Huron Portland Cement: the silos of Pier B

portland1Duluth's Huron Portland Cement Company plant in 1920, three years after its construction. Note the Aerial Transfer Bridge in background, which would not become the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge for 10 more years. Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

Sandwiched between the green lawns of Duluth's Bayfront Park and heavy industrial setting of the North American Salt Company, a small cluster of empty gray silos quietly overlook the Duluth-Superior Harbor, only a stone's throw away from Canal Park.

This facility has been a consistent newsmaker for the past several years, though the only clue a typical reader is left with concerning its past usage is "LaFarge cement" or "cement plant." Looking for information under that name doesn't get one very far; in order to dig a little deeper, a careful inspection is needed of heavily faded signage that emblazons the silos.

"Duluth Plant, Huron Portland Cement Co.," it reads.

In the early 20th century, the Huron Portland Cement Company was rapidly expanding a cement empire that would form the foundation of an infrastructure boom in the United States as lumber gave way to concrete. Increased cement demand in Duluth warranted a terminal to link the city with Huron's flagship cement mill on the shores of Lake Huron in Alpena, Mich.

portland2The Cutler-Magner salt company was initially Huron's largest consumer in Duluth. Silos of the Huron Portland Cement Co. loom in the background, behind the cranes of Cutler-Magner, ca. 1930s-40s. Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

Work on this new terminal began in 1917 after acquiring a parcel of land from the Cutler-Magner salt company, predecessor of the modern-day North American Salt Company. Lake freighters loaded with cement in Alpena were to make their way to Duluth's terminal, where the cement powder would be stored in silos and later distributed by rail or barrel. Construction continued throughout 1917.

In 1918, the first shipments left the Duluth plant. The plant enjoyed decades of productivity under the Huron Portland Cement Company, later by the Huron Portland Cement Division of the National Gypsum Company, and lastly the LaFarge cement company in the late 1980s and 1990s. The facility was eventually shuttered in the 2000s. LaFarge's operations continue in Superior.

portland3 Demolition has begun on sheds at Duluth's Huron Portland Cement plant as of 2013, though the silos remain. Current redevelopment plans include preserving the silos. Photo by Devan Burnett.

Two former cement freighters that once formed the plant's lifeline to Alpena still linger about the harbor. The J.B. Ford, permanently disabled due to an engine failure, worked for years as floating cement storage. The boat is currently docked at Superior's Peavey elevator complex and awaits its fate with the torches of the scrapyard, though there is an effort to save the boat. The other boat, the J.A.W. Iglehart, is used as floating cement storage in Superior.

In recent years, a large amount of buzz has been stirred concerning the future of the plant. Big plans have been made, though the only recent activity has been: repair of the ship's walls, light demolition of a cement loading shed, and overflow parking for events at Bayfront Park. Time and time again, the facility is in the news with promises of ground being broken on a new project. The latest plan is a waterfront resort known as the Pier B Project, though the developer is seeking additional financing.

portland4 Duluth's other cement plant, constructed in 1980 by the St. Lawrence Cement company, is the tallest structure of the Twin Ports at 254 feet. Photo by Devan Burnett.

Life of the homeless: one man and his dog

Recipe of the week: the Ledge Rock Grill's Cedar Planked Honey Glazed Salmon