The Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior with the other Great Lakes will close at midnight Wednesday, ushering in winter layup. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., allow ore boats to traverse the 21-foot drop at the St. Marys Rapids on the St. Marys River.

The nearly 10-week layup lasts until late March. It's an offseason in one sense, as ships' crews head home and steel mills on the lower Great Lakes siphon taconite iron ore from their built-up stockpiles.

But it's also a time for itinerant boilermakers and iron workers to descend on the Twin Ports. They migrate from near and far, and some have said in the past that they enjoy repairing the ships and the respite they receive largely from refinery construction. A lot of ore boats require steel work over the winter, as the steel armor that makes up the hulls can take a beating in the ice, causing plates to require replacement. Also, some lake freighters are required to undergo a five-year survey, or inspection, during layup.

"There is no real downtime on the waterfront," Jayson Hron, spokesperson for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said. "Hundreds of workers — engineers, welders, pipe-fitters, mechanics and electricians — will spend the next (several) weeks doing maintenance and repair work so these vessels are ready to sail when the Soo Locks reopen March 25.

"All of that effort, while less visible than vessels hauling cargo in and out of the port, contributes to equitable job growth and economic sustainability in the region."

Tonnage reports as the season comes to a close have indicated that ore shipments were stable, but slightly behind a solid 2018. It was a banner year for the Port Authority and its Duluth Cargo Connect, which broke a record for the tons of wind blades and towers hauled.

The Coast Guard told the News Tribune in December that it was expecting below-normal ice conditions in 2020 based on forecasts. So for now, the 2020 spring breakout is on schedule.

On Tuesday, the Duluth shipping canal welcomed the Hon. James L. Oberstar into winter layup. Only two lake freighters remain to arrive among the six wintering in Duluth: the American Spirit expected Wednesday and the Burns Harbor, arriving Thursday to close out the winter roster.

Winter-layup roster for port of Duluth-Superior

Subject to change, since the Burns Harbor had yet to make it to the Soo Locks on Tuesday.

At Fraser Shipyards (Superior)

  • John J. Boland
  • Honorable James L. Oberstar
  • Lee A. Tregurtha

At Midwest Energy Resources Co. (Superior)

  • Paul R. Tregurtha

At Hansen-Mueller Co.'s Elevator M (Superior)

  • Burns Harbor

At Enbridge Terminal (Superior)

  • American Spirit