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Dock celebrated for its history, vital future

Marshall High School senior Joe Johnson wagged a fruit skewer and remarked, "I should go to more groundbreakings." The University of Wisconsin-bound engineering student was job shadowing while the Duluth Seaway Port Authority hosted a white-tent ...

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From left: Steve Raukar, Port Authority Board president, Vanta Coda, Port Authority Executive Director, Dave McMillan, St. Lawrence Seaway Development, Corporation advisory board chair, Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Paul Jarnichen, maritime adminstrator with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Davis Helberg, former executive director of the Port Authority and Congressman Rick Nolan. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Marshall High School senior Joe Johnson wagged a fruit skewer and remarked, "I should go to more groundbreakings."

The University of Wisconsin-bound engineering student was job shadowing while the Duluth Seaway Port Authority hosted a white-tent gala of local, state and federal officials Wednesday. Johnson wanted to see the governmental side of big-project engineering, and the guest list didn't disappoint.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Rick Nolan and U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, were among those on hand to break ground on the final stage of the revitalization of Dock C and D - a $17.7 million finishing project that culminates more than 20 years of collaboration and persistence, including efforts from among many of the event's attendees.

With the 28-acre dock on the 800 block of Helberg Drive beneath their feet and stacks of steel pilings in the background ready to replace corroded dock walls, the speakers gave eloquent bids to illustrate how the past, present and future of shipping in the Port of Duluth were knitted into the moment.

"Every American is dependent on freight that moves in the water," said Jaenichen, who praised the easy connections to rails and highways Dock C and D will offer, making for a more versatile port.

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Fifty-plus years have passed and numerous hurdles cleared between the Port Authority's last major infrastructural effort (the 1959 opening of the neighboring Clure Public Marine Terminal) and this one. Nolan said it was "symbolic of the long journey that is often required to achieve things of great value."

"We all did our best for the next generation," Nolan said, "to keep the port competitive in an ever-changing world."

Sen. Klobuchar cited the late Jim Oberstar, who would have loved the project, she said, and celebrated an effort that required her attention again and again.

"We were really enthusiastic about pushing for a TIGER grant for a fifth time," Klobuchar said to describe the persistence involved in securing $10 million in federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery funding that whittles several hundred worthy projects a year down to several dozen awarded ones.

Port Authority Executive Director Vanta Coda called it "the dawn of a new era on the waterfront."

In the audience - and praised repeatedly throughout the ceremony - was Davis Helberg, a 24-year Port Authority executive director who retired in 2003, but not before having the vision to turn the old grain elevator site into something new.

"It's a nice vision you had," one well-wisher said, patting Helberg's shoulder.

After putting a ceremonial shovel in the ground, Helberg reflected on the port's long dormant but rich history. In 1900, Frank Peavey put the world's first working cylindrical concrete grain elevator there - "right where we're standing," Helberg said. Peavey's experiment the previous year near the Twin Cities proved concrete would keep the grain dry and in excellent condition throughout the year, "with no rodent infestations," Helberg said. "That was important."

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The F.H. Peavey Co. and Occident Terminal division of the Russell-Miller Milling Co. operated elevators on either side of C and D through halcyon days, when the city's Board of Trade building housed a robust grain trading floor and Peavey's company alone housed the entire seventh of eight floors.

Cargill bought out the elevators in the 1970s and later moved into more modern elevators it built in the port, leaving C and D vacant. After years of coaxing, Helberg got Cargill to sell the property for $1 and went back "with hat in hand" to get the corporation to chip in $50,000 to help start demolition and cleanup.

"They're a good corporate citizen," Helberg said of Cargill.

Helberg's onetime colleague in the shipping industry, Ed Ruisi, remembered those days, too. The 84-year-old former vessel agent was brought to Duluth from New York City because of his knowledge of salt water vessels.

"It was a whole different aspect," Ruisi said of international trade. "The grain exchange was a big thing and was booming then."

With completion expected in fall 2016, Dock C and D will be a hub for wind turbine parts and other internationally traded cargoes.

Hope was bright the dock would boom again, "connecting businesses in the Upper Midwest of the United States to the rest of the world," Klobuchar said.

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Related Topics: SHIPPING
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