricating steel drums and other structures for the Iron Range. Under the moniker of its Duluth-based corporate holding company, Capstan Corp., the yard has even tackled aluminum construction with the subsidiary Lake Assault Boats — swift craft engineered from scratch that are favored by law enforcement and fire-and-rescue agencies.

The shipyard also will assemble crews at a moment’s notice to work off-site. Their mechanics will pile into a heavy-duty pickup and haul out at any hour to ports across the Great Lakes in the name of service and repair.

Just before Labor Day, Fraser sent a crew sailing down U.S. Highway 2 across Wisconsin to Escanaba, Mich., for repair work there.

“It’s a revenue thing,” Farkas said. “A ship that’s sitting is not making revenue.”

The yard’s ability to jump to work at a moment’s notice recalled a letter it once received in the middle of the last century from the late Henry Steinbrenner, a shipping magnate and father of the late George Steinbrenner, the famous New York Yankees owner.

One of Henry Steinbrenner’s ships was damaged and couldn’t make it to one of his yards in Lake Erie. It docked for repairs in the finger of water called Howard’s Pocket that Fraser calls home in east Superior.

“He was so impressed with the work and speed,” said Joel Johnson, whose family used to own the shipyard. “It was faster out than what his own shipyards would do. Anything coming up this way later he said he’d use Fraser. It was kind of a neat letter.”

Looking back in time

Johnson is the owner of Lakehead Boat Basin on Park Point. He was 2 years old when his grandfather and uncle, Henry and Eigil Knudsen, respectively, sold the shipyard. Johnson, 63, learned the maritime industry at the knee of his grandfather. Though never a shipbuilder, Johnson took over the Lakehead marina when he was 14 and has been there since, training generations of his own.

Johnson recalled riding through neighborhoods with his Grandpa Hank. They’d stop and mingle. A one-time shipbuilder, and a primary philanthropist for Superior’s first hospital, Hank always carried a pack of spearmint gum. He would pick out a stick of gum and snap it in two, lighting the nostrils of a young neighborhood kid with the scent.

“We gotta share,” Hank would tell the young boy before handing over the gum.

“I learned a lot from him,” Johnson said. “People nowadays learn business or social skills. Looking back, it was one of those lessons. You gotta share a little bit.”

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority, in its winter 2003 magazine, described Fraser Shipyard as starting when Alexander McDougall moved his whaleback shipbuilding operation from Duluth to the underdeveloped strip in Superior. It rose to prominence after McDougall installed the first of its “graving” or dry docks, built of timber. It was the first dry dock on Lake Superior and, for a while, the largest on the Great Lakes. Thirty lake vessels and 25 oceangoing vessels were built there through World War I.

But after pumping out ships and barges for many years — going from its original American Steel Barge Co., to Superior Ship Building Co., to American Ship Building Co. — it felt its age.

The Knudsen family resurrected the yard when they owned it from 1945 to 1959. They blended their small machine shop, Northern Engineering, into the yard, and that business still specializes in marine repair to this day.

Johnson recalled tales passed down from his grandfather about mid-century glory years at the shipyard. Crews of 400 employees turned the shipyard into a bustling industrial enterprise. There were sometimes up to 20 architects on staff, directing work on an endless stream of vessels.

An employee at the yard, Robert M. Fraser, took over in the late 1950s, following Eigil (Ike’s) death. Bursting with enthusiasm, Fraser led the shipyard into a renaissance — the first vessel-lengthening projects — halving freighters and adding whole new sections in the middle — replacing boilers, converting ships to self-unloaders and installing bow thrusters.

“My grandfather couldn’t run it by himself,” Johnson said, describing how Fraser was chosen over other interested parties for his vigor and ability to keep the yard as local as possible and away from those who would revamp the mission.

“The fact that the company has been rooted in the Twin Ports for 125 years is testament to their craftsmanship and resiliency in riding the commodity cycles we all experience,” said Vanta Coda, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Staying viable

Al Jacobson has worked for Fraser since 1971. Outfitted in gray bib overalls, he’s looking forward to the day he retires this December.

At 63, he’s sharp-minded and lean in the frame. Working in a steel shop will do that to a man.

“I enjoy it myself,” he said. “I get along with the foreman and I listen to what everyone has to say.”

With the garage doors open on a sunny day, he cut steel on a table using a brilliant blue flame. He’ll also operate rolling machines that bend the heavy metal.

“I made a whole mess of bilge plates last year,” he said.

Fraser might not bustle with 400 employees any longer, but it’s still a viable home for Northland boilermakers, machinists, mechanics and engineers all the same.

“Fraser is a very major industry in our community,” said Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen. “They’ve employed a lot of people over the years and they continue to be a strong member of the community. I appreciate their presence every day.”

The shipyard continues to adapt in the ever-changing industry. Most American shipbuilding has migrated to the Gulf of Mexico. The 1,000-foot vessels that sail the lakes today have pressed the yard to improve, and it’s in the midst of a multiphase, $10 million update that is adding to its total dock footage.

Farkas said he’s just now looking ahead to the winter season, hoping for another shipping offseason of berthings that amount to the busiest time of year at the yard, when 15,000 to 20,000 hours of work comes available.

There’s a sign at the entrance to the Fraser yard that said the company is hiring. Farkas said he figures to be lining up a half-dozen or more ships in the coming months that will berth through the winter at Fraser and at other docks around the Port of Duluth-Superior.

Fraser’s foothold in the largest loading harbor on the Great Lakes helps make it the viable business it continues to be. Repairs can be made on the fly, minimizing downtime for loading and unloading vessels. Ships coming out of winter layup can load and go as soon as the season begins anew every March.

Even after 125 years of familiarity, it’s not taken for granted.

“Fraser Shipyards has played an important role in the evolution of the Port of Duluth-Superior and the entire Great Lakes maritime industry as they’ve built, serviced and repaired multiple generations of bulk freighters,” Coda said. “It’s part of the critical infrastructure needed to operate a port of this magnitude.”