Friday, August 27, 2004

Blog from Minnesota II: Duluth Shipping News

by Tom Bozzo

I confess to being a transportation geek -- dissertation on the evolution of propulsion technology for airliners, etc.

So Suzanne and I went up to Duluth for a couple days, with the Twenty-Month Old staying in Edina with Grandma. This was part of a deal that sent us to Rehoboth Beach last year, the North Shore of Lake Superior this. I confess to having a grand time. I give significant credit to the really big boats.

Note: ship horns at close range will startle a large fraction of the toddler population to tears. Fortunately, we did not have to discover this with our own toddler.

Our time at the Duluth waterfront effectively recapitulated 70 years of Great Lakes shipping history. If there is a moral to the story, it seems to be that productivity improvements, to whatever extent they may be good to society as a whole, don't benefit everyone.

Start with the SS William A. Irvin, launched in 1938 as the flagship of the U.S. Steel ore fleet, now on display as a museum piece (having been retired in the late-70s and subsequently saved from the scrapyard by the city of Duluth). The 630-footIrvin carried around 12,000 tons of ore with a typical crew complement of 38.

The 700-footers that rendered the Irvin obsolete, like the Montrealais (1962) and Canadian Progress (1968, one of the first lake boats to adopt the rear-superstructure configuration typical of oceangoing tankers) which we saw make their way under the Aerial Lift Bridge, and the more famous Edmund Fitzgerald operated with crews of less than 30 and carry more than twice the cargo.

Most modern boats were built or retrofitted with self-unloading conveyors and have a complement less than 20. This includes behemoths like the 1004-foot Mesabi Miner, which can disgorge 65,000 tons with minimal human involvement in the time it would have taken to clear a fifth as much from the holds of the Irvin.

Cargo tonnage at Duluth and Superior is just over half its 1950s peak (excluding a WWII surge). But ship movements are a quarter of the peak, thanks to the larger boats, and the automation effect suggests that the shipboard workforce has, presumably, fallen to something like an eighth of peak. (It also likely takes a lot less labor onshore to load and unload the boats, too.) So to whatever extent Duluth might look in places like a larger scale version of a hollowed-out Northeastern industrial town from a Richard Russo novel (and it does), it seems that but for the recreational value of the lakeshore, Duluth would be an economic disaster area.
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