Allouez Bay
Iron Ore Docks
Superior, WI

History of Allouez Bay

Memories of the Docks

Allouez Bay has always been a perfect natural harbor—it was naturally dredged out by a nearby river, faced a relatively deep entry into the Lake Superior, and even had a sort of breakwater, thanks to Duluth’s Park Point—a glorified sandbar. It was also situated near Minnesota and Wisconsin’s underground mines. It was fate, and for the Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad’s engineers, love at first sight.

They designated the spot for their first ore dock in 1892.

The texture of the cracking poured concrete ore pocket is somewhere between stone and driftwood.
The texture of the cracking poured concrete ore pocket is somewhere between stone and driftwood.

Early History

Their first dock was a relatively short dock at barely 180 feet and made completely of wood, and extremely simple. It loaded 2,000 tons of iron ore from Minnesota’s ‘Mountain Iron Mine’ into a whaleback boat on November 11, 1892. That year, because of freezing ore, it made only one other shipment.

The following year the Merritt Brothers, the chief developers of Minnesotan iron and rail resources, put an order into Pittsburgh Locomotive Works for 400 ore cars to transport Mesabi ore to Allouez. Trying to enter the booming ore transportation market, Great Northern RR bought the original Dock 1, then showing its age, in 1899 and almost immediately made plans to build another dock there. By 1902 there were 2 new docks in the bay.

20th Century Expansions

It will be the longest in the world!” they said as they tore apart the original Dock 1 in 1906. This was the beginning of Dock 1’s competitiveness, a theme that would echo throughout its many rebuilds. As it sits the farthest from the port entry and closest to the river, it benefits from protection on both sides and could therefore be expanded.

Other docks were built and rebuilt quickly to match Dock 1’s advancements: #2 in 1909, #4 in 1912, and #3 in 1917 and 1921. Each seemed to fit catchphrase in the next decade: “Dock 2: Steel, concrete, electricity!”, “Dock 3: Most modern wooden ore dock on the great lakes!”, “Dock 4: Shortest -but- Fastest!”.

Why so many upgrades? As a pure technical consideration, the wider the ore carriers became the higher they docks had to stand from the water, at a roughly 2-to-1 ration. The width of the ore hatches in the boat holds seemed to level-off at 60 feet, so to reach the middle of the gap from the side of the dock the chute had to stretch 35 feet.

Put that into an equation and the docks had to stand about 80 feet up off the water (Dock 1=80ft, Dock 2=80ft, Dock 3=77ft, Dock 4=75ft). As far as wood versus steel goes, wood docks only last for 5-10 years, while steel docks have a lifespan of 25 years or more without being rebuilt.

Also, there was that problem of fire…

Allouez had already suffered one major fire. It didn't need another--especially under Dock 1's wooden approach.
Allouez had already suffered one major fire. It didn’t need another–especially under Dock 1’s wooden approach.

Dock 2’s approach was set alight in 1922 by hot ash from a steam engine, a conflagration that drew in more than 100 firefighters. All-in-all it destroyed 600ft of trestle and damaged the 14 ore pockets closest to shore. The railroad had to build a temporary trestle that season, an inconvenience when trains were scheduled to arrive every 15 minutes. When the dock was rebuilt it was with concrete, steel, and 14,000 new pilings.

To this day Dock 2 has the only steel approach.

Standing next to the now-demolished records room.
Standing next to the now-demolished records room.

Modernization and Maintenance

Below Dock 2 is a set of fire pumps.
Below Dock 2 is a set of fire pumps.

Nearby, a coal powerhouse was built under Dock 2 in 1923 that provided electricity, fire pumps (800,000 gallon daily capacity), and compressed steam for the complex; recall that steam was vital in thawing ore in jammed ore cars. At that time there was a small oil-burning lighthouse at the end of the dock as well.

Negative twenty looks much warmer in retrospect, wouldn't you say? Taken through the window of a gantry crane cab.
Negative twenty looks much warmer in retrospect, wouldn’t you say? Taken through the window of a gantry crane cab.

