Great Lakes Shipping

After a short stoppage for the winter, the Great Lakes shipping season is back underway with the opening of the Soo Locks in March. The Sault Ste. Marie locks, which allow more than 7,000 annual passages between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes, according to Pure Michigan, were previously closed mid-January for yearly repair and maintenance.

The locks and ports along Lake Superior in particular are a huge part of the economic puzzle of the upper Great Lakes region. According to the Lake Carriers’ Association, the iron ore shipped through the locks in 2012 comprised 3.2 percent of the U.S. GDP, with a total dollar value to the country’s economy of $500.4 billion.

In addition to the jobs and economic value the shipping industry provides, it also makes for interesting watching as ships travel across the Great Lakes. One of the daily highlights for many people living in Michigan iis watching freighters go by on their routes to the major shipping ports along the lakes, carrying iron ore, coal, limestone, and more.

The first boat through the locks for the season, according to BoatNerd maps, was the Edwin H. Gott, headed for Two Harbors in Minnesota. 

The first boat to leave the port of Duluth-Superior, according to TV6, was the 826-foot-long Lee A. Tregurtha, headed for Marquette, where it is a common sight throughout the year. The Lee A. Tregurtha, launched over 80 years ago, was a U.S. Navy boat, the USS Chiwawa. It traveled the world to Aruba, Algeria, Italy, and Japan, among others, according to BoatNerd. In 1960, the boat was converted to a Great Lakes ore carrier. It’s changed possession and names a couple times since then, but it has remained a part of the fabric of the Great Lakes shipping story, which grows every year.

“I think it’s the opportunity to see the passage of history, to see the passage of time,” Fred Stonehouse, a Great Lakes maritime author and lecturer, says. “They’ve had this activity continue now for over 100 years in terms of the same type of ships we’re seeing today, only bigger, better, faster, but that lineage is still there. You’re watching history happen every time you see one of these great ships come in and load or unload, or just continue past.”

Ships like the Lee A. Tregurtha have a big following, with people in Marquette lining up along places like Clark Lambros Beach Park and Presque Isle Park to see them as they pull into the ore dock to load an annual 9.5 to 10 million tons of ore every year, according to Travel Marquette.

Websites like BoatNerd track these freighters as they traverse the Great Lakes every season, giving real-time location updates, as well as an extensive history of each boat.

Over the years, boat enthusiasts begin to develop a connection to the freighters. Stonehouse says that while saltwater boats usually only last about 20 or 25 years, the Great Lakes boats last a lot longer. “The ships on the Great Lakes continue, in some cases, for a century of continued use and travel,” he says. “We may change their names periodically as they change ownership or function, but it’s the same vessel that has been there.”

For people living in a port city like Marquette, they may see a boat like the Lee A. Tregurtha a dozen times or more per year. They become familiar. But, for all the people that have been watching the boats for decades, there are people who have never experienced this piece of living American history.

Stonehouse lectures on Great Lakes cruise boats, and says almost all the people on those cruises have never experienced the lakes.

Now that the shipping season is back up and running, whether you’ve seen hundreds of freighters or you’re looking to get your first sight of one this season, it’s time to start doing your research to find out when the next one is going by.