Marine Commerce of the Duluth-Superior Harbor (through 1922)
There are not many people, comparatively speaking, who know that Duluth is one of the great shipping ports of the world.
They know that New York, Liverpool, Hamburg and Hong Kong are great shipping ports, but they never think that Duluth can, by any stretch of imagination, be brought into the same class as these imperial cities. Duluth is only a lake port, they argue, and while her commerce may be of very respectable proportions for a lake port, she can never pretend to comparison with any of the great ocean ports.
And yet Duluth can compare with any of them. A few years ago, perhaps four or five, James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern railway, and a man who is not given to loose and unconsidered speaking, in the course of an address enumerated the great ports of the world as standing in the following order: Duluth, first; London, second; New York, third; Chicago, fourth; Liverpool, fifth.
As a matter of fact, -it is almost an impossibility to give Duluth a definite place in the list of the world’s great ports. What the basis was upon which Mr. Iill made his list is unknown, but there must have been a large element of conjecture about it.
The reason for this statement is a simple one. The ocean ports of the United States, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Savannah, etc., keep an accurate record of vessel movements, but only of those engaged in foreign trade. This record is compiled by the custom house officials, whose only interest is that of the foreign trade. The vast fleet of vessels that plies in the coastwise traffic of the country, running solely between ports of the United States, never comes within the ken of the custom house, and therefore their movements are unrecorded and the magnitude of the commerce they conduct is never the subject of long tables of figures. Nor is there any system in vogue at the ocean ports by which this information can be obtained.
There is little doubt, for instance, that the coastwise trade from the port of New York will equal, even if it does not surpass, the city’s foreign commerce, both in the tonnage of the vessels employed and the value and quantity of the goods they transport, but there are no records to show such a condition; no statistics to which one can refer.
On the Great Lakes, and especially at Duluth, things are different.
Here the work of watching and recording the movements of vessels and the quantity of the various kinds of merchandise they transport, is in the hands of two agencies-the United States customs officers and the United States engineers in charge of harbor improvements. In the early history of the port this work was rather imperfectly performed, but in the last twenty years it has been systematized and developed so that now, besides recording the number of vessels that enter and clear from the port, with their tonnage, a record is also made of the various articles that go to make up their cargoes, the quantity of each that the vessels transport, and their market value. Printed blanks are furnished to each vessel that enters or sails from the port, on which the various items are noted by the master and turned over to the engineer’s office. Values of cargoes are figured from market reports, trade journals and the reports of merchants. The system in vogue at Duluth is so comprehensive and all-embracing that its value has been recognized by the department of commerce at Washington, which is taking steps to put a similar system in force at all the ports of the United States. For the purpose of instituting a strict comparison the government engineers in charge of the work at Duluth for some years made determined efforts to get complete records of the traffic of the ocean ports of the country, but were finally compelled to abandon it as an utter impossibility under the existing conditions.
However, the custom house records of the marine commerce of ports on the Great Lakes are very incomplete, for the reason that no account is kept of the movement of freight or passage of vessels between subports of a district, and, as in the case of the Duluth and Superior customs district on Lake Superior, numerous subports are included which do an important business with each other, none of which is required to be reported 147 to the custom houses, a large amount of the commerce of any particular port is unknown tp the custom houses. Furthermore, a vessel may enter or clear from the port or any subport of a district, report its cargo, and subsequently load or unload the whole or any part of its cargo at any other subport of the same district without further action at the custom house.
It is only by figures that the tremendous commerce of the Duluth-Superior harbor can be appreciated. Here are a few for the calendar year 1909, during which the season of navigation lasted 250 days: Total vessel freight received and shipped,32,529,301 tons; value of freight received and shipped, $261,509, – 159; increase in freight tonnage over 1890, 1,040 per cent; increase in freight tonnage over 1908,36.69 per cent; number of vessels that entered and cleared during 1909, 13, 259; total registered tonnage of vessels,35, 150, 934; net average registered tonnage of vessels, 3,058. Of the total number of vessels that entered and departed all but 750 were steam vessels, the others coming in either by sail or as tows. The average number of tons of cargo received per day at Duluth-Superior during the season of navigation was 27, 261, while the average number of tons of cargo shipped per day during the same period was 102, – 855. The greatest quantity of any one article brought in was coal, the statistics pertaining to which are treated exhaustively elsewhere. General merchandise, under which heading may be included scores of products, such as hardware, dry goods, crockery, groceries, etc., amounted to 211, 735 tons, with a value of $39, 170, 975. Machinery and manufactured iron come next, with a tonnage of 355, 264, and a value of $10, 957, 490. Other items in the list of products brought to the port are cement, fish, oils, salt, sand, stone, etc. The total imports for the year were 6, 815, – 410 tons, and the value $75,504, 761.