Two years later came another advancement, with the (even) further extension of Dock 1, this time in steel and concrete.

Explorer’s eyes always get a little wide walking from under the tightly designed timber approach into the mesmerizingly expansive concrete ‘cathedral’ 100ft out from the shore.

Dock construction and maintenance was almost always done in the winter, when ice kept boats from reaching the port and made dam construction a little easier. Every chute would have to be reconditioned, all 1,352 of them removed, resurfaced, reinstalled. Dock 3, which had steel-lined ore pockets, would undergo a similar process. The wooden sections of the dock decks would have to be removed and replaced every 3 years—anyone who has seen the surface of Allouez today can tell why—today it’s rotten and full of death holes.

The top of the docks are so rotten in places that you can see the lake through the boards. In the foreground you can see the controls for the chutes, which work on a clutch.
The top of the docks are so rotten in places that you can see the lake through the boards. In the foreground you can see the controls for the chutes, which work on a clutch.

World War II through the Death of Natural Ore

Approaching Allouez (Emory Ford Collection)
Approaching Allouez (Emory Ford Collection)

The docks were very busy during World War II when steel demands were extremely high. In 1945 to help keep traffic moving two buildings were added at dock level, a 2-story office building with radio rooms, records storage, a locker room and a lunchroom. It was in charge of train movement on all the dock approaches and boat movement into the area of operation. Nearby was a single-level maintenance building that would repair things like hydraulic tools and electric carts, as well as house the dock fire warden’s office.

The war effort took a toll on the docks, prompting a 1951 half-million-dollar rebuild of all dock facilities. This is when the four 80-foot tall light towers were added on Docks 1 and 2 to make night work safer. Before that point the dock lighting consisted of small towers on either sides of the dock with strings of lights strung between.

Dock 1 got a totally new top and 250 new ore chutes as well.

Water turned the taconite powder into a rusty, slippery paste... everywhere the water pooled up, doubling the beauty from certain special angles.
Water turned the taconite powder into a rusty, slippery paste… everywhere the water pooled up, doubling the beauty from certain special angles.

The next two years brought the diesel age to Allouez with 15 new engines. Allouez and its yards could operate with half the number of locomotives with this generation, which especially aided pushing the 75-ton ore cars (loaded) up the grade onto the dock approaches.

The conveyor belt prevented cranes from accessing the left side of the dock, so cranes were mounted to the gantry crane to maintain the ore chutes on the side.
The conveyor belt prevented cranes from accessing the left side of the dock, so cranes were mounted to the gantry crane to maintain the ore chutes on the side.

This is also the time when the aforementioned Robinson car shakers, mounted on two gantry cranes on Docks 1 and 2, were added to help move frozen and jammed ore from cars. Workers had to be careful, though, as the power of the car shakers could rip the rivets right out of the car if left on with empty cars. As soon as they heard that muddy rock start sliding the signal would be given to kill the shaker. Alongside the shaker was the “skull cracker,” a small wrecking ball that fulfilled the same purpose as the shaker.

Small pedestal cranes were installed on top of the gantry cranes to remove ore chutes at the end of seasons for reconditioning. By this time, Dock 1 and 2 had new light hoops, tops, chutes, cranes, shakers, skull crackers, and immediate access to the office and maintenance buildings.

If you asked, “What about Dock 3 or 4?”, you can see where this is going.

Like a grave marker, a single post remembers where Dock 3 stood on the bay.
Like a grave marker, a single post remembers where Dock 3 stood on the bay.

Dock 3, the all-timber, was phased out of service in 1958 and dismantled in 1965, while Dock 4, the shortest dock, was probably shipping coal—a bad idea. The problem with shipping coal from an ore dock is subtle, but easy to understand. Ore cars were sized to line up for ore pockets, which are always spaced 12 feet apart. Coal cars were simply too long, so getting the material in the pockets neatly was almost impossible.

Obvious to all, Dock 1 and 2 were going to be the future of Allouez.

