It’s orange and brown from decades of hard winters, but the sign’s still there, between the still-active railroad track and an a shaky catwalk tucked behind winding barbed wire and vines. Suspended between 1914 and today, nestled between paired spotlights is an oversized yellow ‘5’. The aging stencil peels off a little more each season.
Dock 5 is an in-between place, fractured by its own hollowness: gaping ore pockets between rails, spaces between rust-locked cogs where birds nest… the ominous air occupying spaces where steps once were, before they lifted off on a high-dive.
Between anticipation and indulgence, steel and water, flying and falling, a few people, not quite history geeks, nor real adrenaline junkies, fill in the blanks.
This dock is not the first of its kind—as the number suggests—but somewhere closer to the eleventh, the first being constructed in 1893 for DM&IR Rail Road, the precursor to DM&IR (also see my article about the DM&IR car shops). Before the structure with the ‘5’ sign was assembled with steel and concrete in 1914, Duluth’s iron ore docks were built from timber. Not only was this new dock high-tech in its building materials, but it was also the largest of its kind on the Great Lakes, measuring 80 feet tall and more than 2,300 feet long.
Design by Function
I’ve written extensively about Great Lakes ore docks in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, so excuse me if the following information is repetitive, but allow me to describe the design-by-function architecture behind ore docks.
Ore shipped via docks like ‘5’ came in two forms: natural iron ore which comes raw from deep underground mines, and taconite, which is pelletized iron ore, often originating from shallow strip mines. By the confluence of dwindling natural resources and evolving mine and chemical technology, natural ore gradually gave way to taconite.
Regardless of the form, the ore destined for Duluthian docks would be loaded into 50-ton rail cars and pulled across the middle of Minnesota into Proctor, above Duluth, where cars would be sorted by steel mill’s orders before trains moved the cars down the hill. Offices between Dock 5 and Dock 6 stood on steel stilts at dock level (again, 80-feet up) and directed when and how the train engines pushed cars onto the docks. Dock 6 still stands beside its brother today and is currently the longest active dock of its type on the Great Lakes.
While all this was happening on land, ore vessels would arrive and tie to the dock below the chutes that lined each side, their holds spaced perfectly to accept the dock’s steel ore slides. Volleys of 70-ton, 90-ton, and 50-ton train cars would be emptied into the ore pockets in the hollow body of the dock, then the chutes would lower into the boat’s hold before, in succession, pocket doors opened and the dock handed off its burden to the vessel.
Dock 5’s record was loading 60 boats with 700,000 tons in two days, essentially filling and emptying the entire capacity of this huge dock 7 times.
World War II was a very busy time for Great Lakes ore docks while the American war machine moved the world of steel from the deep mines of Minnesota through ore boats and onto blast furnaces in the East. When one steam engine was pushing the steel’s main ingredient up onto Dock 5, however, some hot coals dropped from the machine and onto the creosote-treated rail ties. The trestle burst into flames that October day in 1943, and in spite of the best efforts of five West Duluth fire engines and four fire boats, the timber approach was lost, ushering in the steel approach still in place today.
Another crisis for the dock occurred in the middle of a violent summer storm on June 21, 1986. Residents of Great Lakes cities can attest to the power behind the storms that cross these bodies of water, the full effects of which were certainly felt atop the ore pockets that night. At the time, three retired ore boats were tethered between Dock 5 and a coal dock (now Hallett) just south of it.
The wind snapped the ropes securing the old ore carriers and they drifted, tied to each other, into Dock 5, raking the length of the structure with their hulls before blowing clear across the harbor and embedding themselves into the Superior, Wisconsin shoreline. The damage can still be seen today.
Sleeping with One Eye Open
No workers were hurt the day three ships scraped the side of the dock, etching their imprint on the closest thing they could find before they were hauled off for scrap. Dock 5 had already been silent for a season, taken out of service in 1985 because of its deteriorating timber pilings—an insult to injury, perhaps, as Dock 6 was retrofitted to move more ore than the two used to combined. “The old days were good,” I think the dock would say, “but they retired long ago.”
Today the steel approach is cut off from the rest of the railroad, and has shifted in recent years considerably, leaving gaps in the rails and walkways above the new highway that crosses below. In 2012 a Fraser outfit scrapped all of its ore chutes, making the dock look like a bulldog with its teeth pulled out. It remains one of the best places to watch trains move and ships load around Duluth, and I recommend it to tourists, as I now recommend it to you, for your next trip into the Zenith City.