In the course of a recent magazine article by Mr. J. J. Iill he has the following to say about the commerce of Duluth: “Twenty years ago Duluth was a little town with only a promising local trade. Today it is one of the great shipping ports of the world, with unlimited possibilities of expansion.
The following table gives a basis of comparison of the lake traffic with that of the great ports of the world: Tonnage.
New York, 1905………….. ……………….. 30,314,062 Chicago, 1906 …………………….. ……….. 15, 638,051Liverpool and Birkenhead, 1906 ………………. 16, 147, 856 London, 1905 ………………………. ……… 25 , 867, 485 Duluth and Superior, 1907 ……………………. 34, 786, 705 “The growth and the cheapness of traffic on the Great Lakes are due in no small degree to the effectiveness of terminal machinery at their head. Duluth and Superior handled more tons in 1907 than any other seaport, and it was all carried into or taken out of the port by a few railways. These cities have less than 300 miles of terminal track, as against 2,000 miles at Buffalo.
But at Duluth-Superior a cargo of 12,000 tons of ore can be loaded in an hour and a half. So much better are terminal facilities at the head of the lakes than elsewhere that they handle in seven and a half months of open navigation more business than any other port in the world handles in twelve, and do it more satisfactorily.” It is in its shipments that Duluth harbor excels, and in tonnage these quadruple the receipts and more than double them in value. The following table will show just what these shipments consist of and the value of each commodity for 1909: Barley, bushels………………… 9, 606, 275 Copper, tons …………………… 30, 834 Corn, bushels………………….. 1, 248, 439 Flax, bushels………………….. 9, 480, 917 Flour, barrels ………………….. 4, 161,333 General merchandise, tons ……….. 20, 967 Iron ore, tons …………………. 22, 478, 639 Lumber, thousand feet………….. 267, 696 Oats, bushels ………………….. 3, 821, 258 Rye, bushels …………………… 471, 758 Shingles, tons…………………. 75, 898 W heat, bushels…………………54,344,029 W ool, tons……………………. 3, 650 Unclassified, tons ………………. 44, 849 Value.
$ 5, 923, 280 7, 111,380 896, 727 16, 180, 732 23, 804, 706 3, 878, 895 59,568,393 5,353, 920 1, 684,373 325,393 2, 276, 940 55, 176,553 2,555,000 1, 268, 106 Total value ……. …………. $186,004,398 Total tons…………………………………..25, 713, 891 The above figures relate to the commerce of 1909, and it will 149 be noticed that iron ore, wheat, flour, flax, copper, barley and lumber lead in the order named. The copper shown is mainly from the Montana mines and comes to Duluth for transportation to the East for refining. The iron ore comes to the city from the Vermilion and Mesaba ranges, which are only from seventy to 100 miles distant, while as a shipping point for wheat Duluth leads the world, this being the natural shipping point for the Dakotas and other great wheat growing states of the northwest, while even some of the Canadian northwest wheat seeks this port. Most of the flour that figures in the shipments comes from the Minneapolis mills, and comes to the port seeking the cheaper rates that can be obtained to the eastern markets by the water haul. The flour shipments are about the only item entering into the commerce of the port that shows a decrease in recent years. This is due to the extension of railway facilities to other ports on the lakes, and the competition that has arisen in consequence.
The banner year in lake commerce here was 1907, when 13, 942 vessels entered and cleared, with a registered tonnage of 35,574, – 805, and the total value of their cargoes was $287,529, 694. During the panic year of 1908 the commerce of the ports showed a falling off of $64, 415,374, but the figures of 1909 showed the revival of business by an increase of $38,394, 839 in value over the commerce of the preceding year.