A Retrofit, a Shipwreck, and a Shutdown

In 1967 Dock 1 got a major retrofit that allowed it to handle the new standard in raw iron, taconite. Instead of the dense, irregular, sticky natural ore of the past century and a half, this was much easier to ship, and, more importantly, worked in modern steel furnaces.

Taken from the arm of the pocket loader--note the tree growing out of the conveyor belt. Often where you see old piles of taconite, trees are springing up. The byproducts of the pelletization process break down and make a really fertile mix, especially with all the iron content!
Taken from the arm of the pocket loader (tripper) –note the tree growing out of the conveyor belt. Often where you see old piles of taconite, trees are springing up. The byproducts of the pelletization process break down and make a really fertile mix, especially with all the iron content!

As I will soon be exploring in more detail in my upcoming article on the McLouth Steel Plant of Trenton, Michigan, there was a big change in steel manufacturing as the circa-1825 Bessemer process was replaced by BOFs, basic oxygen furnaces. To put it simply, where the chemical makeup of the Mesabi ore was extremely useful in the creation of steel in the Bessemer process, a BOF could take a little scrap iron and a lot of taconite to make steel fast and cheap. If you want to see what a Bessemer process steel plant looks like, consider my article on Carrie Furnaces of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Big Dipper brought its friends into view, and the best seat is 80-feet up.
The Big Dipper brought its friends into view, and the best seat is 80-feet up.

Though the US was (too) slow to adopt and update to the basic oxygen furnace method, Dock 1 was soon very busy with its new look. Instead of trains having to pull up onto the dock and fill it thus, a conveyor belt went from the nearby train yard to a pocket feeder that ran on rails on the dock. It was very efficient compared to the old method. The only catch was that a second pedestal crane had to be installed on the gantry crane to service the south side of the dock; the conveyor belt that spanned the whole length of the dock—2,244 feet—and blocked the trusty rail crane from half the deck.

The crane on Dock 2, as seen from Dock 4 right after sunset. Notice the old light tower is warped.
The crane on Dock 2, as seen from Dock 4 right after sunset. Notice the old light tower is warped.

This era saw the very short-term use of Dock 4 as a potash terminal. Unlike its brief foray into coal, the potash settled fine into the dock bins, but it was not without issues. Potash, when tossed around, gives off an acidic dust that corrodes steel. Eventually, this dock was just not used for anything. It is ironic that the first intentionally ‘permanent’ dock in Allouez Bay was the shortest and least utilized. It was taken out of service permanently in 1974.

Circa-1960s graffiti. Someone got their ass kicked.
Circa-1960s graffiti. Someone got their ass kicked.

The next year, ’75 was a fatal one for the docks at Allouez. On November 10 of that year, a vessel loaded 26,000 tons of ore from Dock 1. It’s name was the Edmund Fitzgerald. By that night it settled on the bottom of Lake Superior with all 29 hands.

In 1977 a new, 8 million dollar taconite-only facility was opened on the other side of the bay, making Docks 1 and 2 obsolete. Dock 2 would be phased out in 1980 and Dock 1 would last until 1988.

And so the first was the last.

References »

  • (1906). The Railway age, 42. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=t4FNAAAAYAAJ
  • $2,000,000 area ore dock jobs planned. (1951, December 9). Duluth News Tribune
  • Addison, D.D. (2002). Ore docks of lake superior photo archive . Hudson, WI: Iconografix.
  • King, F.A. (1972). The missabe road: the duluth, missabe and iron range railway. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mining and engineering world, . (1907). Mining and engineering world, 27. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA43
  • Porter, R., & Addison, D.D. (2009). Kelly lake to allouez: transporting iron ore on the great northern railroad . Expert Publishing Inc.
  • SS Edmund Fitzgerald. (2010). Wikipedia. Retrieved July 10, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Edmund_Fitzgerald
  • War Department, (1893). Annual reports of the war department, Washington, DC: GPO. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=maEEAAAAYAAJ