Soo Line Ore Dock
Ashland, WI

It was interesting that, even though storms had carried the wooden walkway that stretched under the dock, these piles of spilled taconite remain where they had dropped.

“Well that’s that…”

The city constructed a wall in the early 2000s to discourage visitors. Note the staircase is cut off, too.
The city constructed a wall in the early 2000s to discourage visitors. Note the staircase is cut off, too.

…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.

Old boathouses near the dock.
Old boathouses near the dock.

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:

A closeup of the now-scrapped steel chute.
A closeup of the now-scrapped steel chute.

“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.”

Science Alert. When the sun strikes an object, that object absorbs some of the infared light in the form of heat.  The heat absorbed by the old Soo dock absorbed and radiated that energy to melt off the snow from the ice around it, making it very reflective.
The side of the dock in Spring.

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.”

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

“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.

The light masts are there, but it looks like the cables that stretched across the dock with the actual lights have fallen down.
The light masts are there, but it looks like the cables that stretched across the dock with the actual lights have fallen down.

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.

Update: The dock has been demolished.

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