The Commerce of the Great Lakes

Ray Stannard Baker

The Outlook/May 3, 1902

NOTHING so touches the imagination of the foreigner who visits the United States, especially if he be a ship loving Britain or German, as our back-yard seas—the Great Lakes. I shall not soon forget the astonishment expressed by a ship acquaintance, an Englishman, upon locking through the great canal at the “Soo,” where some dozen huge and to him outlandish vessels were lined up awaiting passage. He had seen New York Harbor and the Hudson, Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and they had not disturbed his British equanimity; but when he reached the channel of St. Mary’s Straits his monocle came down, so to speak. Here we were in a splendid vessel, the very counterpart of an ocean greyhound, threading without a pilot a long, tortuous, ship-thronged passageway, first to the right, then to the left, here apparently just grazing a sluggish log of a barge, there swerving almost over a danger buoy—seamanship as pretty as one will see anywhere in the world. All about were matchless hills now bright with early autumn, and little jewels of islands set in the clear water, with white sails flashing in and out among them. All day he had not stirred from the deck, and now that the ship was rising nobly in the lock, giving a clear vision of the extent of the shipping here gathered, he exclaimed:

“I did not know you had anything of this sort in America.”

“Most Americans don’t know it, either,” I answered.

And truly the Great Lakes furnish much food for wonder to the traveler who is familiar only with ocean transportation. Within less than fifty years the Lakes have developed a peculiar and striking life of their own, not remarkable merely for the typical American qualities of bustle and bigness, but possessing a diversity and picturesqueness quite unique. No great department of American activity has acquired a more distinct individuality than this, and none, indeed, is of more notable importance in our commercial and industrial development.

One of the things which impresses the stranger on the Great Lakes is the significant and perhaps prophetic absence of any evidence of war-craft; not a single frowning gun, not a turret, not a navy flag, is ordinarily to be seen, though, as a matter of fact, there are two or three harmless little armed vessels on the Lakes, maintained for the same reason, apparently, that prompted the Irishman to wear spats, “to kape up the stoyle.” No; the Lakes have room for business only, and though the commerce of two nations there mingles, a simple agreement made nearly eighty-five years ago has disposed of nearly all the expense and danger incident to the maintenance of armed craft, and with them of huge fortifications. One cannot but look upon this condition as prophetic of the time when other agreements may also clear the oceans of warships. It may be said, however, that while no mariner of the Lakes wishes to see more war-ships navigating his waters, the shipbuilders, who are many and enterprising, are more than anxious to help build war-ships for ocean use, even agreeing to construct them in sections, float the pieces down the St. Lawrence, and put them together again in deep water.

Another sight, strange and impressive to the foreign visitor, is the supremacy on these seas of a single flag, and that a flag not so widely familiar on the greater ocean courses. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of Lake vessels, nearly all fly the Stars and Stripes, only about ten percent of the whole number bearing the Canadian colors. No other nation is represented, though the commerce is far greater than that of the ancient European fairway, the Mediterranean Sea.

The craft, too, strike the visitor familiar only with salt-water vessels as strange, picturesque, ugly, intensely utilitarian. For the Lakes have developed highly differentiated types of their own. I think one is most surprised by the great size of many Lake vessels, comparing favorably, as they do, with the largest of ocean-going freighters. One has an impression that shallow water, crooked channels, canal locks, and river-mouth harbors preclude the use of such vessels; but while all these hindrances exist, the inventive acumen and energy of the Lake shipbuilder and the industry of the harbor engineer have been able to overcome all these difficulties, and vessels from four hundred to five hundred feet long are now by no means uncommon. While a few passenger ships are as graceful in line and as complete in equipment as an ocean greyhound, most of the craft, big and little, impress the stranger as being hopelessly awkward and ugly, but with the ugliness of high utility. A strange sight is the whaleback, an invention of the Lakes, a long, blunt-ended steel hulk with rounded gunwales, which, from its appearance and its manner of rooting and rolling through the water, has earned among Lake sailors the highly expressive name “pig.” But in commerce which demands of its vessels the largest possible “emptiness” commensurate with safety, the whaleback is a valued adjunct, for its huge steel shell will hold an enormous cargo. Indeed, all Lake vessels possess a much larger freight capacity in proportion to their size than ocean-going vessels. The voyages being short, it is unnecessary for them to take on so much coal or provisions, and many of them, indeed, are nothing more than huge, all but empty barges designed for towing. It is not unusual to see several of these hulks roped together and towed by a steamer, thereby enabling a single engine and ship’s crew to transport an immense tonnage of freight and to do it at a cost unbelievably small. To the ocean traveler these rows of vessels constitute a most unique and unusual sight.

