Northland Uncovered: Shipping History in the Twin Ports

A look at the Start of Shipping in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. – It’s hard to imagine Duluth and Superior without shipping, but at one time we didn’t have the Aerial Lift Bridge with thousand foot ships moving underneath.

“Really the history of the Port of Duluth-Superior is reflective of the history of this whole region,” explained Adele Yorde, the Public Relations Director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Ships moving in and out of the harbor is a well-known sight in the Northland, but the story of the start of shipping is not always known.

“This has always been a natural resources port,” said Yorde.

For hundreds of years, loads have been moving along the largest of the Great Lakes.

“It’s anchored with the agricultural products of the state, the timber industry, the mining industries,” said Yorde.

These industries wouldn’t be what developed this region if it weren’t for the explorers centuries ago.

“We really owe navigational knowledge really to those voyageurs who came here and watched the Native Americans use their birch bark canoes,” said Yorde.

From canoes to large wooden boats, to iron and steel ships, the business of shipping has shifted to fit the times throughout the years.

Beaver pelts drove the early part of the trade and by 1870 the first railroad came into the Twin Ports to help move a new product.

“It made sense to try to move grain. This became a huge grain port,” said Yorde.

That evolved into lumber and then the discovery of iron-ore drove another industry and commodity to the waterway.

“Those who saw ships leaving with grain back in the 1800s, early 1900s, realized that it would be much more efficient and economically feasible if there was a backhaul of some kind,” Yorde said.

It’s been an industry steady in the work, but always adjusting to change.

“We used to handle cars that came off with cranes back in the 1950s, these days we see a lot of wind turbine equipment. The grain moved out; at one time our port handled some ten million tons of grain and it’s between one and two million tons today,” said Yorde.

To make this all a success it required the hard work of hundreds.

“It was a lot of back-breaking labor. It was a lot of crew members with shovels and other pieces of equipment that slowly got mechanized,” Yorde said.

As time passed, new technology made things more efficient so loading wasn’t just labor-driven, which in turn made it possible to move more product.

“These barges and those early ships getting to be 300 feet in length, and pretty soon they were 500 feet in length, today we have our thousand footers,” said Yorde.

Today, the constant that remains is the industry that helped build this region.

“It’s not that the city was once an industrial port city, it still is, we make things and we ship things,” Yorde said.

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