May 4, 1959: The First Salt-Water Vessel Enters the Duluth Ship Canal

On this Day in Duluth in 1959, the aerial bridge lifted for a large saltie for the first time at 1:15 p.m. as its road span raised for the 475-foot, 10,000-ton freighter Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool, England. A crowd of about 3,500 had shown up to witness the event on a blustery day marked by high waves crashing into the rocky shore and piers. Cars blew their horns and fire trucks sprayed a salute over the passing vessel, taking the place of fire tugs that usually herald a grand marine arrival (the canal was too narrow for both the saltie and the fire tugs). While it had long been possible for ocean-going vessels to reach Duluth, the limitations of the earlier canal system restricted passage to only smaller vessels no longer than 250 feet—the size limit in the Welland Canal. But when the modern seaway opened in 1959, improvements to the canals and locks allowed salties up to 730 feet long to reach all ports on the Great Lakes. Duluth-Superior Harbor became the world’s most-inland seaport. The de Larrinaga had actually made it to Duluth by 9 a.m. that morning, but Captain Joseph Meade held up entering the canal to wait for dignitaries to gather. He was eventually greeted by Mayor E. Clifford Mork, who presented him with a key to the city and an aerial photograph of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Other dignitaries on hand included representatives of the company that owned the ship; Robert B. Morris, executive secretary of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce; and C. B. Green of Peavey, at whose elevator the ship would dock and take on 2,000 tons of oats before moving on to the Cargill elevator to load 4,545 tons of barley.

The freighter Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool, England, the first saltwater vessel to pass through the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)