The fully equipped vessels are also built on plans differing widely from ocean craft, appearing abnormally spread out and wholly lacking in the jaunty compactness of the salt-water freighter. The machinery and coal-bunkers are placed far astern, and the crew’s quarters far forward, so that if the captain wishes to look at the machinery he must take a sort of afternoon stroll the full length of the vessel to do it. Weighted thus in the stern with engines and coal, the prow of an empty vessel sometimes shows far out of the water, reminding one of nothing so much as a Lake Superior birch canoe, its Indian owner sitting paddling in the stern with the prow lifted entirely out of the water. But this arrangement is highly serviceable because it leaves the whole waist of the vessel open and free, so that a load of wheat or iron ore can be dumped in with the least possible expenditure of time or energy.

The Lakes possess many other odd craft, not the least among which are the huge railway ferryboats, many of them plying across the straits and rivers, as at Mackinaw and Detroit, bearing safely and swiftly entire passenger or freight trains—often as many as thirty loaded cars—thus closing the gap in the transcontinental railroad lines. Indeed, ferries have now been built for braving the Lakes themselves, making nothing of a trip from side to side of Lake Michigan with a heavy load of cars. Another development is the ice-crusher of the “Soo,” a powerful craft built to force a channel in the ice which sometimes blocks the passage between Lake Superior and Lake Huron before the fleet has all passed. It is nothing unusual to see the ice-crusher forging its way noisily through three feet of solid blue ice, with a long line of frost-coated vessels following in its wake and escaping to open water. By this means the enterprising ship-owner sometimes extends the open season several days and earns the profits of another cargo or two. For at best, like no other widely navigated body of water in the world, the Lakes are open only about two hundred and twenty-two days in the year, and all the enormous traffic is ice-bound and quiet during the winter. Yet the ship-owners utilize even the winter months. After the last voyage in the fall scores of large vessels crowd into the rivers and harbors, especially at Chicago, where they are filled with wheat or other freight and become floating storage warehouses, an adjunct to the elevators, at the same time being prepared the moment navigation opens in the spring to sail eastward with their cargoes.

The sailing ship, almost invariably schooner-rigged, is still largely in evidence on the Lakes, engaging chiefly in the lumber trade; but the day of sails is passing, and the canvas of the schooners grows blacker every year with coal smoke. Not a few vessels of the barge order, ordinarily towed, are partially rigged with stumpy masts and sails to assist in favoring winds, or, in case the barge is cast adrift, to enable it to find its way lamely into port. A few old-fashioned side-wheel steamers, broad and flat and ugly, used largely for passenger excursions, are reminiscent of the Mississippi River in its palmier days.

Few people possess any idea of the immense volume of this Lake business—a vast shuttle-race over twelve hundred miles long in its greatest course (from Duluth to Ogdensburg), so thronged with the shuttles of commerce that there is rarely a time on any of the Lakes when the mariner cannot see the hulks or the smoke of many ships within the horizon. The tonnage owned on the Lakes is greater than the entire merchant fleet of any nation in the world except Great Britain and Germany. In steam tonnage the Lakes nearly equal the German Empire, though the individual vessels will not average as large and costly. Nearly a third of all vessel-tonnage owned by citizens of the United States, including all our much-prized coastwise traffic on both oceans, together with our foreign shipping and our internal river business, plies the waters of the Lakes. One-eighth of the commerce of the United States passes through the “Soo” Canal—Lake vessels carrying upwards of 40,000,000 tons of freight annually, valued at $500,000,000. It is an oft-repeated comparison, that of the canal at the “Soo” with the Suez Canal, showing how much greater is the tonnage that passes St. Mary’s locks in the nine months of open water every year than that which passes the Suez Canal in a whole year—a comparison legitimate and striking enough, despite the fact that the Suez cargoes, composed largely of costly manufactured goods, are more valuable than the bulk raw materials transported through the American canal. Another point of interest lies in the fact that practically every ship on the Lakes has been built in Lake ship-yards, all of which—in Chicago, Cleveland, Superior, Detroit, and elsewhere—possess a high efficiency of equipment and are conducted with boundless enterprise. During the past two years every yard has been crowded to its fullest capacity in turning out new vessels for the Lake service, nearly all being the latest models of steel steamers. And it is Lake capital and Lake energy that are behind the shipbuilding enterprises, and the vessels themselves are largely owned by residents of Lake cities. During the last few years, and more particularly during the last year, there has been a marked tendency toward the formation of great fleets of vessels under a single ownership. The United States Steel Corporation, for instance, which is by all odds the most deeply interested of any concern in the welfare of Lake commerce, owns no fewer than one hundred and fifteen of the finest Lake freighters, employing this huge fleet for bringing iron ore from the Lake Superior mines to the mills of Pittsburg, Chicago, and other centers of steel production. All these vessels are managed by a single department, headed by a vice-president of the great corporation, and the vessels are kept running with all the precision of a railroad system, being directed by telegraph and telephone, thereby rendering possible notable economies in the company’s business. Other fleets engage chiefly in wheat carriage, others are devoted to lumber, others to coal, and there is still a large body of what is known as “wild” tonnage—that is, vessels ready to take a cargo anywhere at any time.

