Soo Dock and Ashland, 1898. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

“Well that’s that…”

…I thought, looking at the torch marks on the staircase zigzagging across pillars and pipes to the deck above. Muttering, resigned, “Not gonna get up top,” I had to make the trip all the way to Ashland, Wisconsin worth it.

“Anyway,” I began rationalizing my measured failure, “this would be Superior dock number—6? Not gonna see much new up there except a pretty view of downtown…” I really wanted to see what state the surface of the 1916 concrete deck was in—though the rest of the structure seemed so beautiful, especially by the sunset light that was hitting it with yellow, orange and magenta.

“Guess I’ll just have to come back next winter and hike the ice.”

Months later when I returned, nothing about the dock had changed per say, but the atmosphere had changed vaguely as talk of demolition had reached even as far as Duluth. One piece of advice I offer new explorers is to always treat your visit to a location as potentially your last; a sad fact about studying endangered locations (especially industrial structures, which are chronically undervalued in our culture) is that they can be lost anytime.

Returning with Interviews

Over the years I’ve lost more than a dozen intensely interesting and historically significant pieces of architecture, and it seemed that this dock was soon going to surrender its cemented place along the Ashland shoreline. Thanks to the conditions of my day job, I am able to complete informal social research with residents from Ashland regularly, and I always inquired about their take on the ore dock. Some common responses are:

“Oh, it’s an eyesore”

“I’d like it turned into something useful, like a harbor or something.  I don’t know if the Soo Line Railroad even owns the thing anymore… but they aren’t doing anything with it.”

“Used to climb on it when I was a kid, but they cracked down on it hard lately.”

One person—an old man—seemed particularly informed on the subject of the dock, speaking to me lackadaisically about the ‘old days’ as I prodded the conversation along with the bullet-pointed facts I absorbed over the years.

“Yeah, how long was it, something like 2,000 feet form shore to end?”

“Nah, it was a little less,” he would say, “about 1,800—close, though… and they used every bit of it in the steam era. It was one of the fastest on Superior.”

“I read in one place that it used to have races with DM&IR’s Dock 1 in Two Harbors, Minnesota when they were loading a couple dozen ships every day.”

“Busy times, but it’s a wreck now… they’re gon’ bring it down.”

It’s not gone yet, but it’s practically a piece of the past for those who live near it, so the Ashland Dock is no longer remarked about for being there, but for not having been blown up, knocked over, or slowly scrapped. Returning over the ice to my shoreline landmark for a last photo shoot, the shadows of its pillars burned rigid impressions into the snow on Lake Superior. Soon the beach will seem more natural, but I don’t think it will seem right.

Ore docks all over Lake Superior are coming down; if plans succeed across the board, the region will lose at least 3 this decade. So it goes with old technology, but I like to think of the docks as reminders of when hearty men pulled red rocks from beneath Midwestern mines to turn into Eastern steel—Detroit cars and Dallas skyscrapers, and all that…

“Busy times,” indeed.

Sunsets do amazing things... like highlighting the severed stairs and the metal wall on the left, intended to keep teens from partying on the dock in the summertime. I call this picture "Sleepers' Stairs" because I like the idea of crawling up the stairs to have a nap where nobody can bother me.

Standing on the ruins of the former sister dock, looking back at the soon-to-be-demolished family member. The pilings I stood on for the shot were those of the Chicago and North Western RR #3 which was dismantled in 1960 and used to be 2,040-feet long.

Rivets are sexy, and this old machine has more than a fair share.


The Shots

References »

  • Dorin, P. (1927). The lake superior iron ore railroads. (p. 25).
    • The Docs

      Soo Dock and Ashland, 1898. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
    • Ashland Man

      For those that like to see a dock similar to the one in Ashland in operation there are still a few that will be around for many years to come. The CN still uses it’s ore dock in Duluth as well as ones in Two Harbors. The LS&I railroad still uses it’s oredock up in Marquette Michigan. Marquette is probably the best place to see a traditional dock in action. Oddly enough, this old technology works perfect for ore shipment today. The pockets are essentially filled with marbels (Iron ore pellets) When the spouts are lowered to the boat and the pocket door opens, it is a made rush of pellets as gravity takes over. The dock in Marquette can actually beat the conveyer docks in load time but the conveyor docks can load larger boats with greater ease. The dock in Marquette loads over 200 boats a year and ships from 7-9 million tons a year. For those interested, you can also take a tour of the Tilden mine near Marquette to learn how pellets are made. You will also see the long ore trains making their way down to the dock in Marquette. The Marquette dock has been shipping ore for over 100 years (1911) and just recently got a facelift. As long as steel is used to build cars, stoves, bridges etc., we will see these mammoth structures continue to feed the boats.

    • Ashland Man

      Long live the ore dock

    • Anthony

      I’m actually sad about the demolition of this Ore Dock. =(

      While my family did not work on the Ashland Dock, they did work on all the Superior docks, and my grandpa was also a gantry crane operator.. I’m sad to see the dock gone.

      I just hope the remaining docks in Superior stay intact, and hope the city will make a museum out of one of them, as the docks are a great part of Duluth / Superior’s history.

      • danglass

        Anthony, Thanks for your comment. Superior’s NP dock is mostly stripped of metal and the approach is demolished; it’s being turned into Loon’s Foot Marina slowly but surely. The owner of Loon’s Foot was approached by BNSF about contracting the demolition of the abandoned Allouez docks, but that deal did not take off. So, old Allouez will stand until BNSF decides to contract their demolition. For now, they’re still waiting for steel prices to attract interested interested parties, it seems.

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