The growth of lake commerce has been meteoric in its rapidity, and great as has been its growth in the past, the indications point to an equally rapid rate of growth in the future. The great factor is, of course, iron ore and this appears to be almost inexhaustible. New iron ore beds are being discovered and developed, and with the rapidly increasing demand for steel shipments must continue to increase. It is interesting to observe in looking back over the records that this vast business is a development of the last sixteen years entirely. Not that they were not mining and shipping ore from the North before that time, but it was by way of Two Harbors, and the port of Duluth-Superior had neither the railroad nor dockage facilities to handle the traffic prior to that time.
The first record of iron ore as a factor in the commerce of the port is found in the custom house records of 1892, when mention is made of the shipment of 4,500 tons. In the custom house records of 1894 the figures show that 493, 127 tons were 150 Ampshipped from the port, while Superior shipped 34, 920 tons. In 1895 Duluth shipped 845, 632 tons and Superior dropped to 6, 950 tons. Since that time both cities have steadily progressed in ore shipments until they have reached the present gigantic proportions.
The years from 1890 to 1901 inclusive were years of very gradual progression in local lake commerce. Each year showed a little gain over the preceding year, and the gain was almost automatic in its regularity. For instance, the entire commerce of the combined ports in 1890 was only 3,000,000 tons, and in the next twelve years it had only reached the figure of 13,000,000 tons, or a gain of slightly less than a million tons a year on an average. In 1902 the lake commerce took a sudden jump to a trifle over 17,000,000 tons, in 1903 to 18,000,000 tons, dropped back in 1904 to 17,000,000 tons again, in 1905 jumped to 23, – 000,000 tons, in 1906 to 27,000,000 tons, and in 1907 to the high water mark of 35,000,000 tons. Truly a tremendous advance, and the greater part of it accomplished in the last eight years, or from 13,000,000 tons in 1901 to the present figures of 32,000,000 tons for the year 1909. No port in the world has ever shown such an enormous and speedy development of its commerce, and no other port in the world, considered in relation to its population, can show such an enormous commerce per capita.
Prior to 1895 the custom house records were kept in such a manner that they only show the gross amount of the various articles entered and shipped, and there was no attempt made to estimate or ascertain their value. This was a work that the government engineers undertook at that time and since then the records have been kept carefully. The following table will show the growth in the commerce of Duluth-Superior, both in tonnage and value: Total receipts Total value, and shipments, receipts and Year. tons. shipments.
1895 …………………… 6,32,351 $ 95,000000 1896 …………………….. 7, 886, 833 111, 676, 900 1897 …………………….. 8, 475, 224 118,551, 185 11889988 . …………………….. 1100, , 112277, , 2288 11 114422, , 664433..002200 1899 …………………….. 11, 608,088 157, 143, 966 1900 …………………….. 11, 725, 245 135, 109, 196 151 IIISTORY OF ST. LOUIS COUNTY 1901 …………………….. 12, 973,373 161,305, 819 1902 …………………….. 17,505, 793 194, 444, 695 1903 …………………….. 17, 966, 718 177,594, 212 1904 …………………….. 16, 617,017 157, 233, 209 1905 …………………….. 22, 676, 145 196, 751,583 1906 …………………….. 29, 171, 221 251, 899, 844 1907 …………………….. 34, 786, 705 287,529, 694 1908 …………………….. 23, 797, 162 223, 114,320 1909 …………………….. 32,529,301 261,509, 159 Total receipts for fifteen years, tons ……………. 264, 171, 437 Total value for fifteen years ………………… $2, 671,506, 159 During the same period of fifteen years there has been a significant change in the character of the vessels that transport this vast commerce. For a while the whaleback type of boats was considered to be the last thing in vessel construction, owing to their great carrying capacity and presumable safety. Today the? whalebacks are no longer built and have practically disappeared.
They have gone with the large fleet of sailing vessels and tows that once formed so important a part of the carrying system.
Today the commerce of the lakes is conducted in great steel vessels that rival the ocean steamships in size. As a consequence, the arrival and departure of vessels in the past fifteen years, while it does not show any startling increase in numbers, does show a vast increase in tonnage and in the average tonnage per vessel. The 10,000 and 12,000-ton freighters are now numerous and are able to stow cargoes that would have taxed the carrying capacity of a score of ships only a decade ago. The following table will illustrate the changes that have taken place in the freight fleet of the Great Lakes in recent years: Total ves- Total Average Tow ves- sels ent’d registered net sels ent’d. and dep’t’d. tonnage. tonnage.