But the development in the vessels themselves, while striking enough, is by no means the most marvelous feature of Lake commerce. The secret of successful water transportation lies not so much in the navigation of loaded vessels from port to port, though this feature of the work appeals most strongly to the lay imagination, but rather in the loading and unloading of cargoes. It is in these respects that expenses roll up and that precious time is wasted, and’ here it is that the Lake shipowner has shown his greatest genius. It is well within the truth to say that nowhere else in the world has the art of filling and emptying vessels reached the state of perfection that it has at Duluth, Conneaut, and Buffalo.

Iron and steel making is said to be the basic industry, the industry upon which all others rest. Now, the important feature in iron and steel making is that of transportation; in other words, the capacity of getting the coal and iron ore together cheaply. Cheap transportation means cheap steel, and cheap steel means supremacy in the world’s markets—a supremacy which the United States has now attained. It will be seen, therefore, how important becomes matter of loading and the unloading the vessels of the Lakes. If it were necessary to trundle iron ore aboard ship in wheelbarrows, our steel industry to-day would be in its infancy. But so perfect has become the machinery of shipping that from the moment the iron ore leaves the mines of the Lake Superior country, until it issues from the steel mills in the form of rails and other products, hand labor scarcely touches it, every step in the long process being the work of cunningly devised machinery. Think of mining iron ore and loading it on cars at a cost of five cents a ton! The ore is not even shoveled or blasted, but scooped up by a big steam bucket from the hillside and dumped into steel cars with openings in the bottom, so that upon reaching the docks a turn of the wrist will send the entire load rushing downward into a long chute the end of which rests in the ship lying ready below, or else debouches into a storage pocket in which the ore is retained until a ship is ready. And such docks as these are! At Duluth they look like stupendous black bridges yet unfinished, one end resting on the land, the other reaching for the other side of the harbor. They are so huge that the greatest vessels lie hidden alongside them, and the ore trains on top look like rows of children’s blocks. A single one of these docks with its approaches at Duluth cost nearly $l,000,000, and the total length of all the ore docks in Lake Superior exceeds five miles. By this system of car-dumping the largest steamers, holding from five to eight thousand tons, can be loaded in three or four hours, at a cost of less than three cents a ton.

Wonderful as is this system of loading, still greater are the achievements in unloading. At the ports of Lake Erie a long steel arm dangling at the end of a bridgelike crane reaches down with almost human precision and takes handful after handful of the ore, tons at a time, lifts it out of the vessel hold, swings it majestically to one side and drops it on the mountainous stock heaps, whence in good time it is loaded on cars for transportation to the mills of Pennsylvania. I think no sight in the world of machinery, save in the steel-mills themselves, is more awesome than the mighty perfection of these ore-unloaders. Nowhere shall you feel more like bowing to the greatness of human genius.

Thus the Lake shippers are able to transport from Lake Superior to Lake Erie in nine months of open water nearly 20,000,000 tons of ore, paying a freight rate of some sixty cents a ton—by far the cheapest freight rate in the world. In other words, it cost (in 1898) for Lake freight 1.13 cents to transport a ton for a mile, or about a quarter of the cheapest railroad freight.

Iron-ore transportation constitutes the largest part of the Lake commerce, but there is also an immense volume of wheat shipped from Duluth, Chicago, and Milwaukee to the East, mostly to Buffalo. Here also notable improvements have been made in loading and unloading, so that a ship can be filled in an hour or two, and emptied in half a day.

At one end of the Lakes, the western end, lie the great fields, forests, and mines of the country, at the other end the factories and mills; the Lakes are the natural connection between the two. From the western end branch the transcontinental railway lines, reaching to the Pacific and connecting with ships to China and the Orient; from the eastern end stretch the lines to the Atlantic coast and thus to the crowded shores of Europe. The Lakes are the cheap, easy link between the two; and it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the part they have played in the development of the whole country. Raw materials in bulk—iron ore, copper, salt, lumber, grain, and so on—naturally flow eastward along the Lakes, while ships bound west carry the completed products of factory and mill. Coal is the greatest exception—a raw product, mined in the East and flowing westward, so that many ships that come down loaded with ore, etc., go back loaded with coal. By this means the give and take of trade is maintained and transportation is cheapened. Another movement little mentioned but yearly growing more important is the translake shipping from the United States, the country of progress and manufactures, to Canada, the country of undeveloped resources and conservatism. Today we ship to Canada nearly twice the value of goods shipped by the mother country. Great Britain, and the Canadians send us a very large proportion of their exports.

