Coal docks of the Twin Ports: Duluth's dirty habit

coal1Coal miners weren't the only ones getting dirty while trying to meet the country's energy demands. When a coal ship was unloaded, workers were needed to clean out the ship's cargo holds while clamshell-type crane buckets removed material, a scene once commonplace in the Twin Ports.Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

The Twin Ports has an interesting relationship with coal. Though sources of the fuel are distant to the head of Lake Superior, there was once an enormous amount of it — millions of tons at times — piled on docks lining the harbor waterfront.

Beginning in the 1870s, coal was brought to the region by boat and unloaded through backbreaking labor and shovels. Within a few years of the first coal shipments, a booming coal industry was born. The same technology that allowed for faster coal shipments and unloading also demanded more of the dirty black rock; in an era run by steam, coal reigned supreme.

The railroads and steamships that cemented Duluth’s industrial standing were coal-hungry indeed. Several dozen docks on both sides of the harbor supported this coal habit. They were all largely the same in design, most being open-air piers with gargantuan cranes on tracks that moved about the dock to scoop coal from waiting ships and deposit it in piles. A few enclosed storage shelters also existed to house higher grades of coal away from the elements.

coal3Coal cranes once lined the harbor as far as one could see. These cranes tirelessly worked for decades, unloading millions of tons of coal. Operators were positioned above crane buckets, traveling back and forth along the crane. Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

The concept was simple: boats left Duluth carrying iron ore, wheat, and other commodities bound for the eastern United States. Upon reaching their destinations and unloading, the freighters then took on cargoes of coal mined in eastern states and unloaded it in Duluth and Superior.

In addition to powering transportation of goods to and from the Twin Ports, coal was also distributed both locally and beyond state lines. Heat, electricity, and gas (for lamps and appliances) was generated from coal. In 1915, steel production began at US Steel’s Duluth Works plant, requiring a large amount of coal, which continued until the 1970s. Coal not consumed locally was shipped away via rail, heating homes and generating power around the upper midwest.

coal2On the footprint of Barko Hydraulics in Superior were once the unusual 'wigwams' of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company. Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

Coal demand began to dwindle in the decades following peak years of the 1920s. An industry once responsible for the most tonnage moving through the Twin Ports, at well over 10 million tons per year, would come to a halt. The steady clanking of mammoth gantry cranes was silenced in the 1960s-70s. Most coal docks were repurposed or abandoned. However, the flow of coal would switch directions shortly after, with coal shipments leaving the Twin Ports, instead of arriving.

In 1976, the Midwest Energy Resources Company’s new Superior terminal opened, loading coal mined in western states and shipping it eastward by boat, primarily for consumption in power plants. The facility continues to operate, shipping several million tons of coal per year, making it the busiest terminal of the Great Lakes.

coal4Coal docks once occupied a vast amount of harbor real estate, as seen in this aerial image of Superior, looking west toward Duluth. Photo courtesy of the Lake Superior Maritime Special Collections.

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