1895 …………. 875 10, 986 11, 434, 272 1, 172 1896 …………. 924 10, 948 13,353,068 1,351 1897 …………. 907 9, 758 12, 845, 865 1, 434 1898 ………… 972 10, 870 14, 135, 237 1, 480 1899 …………. 1,090 11,526 14, 433,501 1, 435 1900 …………. 921 11,334 14,387,068 1, 443 A MfARINE COMMERCE 1901 …………. 1,072 13, 258 17, 245, 719 1,529 1902 …………. 1,031 15, 866 23, 811, 275 1, 667 1903 …………. 973 14,098 23, 250,358 1, 841 1904 …………. 771 11, 761 19, 879, 783 1, 914 1905 …………. 732 13,549 26, 216, 154 2, 166 1906 …………. 656 14, 854 32, 842,351 2, 417 1907 …………. 444 13, 942 35,574, 805 2, 948 1908 …………. 276 10, 488 26,059, 959 2, 877 1909 …………. 379 13, 259 35, 150, 934 3,058 The movement of the principal articles entering into the marine commerce of Duluth-Superior since 1899 to and including the year 1909 was as follows in quantity and value: Year 1900-Flour,5, 949,012 barrels, value $22,308, 795; general merchandise, $23,388, 100; iron ore,5, 979, 740 tons, value $13, – 454, 415; lumber, $4,534, 614; wheat,30, 776, 404 bushels, value $21, – 543, 483; wool, 7,348 tons, value $1, 910, 480.
Year 1901-Flax, $18, 750,000; flour, 6,305,013 barrels, value $26,380,052; general merchandise, value $26, 917, 625; iron ore, 6, 464, 232 tons, value $14,544, 726; lumber, $6,572, 640; wheat,37, – 781, 769 bushels, value $27, 202, 874; wool, 8, 434 tons, value $4, 217,000.
Year 1902-Flax, $19, 237, 617; flour, 7, 660,326 barrels, value $30, 641,304; general merchandise, $40, 935, 600; iron ore, 10, 884, – 356 tons, value $24, 489, 801; lumber, $6,353, 876; wheat, 41,007,337 bushels, value $30,345, 429; wool, 10, 107 tons, value $5,053,500.
Year 1903-Flax, $16, 792, 602; flour,5, 967, 685 barrels, value $26, 854,582; general merchandise, $35, 769, 855; iron ore, 10,387, 457 tons, value $24, 410,524; lumber, $6, 261, 984; wheat, 25, 995,333 bushels, value $20,536,313; oats, barley, rye and corn, $5, 286, 773; wool, 7,321 tons, value $3, 660,500.
Year 1904-Flax, $15, 445,340; flour, $19, 826, 769; general merchandise, $30,053, 100; iron ore, 9, 860,547 tons, value $21, 693, 203; lumber, $5, 914,316; wheat, 20,067,365 bushels, value $20, 879,060; oats, barley, rye and corn, $6, 751, 228; wool, 7, 478 tons, value $7, 478, 900.
Year 1905-Flax, $20, 188, 213; flour, $21, 443, 220; general merchandise, $36, 177,570; iron ore, 15,507, 125 tons, value $37, 217, 100; lumber, $6, 659,376; wheat, 27, 733, 263 bushels, value $26,346, 600; oats, barley, rye and corn, $7, 731, 782; wool, 7, 925 tons, value $7, 925,000.
153 Year 1906-Iron ore, 19,368, 186 tons, value $48, 420, 464; flour,5,387, 292 barrels, value $20, 741,074; wheat,39, 477, 971 bushels, value $30,003, 258; flax, $26,051, 862; lumber, $8, 648, 483.
Year 1907-Iron ore, 23,590, 969 tons, value $62, 987, 887; flour,5, 136, 869 barrels, value $25, 184,345 wheat,58, 298, 224 bushels, value $47,332, 260; flax, $19,585,389; lumber, $6, 930, 800.
