SUPERIOR, Wis. – A truckload of corn cannot be driven to Asia. A train can’t take wheat all the way to Europe. For most international trade, agricultural commodities must be transported by ship. Commodities transfer from land to ships at ports. And when most folks think of ports, they think of oceans.
Imagine a port that exports a million and a half tons of grain annually – a port that ships about 35 million tons of cargo every year. It’s a port that’s among the best-20 tonnage ports in the nation. One would think it would be found on the Atlantic coast or the Pacific coast, or the Gulf of Mexico. Many would be amazed to discover the port is on the south shore of Lake Superior, shared by Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Port of Duluth-Superior is located at the mouth of the St. Louis River. It includes six grain-handling facilities, three iron-ore-handling facilities and about a dozen other docks for loading coal, limestone and all manner of freight. Components for wind-generated electricity flow into our nation there too. The port is equipped to handle almost any kind of cargo – liquids, solids and bulk. Agricultural exports that move through Duluth-Superior include wheat, beet-pulp pellets, soybeans and canola.
The port is connected to rail with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Canadian Pacific, the Canadian National and the Union Pacific railroads operating in Duluth or Superior. Major highway systems connect with the port through both Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The western terminus of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a water highway to the Atlantic Ocean, the port is 2,342 miles from the Atlantic coast of North America. It’s the farthest-inland freshwater port in our nation.
A significant number of port calls per year are made by oceangoing vessels, called “salties” by locals. Those ships are 740 feet or less in length. The size of the locks that raise or lower ships as they transit the St. Lawrence Seaway are what limits the size of oceangoing vessels entering the Great Lakes. Some ships, such as the 1,000-foot Mesabi Miner, operate only on the Great Lakes. Ships that only operate on the Great Lakes can last decades longer than salties because they never come in contact with corrosive sea water.
The port has about 49 miles of waterfront. During a recent fall morning the Superior side of the port had four ships moored. The Federal Seto, at the CHS Terminal, was taking on a cargo of wheat. At the Gavilon Grain facility the Ameriborg was being loaded with sugar-beet pellets. Near the Allouez neighborhood the Mesabi Miner awaited a load of iron-ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Dock. At Frazier Shipyard the Edward L. Ryerson, which has been idle awaiting an increase in iron-ore shipments, remained peacefully moored.
Wisconsin’s other major Great Lakes seaports also play a role in agricultural exports. The Port of Green Bay is a shipping point for liquid tallow. The port of Milwaukee has recently announced construction will begin in 2021 on a major agricultural-export facility. The construction is funded through an almost-$16-million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Other funding will come from private sources as well as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The intermodal bulk-export agricultural-transload facility will be located on Jones Island and will ship an estimated $40 million in cargo annually.
Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland. But Wisconsin also continues to be a major player in domestic and international shipping. No wonder there is a sailor on Wisconsin’s state flag!
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.