For Lakewood Township family, commercial diving is a tradition

Few families have a deeper knowledge of Lake Superior than the Noricks of Lakewood Township. This commercial diving family has been servicing docks, bridges and vessels on the lake for five generations, and 2008 will mark their 110th year in busi...

Few families have a deeper knowledge of Lake Superior than the Noricks of Lakewood Township. This commercial diving family has been servicing docks, bridges and vessels on the lake for five generations, and 2008 will mark their 110th year in business.

Marie Norick's grandfather, Horace H. Thompson, began work as a professional diver in 1898, and her father, John F. Thompson, continued on in the profession.

As the eldest child in a three-daughter family, Marie was tapped to help her dad, serving as his dive tender. She accompanied him on jobs, working topside to assist him and ensure he received an uninterrupted supply of air.

Marie quickly proved herself a capable and dependable partner, yet she encountered some resistance as a young woman working on the male-dominated Great Lakes waterfront of the 1950s and '60s.

She recalls a time when her father was called to Silver Bay to assess the damage after a vessel hit the ore dock there.


"We got there, and they asked us to wait. My dad went in and talked to someone, then came back. This happened repeatedly, and each time, I could see him getting angrier and angrier."

The dock superintendent said women weren't allowed on the facility. But Marie said her frustrated father finally issued an ultimatum: "If she doesn't come with me, I don't work here."

After a series of calls to corporate higher-ups, Marie and her father finally were granted access and got to work.

It was on the job with her father that Marie met Jerry Norick, her future husband, in 1957. She and her father were working to inspect and reinforce the footings of the Ashland ore dock, and Norick was an inspector and engineer for the Soo Line Railroad, which owned the structure.

After a successful courtship, Norick followed his father-in-law into commercial diving.


"The knowledge of this business has been passed on from generation to generation," Marie Norick said. "My dad learned to dive from his dad. My husband, Jerry, learned from my dad. Our boys learned it from their dad. And now our grandsons are doing the same."

"I get a lot of satisfaction from carrying on our family tradition and helping to keep the business going," said Zac Norick, Jerry and Marie's 19-year-old grandson.


Zac's father, 46-year-old Peter Norick, now heads the company, dubbed P.J. Norick & Sons.

Jerry, age 74, finally gave up diving a few years ago. Even though he still feels physically able, he said it was time to step aside.

"You've got to hang it up at some point. The kids won't wait forever," he said.

Jerry Norick remains involved in the business nevertheless, conducting soundings and advising as an engineer.

Other family members active in the business include Peter's sons: Zac and Josh. Peter's younger brothers, John and Jim, also lend a hand when they're not busy working aboard lakers for American Steamship Co.


The Noricks routinely find themselves working on structures their forefathers helped build, but the gear they employ today has changed. No longer are they tethered by air hose to a compressor at the surface. These days, the Noricks use scuba gear.

The Noricks still have some of the original equipment with which their family business was launched, including a hand-cranked air compressor used by Horace Thompson. Back in those days, tenders got a workout, with two men cranking simultaneously to keep the diver below supplied with air. Lengthy jobs would require a team of six tenders to trade turns cranking.


Other tools, too, have improved. Marie said that when her grandfather helped build the Oliver Bridge, he cut the structure's numerous timber pilings using two handsaws. He'd go down, saw through three pilings and then resurface for a fresh saw. He'd submerge to resume cutting, and while he was below, an assistant would then resharpen the first saw in anticipation of the next swap.

Jerry favors the hydraulic saws of today.

Some aspects of commercial diving have changed little, however.

"You need to be ready to respond day or night," said Brad Owens, owner of Alternative Marine LLC. Owens' Superior-based company specializes in repairs to the seals and propeller shafts of commercial vessels, and he has relied on J.P. Norick & Sons to provide speedy emergency service to his clients.

Owens explained that even slight delays can prove quite costly for a large vessel on a tight schedule.

"Ship repair is very specialized, and they [the Noricks] are the best local candidates to do the kind of work we handle," Owens said.

"You save a fortune in dry docking fees if you can repair something in the water," said Franz von Riedel, owner of Zenith Tugboat Co. of Duluth.


The Noricks must have a good mental image of the structures and vessels on which they're working because they're often unable to see them. Sometimes they work with little light, and other times they can't see because of turbid water.

"Pretty much anything we do in the bay is in the dark," said Peter Norick.

"Yeah, we have maybe 6 inches of visibility," said Zac, noting that wintertime offers slightly improved conditions, because sediment-stirring marine traffic lets up.

The Noricks work in all sorts of nasty conditions. In recent weeks, they've braved subzero temperatures to dive the Anna Marie Altman, one of von Riedel's tugs in need of repair during the winter layup.

Zac Norick said being in the water during the winter isn't as bad as emerging from it, especially into a cold wind. On a recent dive, Norick found it necessary to thrust his air regulator and buoyancy control device into a bucket of hot water to keep their valves from freezing.

Diving can be dangerous, as well.

Peter Norick recalled diving on a partially sunken barge four years ago. Two tugs were tied to it, and even at full throttle, they could only partially right the vessel. As the tugs continued to pull, he was sent down to tighten down two hatches that were allowing water to enter the barge faster than pumps could move it out.

"I didn't like the situation. I could see the lines sparking, but it had to be done," Norick said matter-of-factly.

Once the hatches were closed, the tugs finally got the upper hand on the barge and righted it.

Jerry Norick, too, recalls close scrapes on the job, including one time when he emerged from the water only to be struck by the snorkel of a cement truck also working on site.

While the Noricks constantly stress safety, Marie Norick acknowledged that a degree of risk is inherent in the job.

"It's part of the work and it's something you have to live with," she said.

Sometimes the Noricks have been called in to work wrecks or accident sites.

In 1970, Jerry Norick helped recover a 120-ton Burlington Northern locomotive and two boxcars that plunged into the water from a Twin Ports trestle bridge.

At times the work can be gruesome. Marie recalled that her father once was hired to retrieve the body and head of a mariner decapitated by a failed line.

The life of a commercial diver can perhaps best be described as unpredictable.

"You're basically always on-call," Marie said. "Sometimes you won't have a job for three months and sometimes you have three jobs in one day."

PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at .

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