Year 1908-Flour, 4, 289, 902 barrels, value $23, 165, 471; flax, $20, 104,547; barley, oats, rye and corn, $6, 975, 161; iron ore, 14, – 064, 633 tons, value $34,598, 997; lumber, $3,539,538; wheat,53, – 057, 105 bushels, value $54, 118, 247; wool, 4,598 tons, value $2,390, 960.
Year 1909-General merchandise, $43,049, 870; manufactured iron, $9, 108, 840; flax, $16, 180, 732; flour, 4, 161,333 barrels, value $23, 804, 706; iron ore, 22, 478, 639 tons, value $58,568,393; lumber, $5,353, 920; wheat,54,344,029 bushels, value $55, 176,553; wool,3, 650 tons, value $2,555,000; barley, corn, oats and rye, $8, 829, 773.
Coal is omitted from the above compilation, having been treated of elsewhere.
The Duluth-Superior harbor comprises the Bay of Superior, the Bay of Allouez, Bay of St. Louis and the lower reaches of the St. Louis river, all completely landlocked by nature with the exception of the Superior entry, an ample passageway to permit the entrance and departure of all sizes of vessels and to allow the water discharged by the St. Louis and Nemadji rivers to flow into the lake. In order to shorten the route of vessels bound to and from Duluth docks the canal was cut across Minnesota Point by the people of Duluth and subsequently taken in charge by the Government engineers in common with the other portions of the harbor.
The landlocked subdivisions enumerated above present a harbor frontage aggregating forty-nine miles which, if utilized for the building of docks and slips would provide sufficient room to tie up all the navies of the world. The dusky aborigines in their canoes and French-Canadian voyageurs with their batteaux found no difficulty in navigating any part of this great harbor and pushed their barques on up the river to the foot of the rapids, making Fond du Lac the final point of debarkation for their wares, whence trails and portages radiated to more remote points.
The routes of modern commerce likewise follow the lines of least resistance, but the merchandise handled has grown to such bulky proportions as to entirely revolutionize the primitive methods of the savage and the fur trader. The advent of the steamship disclosed the necessity of deeper channels at many harbors on the Great Lakes, and the first improvements planned for this harbor contemplated the establishment of 10-foot channels, that depth being considered adequate for all future needs.
The fallacy of this theory was demonstrated before many years, however, and all the dredging recently done has been carried to a depth of twenty feet or more, which is none too deep for the modern freighter of thousands of tons capacity.
In modern as well as in ancient times, the largest cities have usually been built upon the shores of navigable waters, and the nations which have attained commercial supremacy have been those whose people acquired the mastery of the sea. The present ascendancy of England is due more to her geographical situation, which naturally led a large percentage of her population to adopt a sea faring life, than to any other influence. In spite of the wondrous development of overland transportation facilities, mankind still depends upon the great natural, free highways of the earth for floating from place to place such of the bulky commodities which are necessary to modern, complex existence.
There was no “fiat” or strained, unnatural condition connected with the founding of a great city at the head of Lake Superior; it was inevitable as soon as the great empire contiguous to this location began to be inhabited and developed by civilized people, and the future growth of that city and the development of the commerce of this harbor is as certain as the peopling of that vast region lying to the north and west of a line drawn from the Sault Ste. Marie to the head of the Gulf of California. The shortest and most natural route of the produce of this immense extent of territory in its journey to the markets of Europe and the Eastern states lies through Duluth harbor.
Of all the articles that arrive at the port of Duluth by way of vessel navigation on the great lakes, coal takes the lead, not only in bulk and tonnage, but also in value. During the year 1909, for instance, there was received at this port a total of 5, 662, 707 tons of coal, valued at $21, 815, 932. Of this vast total 1, 137,378 tons consisted of anthracite coal, and 4,525,329 tons was bituminous.
The coal business of the port has steadily grown since it started in 1871 and is still growing, but the conditions under which it is prosecuted have materially changed since the early days.
