DULUTH — The rail cars, known as ore jennies, filled with taconite pellets from the Iron Range lurch into place on the brawny Ore Dock #6 high above the M.V. Roger Blough laker.
Once perfectly lined up with the bays of the 858-foot ore boat, the bombay doors on the ore jennies are opened by an operator and the bottom falls out of the heavy-duty and hard-working carts and the pellets, embraced by gravity, quickly flow below into the M.V. Roger Blough.
How rapidly? Ten seconds for 72 gross tons of flux pellets and 78 gross tons of acid pellets per car. Gravity can be a wonderful, efficient workplace tool.
Mark Erickson never tires of watching and hearing this symphony of repetitive sound and motion that is a linchpin in the mining to rail to shipping to steelmaking process. The Canadian Northern Railway’s port manager at the Duluth Dock Facility is proud to play a key role in helping move along Minnesota’s iron ore resource.
And on a recent most-welcome sunny and warm day, with a pleasant breeze hinting strongly that the official start of summer was truly near, Erickson, in a simplicity of words, marveled at it all.
“It’s like one big conveyer belt from the Iron Range to the steel mills,” he said.
That conveyor belt will be working non-stop this shipping season until Jan. 13 next year, when the last ore boat will leave the port. The next season will then begin about two months after that in mid- to late-March.
But how robust will be that season early on all depends on the weather. And this year the Great Lakes were laded with a heavy load of ice that lingered well into the early shipping season in some areas.
“Mother Nature ... she can be a tough one,” Erickson said.
Tough enough to have Minntac in Mountain Iron with a backload of orders and tons and tons of pellets to get shipped to the mills. And below and to the side of the ore docks a lot more pellets are stored and piled up — 965,000 gross tons from Minntac; 285,000 gross tons from United Taconite; and 32,000 gross tons of Minorca limestone.
So the reliable CN Dock #6, built in 1918 and unfazed by the nearly 100 years of use and wear and tear and challenging weather, will load a steady steam of tons of pellets into the cargo hold of ore carriers on a 24-hour-a-day timetable. The lakers will then continue their week-long round-trip journeys — each one taking about a week — from the Duluth-Superior Port to the steel mills of the Midwest.
On this day, the Roger Blough was being fed pellets from all 142 jennies of a train that had made its way from Minntac to the Proctor rail yards to be then directed to Ore Dock #6.
The ore carrier started taking on cargo at 10:20 p.m. on June 15. At 1:45 p.m. the next day, the Roger Blough had been filled with 44,470 gross tons of flux pellets — the equivalent of about 635 ore jennies. Total load time at the dock was 15 hours and 25 minutes; total time at the dock was 15 hours and 25 minutes.
It left the Duluth Harbor at 1:45 p.m. for Conneaut, Ohio, and 72 to 76 hours later would arrive at the CN’s Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock at Conneaut on Lake Erie.
Another remarkable routine on Ore Dock #6 was complete.
Erickson is a walking Wikipedia of rail and shipping history at the Duluth ore docks, and for good reason. His family is joined through the generations by rail ties.
He proudly and without hesitation chronicles his railroad heritage.
“I started with the DM&IR (Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway Co., which was bought by CN in 2004) in 1974 as a dock laborer while attending and graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth,” he said.
He became a dock foreman in 1976; a general dock foreman in 1978 and a locomotive engineer in 1979. He would later hold other positions before taking his current job as port manager of CN’s Duluth Dock & Storage Facility.
The locomotive throttle is like the family’s crest. Photos of the Erickson locomotive legacy are prominent in Erickson’s office.
“My grandfather, Gustav Erickson, worked as a locomotive engineer on the DM&IR from 1906 to 1958. My father, George Erickson, worked as a locomotive engineer from 1953 to 1982,” Mark Erickson said.
Erickson is now looking to the future for the next generation of workers, many of whom he’s hired at the CN Ore Docks, where he supervises 60 employees.
“What everyone does in this chain is vitally important. And these jobs help workers earn a good paycheck to support their families and communities.
“These are valuable workers ... valuable people. It’s a good business and really a good life,” Erickson said.