Iron ore mined on Minnesota's iron ranges traveled eastward by ship from Duluth, as depicted in this 1902 map. Click for high-res. Image from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.
Perhaps one of Duluth’s most familiar icons, aside from the Aerial Lift Bridge, are the ore docks that tower above Interstate 35.
Standing at nearly 80 feet, these docks are relics of Duluth’s golden industrial years. When most hear the term “ore dock,” these come to mind. However, four more similar structures still linger about the harbor, and even more once provided a vital link between Minnesota’s iron ranges and the ever-hungry steel mills of the eastern United States.
In this two part series, historic photos of the Twin Ports’ 12 ore docks will be presented. Several places on the internet detail the history and workings of these structures, but the Lake Superior Maritime Collections is home to exceptional amount of information on the topic. Located at the University of Wisconsin Superior, this archive contains a wealth of historic images, news clippings, and shipping statistics on the ore docks of Duluth and Superior, as well as many other aspects of the Twin Ports’ industrial history.
The United States Library of Congress online Prints & Photographs Catalog is also home to great number of Duluth and Superior photographs from the past. Keep an eye on time while searching, however; it’s all too easy to find two hours zapped away while browsing these images.
How do those things work?
The workings of a typical ore dock relied on gravity. Train cars filled with iron ore from one of Minnesota’s iron ranges were positioned high above water level on a dock, and the ore was then emptied into the dock’s “pockets.” Connected to the underside of these pockets were large metal spouts, which were lowered onto waiting boats. Contents of a pocket were emptied into the ship below, repeated until the ship was full, and then the process started over again for another ship. This method has been largely phased out in favor of faster loading docks, making many ore docks obsolete.
Though most of the ore docks still standing are indeed obsolete and unused, their enormous size – most about one-half mile in length and 80 feet tall – make them a large task to demolish. These docks are now unintentional monuments to the past, and one is even seeing a rather creative new life. This ore dock history-in-photos will kick off with the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway’s docks of west Duluth, and then move across the harbor to Superior.
Duluth's six ore docks
Duluth’s DM&IR ore docks, ca. 1930. Three of the original six were already demolished at the time of this photo. One of Duluth’s many coal docks, now gone, is situated east of the ore docks. Photo from the Lake Superior Maritime Collections.
The first iron ore shipments from the Missabe range left the shores of Duluth in 1893, bound for cities on the eastern Great Lakes. At one period in time, six docks occupied the Duluth side of the harbor. Two docks stand today, one still in operation, casting shadows over Interstate 35. A more detailed history of Duluth’s ore docks is available at Zenith City Online.
Lake freighters were often tied together in large numbers for winter layup, though steelworker strikes could also grind the iron ore shipping industry to a halt, causing similar scenes. This undated photo leaves few clues, though the lack of snow and ice suggest an industry related cause. Photo from the Lake Superior Maritime Collections.
A great workforce, often numbering in hundreds per shift, was needed just to keep docks running. In this photo, men poke and prod at a train car of wet iron ore. Ore often did not simply dump out of a train car, and much effort was needed to break stuck masses of ore apart. This problem was only compounded in below-freezing temperatures. Photo from the Lake Superior Maritime Collections.
Some of Duluth's docks originally employed timber construction. However, timber quickly fell out of favor, as it needed to be replaced far more often and was also highly prone to fire. Photo from the Lake Superior Maritime Collections.
Up next: Superior's ore docks
Duluth's ore docks are a prominent icon of its industrial history, greeting visitors to the Zenith City as they pass under the dock approaches. However, the four ore docks remaining on Superior's side of the harbor are a little more off of the beaten path, and often go largely unnoticed. Photos of these docks are in part two, the Superior half of this series.