There is a good reason for this expansion of the coal trade of Duluth. In the first place, there is no coal mined in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or the Dakotas. It is true that in North Dakota there are extensive deposits of lignite, but this is reckoned as possessing only from three-fifths to three-quarters of the heating efficiency of bituminous coal, and for industrial purposes, where steam has to be generated, it is but little employed. That, and timber, are the only fuels to be found in the vast northeast country, and even timber in many parts of the country is a rarity, and its initial cost with the cost of transportation added, makes it an impossible fuel. This is also true of a large part of Canada in proximity to the boundary line, which has to rely for its fuel supply on the United States, and for which Duluth is the logical distributing center. Great as is the coal trade of the port therefore, at the present time, it may yet be considered as in its infancy. Every year, as the great stretches of country through the Northwest are settled up, the demand for fuel increases, and it will take a wise man to predict the time when the demand will reach a stationary figure.
In the early 70s the coal trade of the port was not of very large proportions. For one thing there were few railroads, and the railroads are the greatest consumers of coal in the country.
Again, the country was then densely wooded, and for some years the only fuel used by the existing railroads was wood. The railroads had big land grants as a rule along their rights of way, and it was much cheaper for them to cut the timber and burn it in their engines than to buy coal. But this supply also in time became depleted, and the commerce of the railroads was growing so rapidly that they were forced to resort to coal, until now it is and has been for years their only fuel. The same conditions existed in the country which they traversed. There were no large cities and even few towns. Such as there were generally burned wood. But as the country became settled up, the cities grew, manufactories came in, and a demand for coal arose. This demand still continues and grows steadily. The water highway of the great lakes was the only practicable way for them to get coal, on account of the cheapness of water transportation as compared with railroads, and while a certain measure of railroad 156 MARINE COMMERCE transportation is necessary after the coal reaches Duluth, it is a mere bagatelle compared with what it would be if the entire haul from the eastern mines had to be by rail.
In 1895 the commerce of the two ports of Duluth and Superior was consolidated by act of Congress, which provided that in future the records should be kept for the “Duluth-Superior Harbor, ” which is now its official designation. Since that time accurate reports have been made each year showing the exact amount of freight of various kinds entering and departing from the port. The amazing growth of the coal trade can not be better shown than by the following official table: Bituminous Coal. Anthracite Coal.
Year. Tons. Tons. Value.
1895 …………… 969, 122 728, 609 $ 6, 193, 817 1896 …………… 1,371, 709 694, 243 7, 165, 873 1897 …………… 1, 475,305 674,076 7,362, 221 1898 …………… 1, 852, 248 697, 163 8,534, 863 1899 …………… 1, 618, 826 971, 736, 10, 443, 740 1900 …………… 2,029,398 643, 179 10,073, 703 1.901 …………… 1, 958, 895 917,084 11,508,315 1902 …………… 2,382, 803 290, 736 11,348,312 1903 …………… 3, 231, 478 997, 733 19, 121, 743 1904 …………… 3,063, 849 827, 878 16,357, 287 1905 …………… 2, 827, 420 779,598 15, 192,570 1906 …………… 4, 435, 968 888,572 21, 744, 860 1907 ………….. 5, 868, 152 1, 169,027 25, 615,054 1908 …………… 4, 764, 878 1,040, 825 21, 752, 765 1909 …………… 4,525,329 1, 137,378 21, 815, 932 From the above figures it will be seen that the consumption of coal has more than quadrupled in the past fifteen years, while the average of value has not. One reason for the latter fact is that many kinds of coal are now brought to the port of low value per ton, that fifteen years ago had no commercial use. Fine screenings formerly had no value, but with the modern improvements that have been made in furnaces this class of coal is in demand and has a large use. In the early days of the coal trade at Duluth thousands of tons of this fine coal, the refuse of the screens, was used for making new ground and was dumped indiscriminately wherever a place could be found for it. In some of 157 the great docks that line the Duluth-Superior harbor almost the only filling used was this coal dust, and today if this could be recovered it would be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There are also some amazing discrepancies in the movement of coal shown by the above figures which require a word of explanation.
The movement of 1902 compared with the figures of 1903 shows a tremendous variation, especially in anthracite coal. This was due to the great coal miners’ strike in the East that year, during which it was almost an impossibility to get any anthracite.
