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Canadian owner puts Duluth's Great Lakes Fleet up for sale

The Great Lakes Fleet of lake freighters features nine vessels, including the Arthur M. Anderson and three 1,000-footers.

The Arthur M. Anderson anchored at the CN dock in 2017.
The 767-foot Arthur M. Anderson appears anchored at the CN dock in 2017. The Anderson is one of the prized vessels of the Great Lakes Fleet of ships.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — In an earnings call last month, Canadian National Railway shared a desire to sell off its Twin Ports-based Great Lakes Fleet of ore carriers.

The move comes as the freight rail company reviews its non-rail business, including a trucking firm, TransX.

“We are in negotiations regarding the divestiture of the Great Lakes vessel (sic),” said Jean-Jacques Ruest, CN president, chief executive officer and director, during an earnings call with shareholders Jan. 25.

The Great Lakes Fleet of lake freighters features nine ore boats, including three 1,000-footers. Its base of operations is located in offices at the CN ore docks in Duluth, near 34th Avenue West. The vessels are itinerant, often visiting the local ore dock for loading, but only occasionally making a long-term visit. For instance, there are no members of the fleet wintering in Duluth this offseason.

3238022+032317.N.DNT_.BLOUGHc4.jpg
The Roger Blough glides through the Duluth Ship Canal as the first ship of the new season to depart Duluth-Superior in 2017.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

“A potential vessel sale process is progressing with some active bidders,” said Helen Quirke, senior vice president and chief strategy officer, in a transcript of the call. “But any transaction needs to be at a favorable value to us. Therefore, we are willing to continue to operate the vessels should a deal not be concluded at a favorable value to us.”

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Quirke further explained that while the fleet of ore boats helps earnings, it dilutes the company’s operations.

Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca said the agency was following the situation with interest.

While most cargoes soared past last year's levels, grain experienced historic lows in 2021-22.

“Great Lakes Fleet is a heritage brand in our port, with decades of history,” she said. “It’s an important part of the past, present, and hopefully the future of our region’s maritime industry.”

The Great Lakes Fleet is operated under the locally based company, Key Lakes Inc., a workaround that allows the Canadian owner to apply its assets on the Great Lakes, between U.S. ports — from Minnesota ore mines to the country’s blast furnaces and steel mills on the lower Great Lakes. The Jones Act prohibits foreign ships from delivering cargoes between American ports.

The Great Lakes Fleet is home to the popular Arthur M. Anderson, the last vessel to communicate with the Edmund Fitzgerald prior to its infamous sinking in 1975.

Other vessels in the fleet include 1,000-footers Edgar B. Speer, Edwin H. Gott and Presque Isle, along with the John G. Munson, Cason J. Callaway, Philip R. Clarke and Great Republic.

A final vessel in the fleet, the Roger Blough, was badly damaged by fire in February 2021 during its winter layup in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

CN did not illuminate the current status of Roger Blough. At the time of the fire, the Sturgeon Bay Fire Department reported an estimated $20 million in damages to the $100 million laker.

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The Port Authority's DeLuca noted the potential jobs at stake.

“The local jobs and commerce connected with Great Lakes Fleet being home-ported in Duluth are meaningful,” DeLuca said. “So, we certainly want to see a good local outcome for the fleet and its employees.”

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Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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