Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tour of a Great Lakes Freighter -- Post 2

The Calumet is approximately 800 feet long. It has five cargo holds, each with nine bins for a total of 45 compartments. Where ever they load, the on-shore facility has the conveyor system to load the freighter. The crew is responsible for making sure the loading is done correctly. They not only have to counter-balance the weight to keep the ship upright, but they have to fill the cargo bins in the right order. If they load from one end of the ship to the other, they would break the ship in half. So instead they have a very specific order. In some cases they may just load a portion of the bin, and then go to the other end of the ship to load a whole bin, only to go back later and finish filling the first bin.

The Calumet is one of around 140 freighters left on the Great Lakes. In the mid-1800s, the people streaming into the Midwest—and the grain, lumber, and iron pouring out—created a maritime industry across the Great Lakes. Fleets of ships served industries around the lakes and helped create thriving port cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago. For all their value and beauty, the waters were dangerous, too. Thousands of ships lie at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

Beginning in the 1840s, the Great Lakes became busy highways for moving wheat, corn, lumber, coal, and iron ore. Crops from Midwestern farms crossed the lakes to markets in the East. Lumber from the region’s vast pine forests made Chicago the world’s busiest lumber port in the 1870s. Iron ore from the region traveled east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. To this day, iron ore makes up nearly half the cargo on the lakes.

Canals helped the Great Lakes prosper. The state of Michigan built the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal, called the Soo Locks, from 1853 to 1855 to speed ore and grain from Lake Superior to markets and industries along the lower lakes. The first trestle ore dock was built at Marquette, Michigan, in 1859. The design took advantage of gravity to unload railroad cars and fill the holds of waiting ships.

To make vessels more stable, steamer captain Alexander McDougall patented a rounded hull that would be almost submerged when loaded. He called his boats “whalebacks,” but others nicknamed them “pigs.” Many ended their working lives as barges.

In 1899, ships on the Great Lakes carried 12.5 million tons of ore, and 12.1 millions tons of coal. Even though dockyards began using unloading hoists like these, workers still shoveled most ore, coal, stone, and grain out of ships’ holds by hand.

Three thousand boats worked the Great Lakes in 1893. By 2000, the number was less than 200, but the huge vessels in use today carry more cargo. The James R. Barker is one of the largest ships working the Lakes today. In one trip, the Barker can carry more than 60,000 tons of ore, enough to produce the steel for 16,000 automobiles.

NOTE: Information for this blog update was provided by

Here are some shots taken from the deck of the Calumet. There are some photos of the boom, deck hands, the loading process, and one showing a life preserver with the quarry in the background.

Daryl did take us up to the Pilot House to meet Captain John. The freighter, as you would expect, has all the modern communication and navigation equipment. I gave the captain and John a copy of the new agate book as a thanks for the tour.

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