The eastern owners were short themselves, and even the supply of bituminous was affected. There were many thousands of tons of coal brought to Duluth that season by rail from the mines of Indiana and Illinois, and, owing to the scarcity, prices advanced to a point that shows little variation in the gross value of the tonnage received by water. In 1908 there was another marked falling off in both receipts and value, from the figures of 1907, but this is explained by the great strike of the lake seamen, which for a few months paralyzed the carrying trade of the lakes.
Prior to 1870, and during the early ’70s, the coal trade of the combined ports was inconsiderable, for reasons which have been explained. What little was received here during that time came in sailing vessels partly, partly in tows, and a little in steamers.
The latter were small affairs, compared with the vessels that now navigate the lakes, and their carrying capacity could be gauged in hundreds of tons each, where now they run into the thousands.
The movement of general freight from the lower lakes was also small in those days, but it was frequently the case that a vessel would bring a cargo of coal as ballast, and sell it for such prices as could be obtained.
The first man to engage in the coal trade in Duluth on any extensive scale was E. N. Saunders, who came to the city in 1870.
In 1871 he engaged in the coal business, and later organized the Northwestern Fuel Company, which is one of the great companies dealing in coal at the head of the lakes, and of which Mr. Saunders is still president. He at once saw the advantages that Duluth possessed as a distributing point for coal through the Northwest, and foresaw the enormous trade that would be developed through the settlement of the country. In this respect Mr. Saunders must be classed as one of the original optimists, but it is doubtful if 158 MARINE COMMERCE even if he could foresee the tremendous proportions to which the trade would develop. In 1871 the coal trade of the port amounted to only about 20,000 tons.
The conditions of the business have changed materially since those early days, and the man with a couple of thousands of dollars as capital cannot possibly engage in it. Even a couple of millions would not look very large compared with the money that the big coal companies employ. Coal is today transported in steamers that have a capacity for 8,000 or 10,000 tons, and to accommodate these, great docks have been constructed, unloading machinery installed, and large areas of ground acquired for storage purposes. One of these docks, with the necessary unloading apparatus, will represent an initial investment alone of anywhere from a million to one and a quarter million dollars, and they will unload a 10,000 tons ship in two days. There are no more men working in the holds of vessels shoveling coal into buckets, to be slowly and laboriously hoisted, and then emptied.
Instead, when the great coal carriers dock, the work of unloading begins at half a dozen or more hatches at once. Great clamshaped scoops descend into each hatch from the powerful overhead machinery that has been installed on the docks, bite four or five tons of coal between their capacious jaws, and are at once hoisted to the overhead tramway, run away into the dock, and drop their load. The whole operation takes about the time that is consumed in reading of it. Coal by these means can be accumulated on the great stock piles to a depth of fifty feet, whereas in the old days ten or twelve feet was about the limit.
So it can be seen that the prosecution of the coal business at the Duluth-Superior harbor calls for the investment of an enormous capital in plant alone, before a pound of coal can be handled. A conservative estimate of the investment in the harbor in docks, land and machinery alone for the coal trade would be from $20,000,000 to $25,000,000. This, however, is fixed capital, but many millions more are required for the purchase of coal, much of which has to be carried for months before it is shipped to dealers, and the payments of freight charges.
Such conditions would seem to be favorable to the formation of a monopoly. As a matter of fact, the competition is so keen between the companies operating at the head of the lakes that a monopoly has never been formed and is practically impossible.
The prices of coal year after year have showed little variation, 159 and while they are slightly higher now than they were fifteen years ago, that is explained by the higher wages that are paid the miners, the fluctuations in the freight rate on the great lakes, and the arbitrary advances that have been made by the great anthracite mining companies of the East. Coal today at the head of the lakes is practically as cheap as it is in Chicago, with the difference that the bituminous coal that is sold in the Northwest is of a much higher grade for heating and steam producing qualities than that mined in the coal fields of Illinois and Indiana.
It is a necessity for the coal trade of Duluth not only to supply the current daily demands of the city and the vast territory tributary to it, but also to accumulate vast reserve stocks to provide for the demands that arise after the season of navigation closes.
During the seven months of navigation the coal has to be rushed into the port. Of course there is a daily movement westward and northward by rail from the port during the summer months, but the close of navigation in November will find the coal docks in the harbor stocked up with from 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 tons.
