Duluth-Superior used to be quite the place for boat nerds.
In about the mid-1950s, 6,000 or so vessels were visiting annually, compared to about 900 now. About 77 million tons of ore, coal, grain, and other cargo were being shipped in and out then, more than two times what moves through the port today. And there were three times as many of us working on the boats or on the waterfront in that era before automation and technology.
"It was really hard to find someone back then who didn't have someone directly involved in the shipping industry," Adele Yorde, the public relations director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority since 2008, said as the guest speaker last week at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored luncheon.
Yorde provided the then-and-now numbers, too, but her point wasn't that shipping is dying here, or even slipping. Quite the opposite. While the numbers may not be what they used to be, when it comes to economic impact - and, yes, the opportunities to see, track, and photograph big boats - the Twin Ports remains robust.
Consider last season, the biggest, most active in a decade for Duluth-Superior, with iron ore shipments hitting nearly 20 million short tons. Inbound shipments of limestone posted gains, too, as did outbound shipments of low-sulfur coal. Our tonnage tally of 35.3 was a 17 percent increase over the previous year.
And then there's this - and it's really hard to capture the enormity and wow-ness of this: Duluth-Superior remains the largest-tonnage port on the entirety of the Great Lakes.
So, "Every day is a great day to be a boat nerd in this community," as Yorde said. "Some people think of 'nerd' as negative, but those of us who follow the comings and goings of all of the ships, what they're carrying and where they're going, it's our livelihood. ...
"I hear people say, 'Well, when Duluth was an industrial port,' as if that was a past-tense reference," she said in her remarks at Clyde Iron. "We are an industrial port city. We craft things here. We manufacture things here. And we ship things from here. So the story of this port city is still being written. It's so much more than a history lesson. It's still the backbone of this region and an integral part of our future."
A backbone taken for granted, perhaps because it has been here - providing work, a water connection to the world, and a rock-solid reliable base for all of our economic activity - for as long as we have. Our nearly 50 miles of waterfront are responsible for 11,510 jobs that pay $546 million in annual wages and that create an economic boon for the state of Minnesota of $1.5 billion every year.
"We are 2,342 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. So for a vessel to make its way all the way to us, they really have to want to get here," Yorde said. "This is an incredible city and an incredible industry. Not every community can say that they have an international seaport in their backyard. So there's pride that goes with that. And every time we tell the story of Duluth the word 'port' ought to be at the top of our list of the benefits of living and working here. It's also why people ought to consider moving their companies here and expanding their companies here."
No matter what the numbers, the Port of Duluth-Superior is vital and important, as much today as at any time in our history. And it's a huge part of who we are - whether we identify as boat nerds or not.