Allouez Bay
Iron Ore Docks
Superior, WI

Ways of the Docks

Ways of the Docks

A simple walk around the top of the dock shows how it worked, back when it worked. The tracks cross over hollow compartments in the dock, called pockets, next to three levers and a chute.

Ore Chute [Ore Chute, Allouez, August 1941. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, (LC-USF34- 063778-D).]
Ore Chute [Ore Chute, Allouez, August 1941. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, (LC-USF34- 063778-D).]
The process goes like this:
1.) Turning a crank on the bottom of the ore car releases its contents into the pocket.
2.) Lever 1 engages that pocket’s mechanics to a drive shaft, powered by steam and later electricity.
3.) Lever 2 adjusts the angle of the 35-foot-long chute over the deck of the waiting boat.
4.) Lever 3 opens the steel door and the ore starts sliding down the chute from the bottom of the pocket into the waiting vessel. Simple, right?

We people are so small.
We people are so small.

Well, this was actually as simple as it could be, especially when the temperature dropped below freezing. Iron ore, natural iron-rich rock from the deep mines of central Minnesota, came in many forms. Sometimes it was a like a muddy clay, a water-saturated semi-solid, while the way it came from other mines more resembled bits of rock. Either way, raw ore had a strong tendency to freeze solid in both the ore cars and the dock pockets.

To circumvent this, steam lines were sometimes attached to the cars to thaw them before loading. The steam originally came right from the locomotives—there were about 32 of them on the day shift in the peak of the steam era. When this was not enough, or there was an especially difficult jam, a crew of “ore punchers” would climb into the car or onto the catwalk next to the chute doors, called the “pocket runner catwalk,” and stab at the mass with long steel poles.

I wonder how sheltered workers on this mid-level catwalk that follows the ore chutes is in storms. Note the chunks of concrete stuck in the catwalk grates--the pockets (right) are falling apart.
I wonder how sheltered workers on this mid-level catwalk that follows the ore chutes is in storms. Note the chunks of concrete stuck in the catwalk grates–the pockets (right) are falling apart.

Usually the catwalk was used by men designated as “pocket runners” to unlatch the chute doors before and after loading, a sort of safety. When the door was almost closed they would stuff a bit of cloth under it to keep rouge chunks from falling and denting the boats 70 feet below.

Exploring Dock 4 was a very different experience, since it was almost all metal.
Exploring Dock 4 was a very different experience, since it was almost all metal.

Now, it probably sounds a little dangerous to be standing on over a moving pile of ore and stabbing at it until it moves. The risk of going through the bottom of the car with the ore was a real risk, as was getting caught in the flow and ending up in the hold of a boat under 20,000 tons of rock. Falling into a full ore pocket was not that unusual—consider that at one time 400 men worked around the clock on these docks with all the danger of moving trains and deadly drops.

Luckily, the soft ore was usually enough to absorb the force of the fall.

During the dock’s later years, ore punchers were replaced by Robinson Car Shakers and cranes equipped with miniature wrecking balls that would, together, shake and smash frozen and jammed ore from the most stubborn of cars.

A long exposure in the crane cab at sunset throws a bit of color into the bleak yellow glows between the windows and car shaker.
A long exposure in the crane cab at sunset throws a bit of color into the bleak yellow glows between the windows and car shaker.

When the boat had taken its load back to Lake Superior, workers washed out the pocket and a barge with a crane on it would spread the underwater piles across the bottom of the slip, while assuring it was at least 27 feet deep in its entirety.

The top of Dock 4 was too dangerous to explore, but this panorama gives you an idea of the view (and how rotten the wood was).
The top of Dock 4 was too dangerous to explore, but this panorama gives you an idea of the view (and how rotten the wood was).

Loading ships could be tricky for other reasons as well. Once a ship even sank off the end of Dock 4 after being overloaded, insofar as its hull was resting on the bottom of the lake. Very rarely an ore boat would lose control and collide with the docks, but workers reported that, although the boat critically punctured its hull, the dock only shuddered slightly.

Of course, when a 1000-foot boat is steaming straight toward you on a foggy summer evening, that story doesn’t sound so reassuring…

On top of the light hoop, 160-feet up, a ship comes into port, ready to load-up. If you look really close, you can see my shadow cast on the dock below, courtesy of the full moon.
On top of the light hoop, 160-feet up, a ship comes into port, ready to load-up. If you look really close, you can see my shadow cast on the dock below, courtesy of the full moon.