A certain proportion of this must be held for the railways. The railroads early in the season prepare an estimate of their probable needs for the year, but a large proportion of the tonnage they require has to be carried by the coal companies and delivered as required during the winter. The coal dealers throughout Minnesota, the two Dakotas, Canada and parts of Mlntana, seldom stock up for the winter’s trade during the summer months, as there are comparatively few dealers throughout the country tributary to Duluth who have the capital necessary for this.
Hence the winter months see a drain on the great coal piles that have been accumulated in the Duluth-Superior harbor. Coal is shipped as far west in Canada as the point where it meets the competition of British Columbia coal fields. Both the Dakotas make a steady drain on the stock piles. South Dakota could supply a great part of its needs by drawing on Iowa, but Iowa coal seldom enters the state because of its inferiority compared with that obtained from Duluth. Minnesota is absolutely dependent on Duluth for its supply, and this, with the local needs of the city, causes the coal piles to gradually dwindle, until when the season of navigation opens, the great piles have become almost invisible. During the winter months the companies, in addition to the shipping of coal, devote their time to the extension of their plants. Nearly every year sees one or two enormous docks built and equipped with machinery, in order that the rapidly growing trade may be adequately handled.
The business of the Northwestern Fuel Company at Duluth has for a number of years been under the immediate direction of A. C. Jones, who was formerly a vice-president of the company and is still a director. The company is a Wisconsin corporation and is capitalized at $3,000,000. E. N. Saunders, the president, resides at St. Paul. This company draws the greater part of its supply of bituminous coal from the Fairmont fields of West Virginia, and it is transported by rail to the various Lake Erie ports.
It draws its supply of anthracite from Buffalo, which has a practical monopoly on the shipments of this grade of coal. The company has docks in Duluth and in Superior.
The largest operator from the head of the lakes is the Pittsburgh Coal Company, which is the largest miner of soft coal in the world. It is a Pennsylvania corporation, capitalized at $64, – 000,000. For the purpose of handling its extensive western and northwestern trade it has organized a number of subsidiary companies of the same name, but which are purely distributing concerns, having nothing to do with the mining of coal. One of these companies operates from Chicago and has charge of the western territory, another has its headquarters in St. Paul and is in charge of the northwestern territory, while the one in Duluth has charge of the northern territory.
The mines of the parent company are located in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and its yearly production runs from 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 tons, and it ships from various Lake Erie ports, but the greater part of the soft coal shipments are made from Cleveland, which is to bituminous coal what Buffalo is to the anthracite coal trade. The Duluth company has the most extensive equipment of any of the coal companies operating at the port. It has a dozen or more docks, many of them of the most modern construction, and these alone represent an investment of many millions.
The company began business in 1898.
The president of all the companies is M. H. Taylor, of Erie, Pa.; the operations in the West are under the direction of C. E.
Wales, vice-president, while James A. Ferguson is the northern sales agent, with headquarters at Duluth. P. S. Elwell is general manager for the northwest business, with headquarters in Duluth and Superior.
Some of the other big coal companies operating at Duluth, all of which have extensive plants, are the Hanna Coal Company, the St. Paul and Western Coal Company, the Northern Coal and Dock Company, the Reiss Coal Company, the Lehigh Valley Coal Company, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal Company and the Zenith Coal Company.
Freight rates on the lake for coal are cheap. There is a great fleet of vessels that begin their eastward trip from the Duluth- Superior harbor loaded to their capacity with iron ore, wheat, lumber, etc., and the greater part of which would have to return empty if it were not for the coal trade. As a usual thing the freight rate on coal is about 30 to 35 cents a ton. Not all of these vessels will bother to bring coal westward, however. Their action depends altogether upon the conditions of trade. If ore movements are heavy and charters are in demand, it pays the big carriers better to return from the East in water ballast than to encounter the necessary delays of receiving and discharging a cargo of coal.
Figuring on the basis of the coal receipts at Duluth-Superior for the year 1909, it would require 566 vessels, each with a carrying capacity of 10,000 tons, to transport the coal that was brought to the head of the lakes. Taking 30 cents a ton as the average price paid, the sum of $1, 698, 812.10 was paid to the vessel owners by the coal dealers for freight charges. In addition to this there is a small army of men employed on the various docks and in the local distribution of coal.
From Walter Van Brunt’s Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.