'Great Northern Railway': A surprising tale of Great Lakes ore docks

Sometimes the iron mining and shipping industries seem so woven into the lives and history of northern Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin that they become sort of invisible.

Sometimes the iron mining and shipping industries seem so woven into the lives and history of northern Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin that they become sort of invisible.

It's not that we don't see the ships coming in. We all realize thousands of people visit Duluth every year for the express purpose of seeing a massive ore boat chug under the Aerial Lift Bridge, and lots of us relish being able to point out the best spots to see the harbor and its sights. Heck, lots of people in the area still make their living in the working port and hopefully will for generations.

But it seems, to me anyway, that we too often talk about those industries as pseudo tourists ourselves, spectators more focused on the impressive industrial scenery than we are the honest work of digging up minerals, converting them to a usable form and transporting them somewhere to be made into real steel.

Fortunately, we have plenty of people so fascinated by the actual workings of the stuff that they remind us, every now and then, what it all means. One of them is Douglass Addison, whose "Great Northern Railway: Ore docks of Lake Superior photo archive," a 129-page book, tells a great story almost entirely in pictures.

You read that right: ore docks. The really nifty thing about Addison's book, and maybe the reason it struck me this way, is that it focuses on a little-discussed aspect of the industry. I mean, you can pick from a library of books about Great Lakes shipping, and in just about every genre, from histories to art books to ghost stories. Similarly, we can find a lot of information about mining and miners. You can even learn about the railroads if you look.


But where do you go to find out about the middlemen on the docks?

"Great Northern Railway" specifically focuses on the Great Northern docks near the Allouez railyard, which are described in their current state as "falling apart and partially stripped." But the docks, which got their start in the 1890s and were still going when Addison started photographing them about 90 years later, are testament to something quite different.

Addison got his interest through railroad modeling, and that hobby led him to what all outward appearances looks like an obsession. He has taken more than 500 photographs of the docks and -- get this -- spent 3-1/2 years making detailed drawings of nearly every aspect of the docks from the original blueprints.

I'll just say it -- at first, the sheer detail threatened to put me to sleep. I'm not a modeler or somebody who can spend hours a week looking into old trains. (No disrespect, by the way -- I simply have different hobbies that grab me.) There is very little writing in the book, only some introductory material reprinted from old Burlington Northern sources that are pretty darn dry and captions with the photos and drawings that can best be described as "spare" or "terse." At times, the jargon gets pretty thick.

But then a funny thing happened -- a story started to emerge. As the history of these mammoth structures became clearer, a real sense of the lives of dock workers and, really, the life of an industry took over.

The best of the photographs, which are taken from Addison's collection and several other sources, show workers working levers more than 80 feet above the water or standing next to tons of iron ore being chuted down to a waiting ship. There's a stunning photograph of one of the docks -- before it was rebuilt with steel and concrete -- completely engulfed in flames. "Great Northern Railway" has telling details, too, like chips of concrete along a walkway, broken loose not by industrial work but by sub-zero temperatures and structural strains.

It's a story of an industry's heady beginnings, with fascinating shots of whaleback ships loading up, through a heyday that had boats lining up to get in and into the industry's troubled times of the last few decades.

It's also a story of ingenuity, with equipment and technology and procedures evolving to meet both market demands and changing ore qualities. In reading, I couldn't escape a sense of admiration for the mentality on display, of just solving problems and getting the job done.


After paging through image after image, one sees a legacy of work, but also of decisions, adaptions, evolutions in those steel structures, and I have a newfound respect for it.

The drawings, meanwhile, are so detailed that you'll fall back on that engineering degree, or more likely wish you had one.

The moment I figured out why all that detail was necessary for Addison -- and I'll confess to being a little slow on the uptake about this -- was the moment the book won me over. It's for other modelers, of course. He even offers copies of the drawings to those interested.

Modelers and railroad fans are sure to love this. Historians might find interest, too. But even if you're none of those things, take a browse if you spot this in a bookstore. It might give you a new perspective on things you see every day.

It's terrific that people like Douglass Addison are out there to share their interest with us in such unique ways. We need a little reminding from time to time.


The book: "Great Northern Railway: Ore docks of Lake Superior photo archive," Iconografix, 2002

Author: Douglass D. Addison Sr.


ISBN: 1-58388-073-9

Cost: $29.95

Recommendation: What seems like a rather quirky idea really conjures up a flavor of the Northland through pictures.

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