No consideration of the commerce of the Great Lakes would be complete without mention of the hardy Lake mariner. And here, too, new environments have developed a peculiar type, as different from the typical “salt” as the waters of the Lakes are different from the seas. One can understand how the ocean seaman might naturally look with contempt on the navigator of the “fresh-water ponds,” but it is surprising to find that the Lake mariner expresses equal contempt for the “salt.” And many a “salt,” tempted by higher wages and better treatment, has come to the Lakes only to have his seasoned stomach upset in the first sharp squall, much to the amusement of the Lake men, and to find the work so much livelier than that of the ocean craft that he has been willing enough to go back to the sea. For storms on the Lakes are sharp, short, and violent, and the harbors, locks, and rivers make a great diversity of work—and hard work, too. Instead of shipping for a voyage and standing the possibility of being “shanghaied” at ports, or abused during months at sea, the Lake mariner, engaged for the season or by the month, reaches port often, is industrious and sober, has a family at the end of his run, and makes enough in nine months to permit him to enjoy his winter vacation if he cares to do so. The officers, while men of marked intelligence, have little knowledge of scientific navigation, such as is necessary to set a course at sea, their runs being short and never far from a lee shore; but they are past-master pilots, deeply learned in the art of wriggling through crowded channels, making narrow harbors in high seas, and gliding up to docks and into canal locks with scientific accuracy. Also, they are fine fellows, bluff, hearty, full of stories, and fond of their life—and their pay is good. Over forty thousand men find employment in and about the ships of the Lakes.

In spite of the high serviceability of these waterways, the breezy Lake dweller is not yet contented; he is busily devising methods for still further making his backyard seas serve his purposes. Apparently something about the Lakes gets hold of the imagination of men and inspires them with daring schemes. There is something peculiarly audacious in the thought of turning these big bodies of water into mill-ponds and harnessing them to the wheels of industry; think of the turbines that whir with the waters taken from above Niagara Falls, and of Lake Superior at work producing electricity at the “Soo”! But it is in the way of extending the possibilities of navigation in the Lakes that the greatest strides have been made and the most wonderful dreams dreamed. Our fathers thanked Providence for a nearly perfect waterway, but our contemporaries are improving on Providence Witness the splendid system of canals now carrying Lake waters. The people of Chicago have recently connected Lake Michigan with a tributary of the Mississippi—a splendid canal thirty-three miles long, costing over $30,000,000. Though now used exclusively for drainage waters, it will some time bear ships from the Lakes bound southward for New Orleans. Then there is the “Soo” canal, containing the largest and costliest lock in the world—or the two “Soo” canals, for the Canadians also have a smaller canal of their own; and the Welland Canal, which enables ships to pass around Niagara Falls and thus outward along the St. Lawrence River to the sea. Indeed, it was only recently that these daring Lake shippers, much to the consternation of the ocean transportation interests, attempted a through line of steamers from Chicago to Liverpool—a project which, though temporarily unsuccessful, will someday be the means of carrying the products of our Western fields and mines directly to the doors of Europe, at a cost which will still further increase the profits of our farmers and manufacturers. Then there is the new Erie Canal, deepened and made more useful, in which the Lake engineers see the nucleus of a magnificent system of deep waterways to connect the Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean—a canal which will enable the largest ships to pass through central New York, down the Hudson and out to sea, thereby saving expensive transshipments at Buffalo and New York. Another well-advanced plan provides for the connection by a canal, through Canadian territory, of the lower point of Georgian Bay with Lake Ontario, thereby saving hundreds of miles to vessels bound to the mouth of the St. Lawrence, eliminating lower Lake Huron, the Detroit River, and all Lake Erie from the voyage, and avoiding Niagara Falls and the Welland Canal. A glance at a map will show instantly the possibilities of such a canal.

At first sight, one who beholds the activities and perfection of the present system of Lake commerce is tempted to declare that this is the full and most significant fruitage of American energy and enterprise, but a very little further observation soon prompts the conviction that the commerce of the Lakes, wonderful though it be, is yet only in the infancy of its development. It is, indeed, only as old as the West and the North, and anyone who knows of the boundless plains beyond the upper Mississippi, the mines of Minnesota and Wisconsin; the forests, fields, and minerals of Canada, knows that they have only just been touched by human enterprise.


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