Ice Breaking on the Great Lakes, Winter 1971 – Spring 1971

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By James O. Castagnera

On December 15, 1970, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mesquite had the honor of breaking the first ice of the longest winter shipping season on the Great Lakes. The 72-year-old cement boat E. M. Ford had suffered a mechanical failure and was beset in two-inch ice en route to the Huron Portland Cement Company. Cutter Mesquite broke her free and cut a channel into Green Bay for the Ford to follow.


The Mesquite was assigned to “Operation Taconite,” one of three ice-breaking operations in which the Coast Guard engages on the Lakes. The others are known as “Coal Shovel” and “Oil Can.” The operations were not brand new, but they had never been so ambitious in previous years.

Back in October the Coast Guard had held an “Extension of the Ice Season” Conference at the Ninth Coast Guard District Headquarters in Cleveland. The Canadian Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, and the National oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration turned out to hear industry express energetic plans for the upcoming winter season.

United States Steel Corporation announced plans to operate eight ore vessels from western Lake Superior ports to the South Chicago area through February 1, 1971. Such operations had rarely gone beyond mid-January in previous years. But the Coast Guard was ready with its big muscle, the icebreaker Mackinaw, plus four smaller cutters in the St. Marys River area.

Industry and Coast Guardsmen alike hailed a new record season when “Operation Taconite” was officially closed by the Coast Guard at 9:50 A.M. on January 31. Before it came to a close “Taconite” had received well-deserved attention from some high-ranking experts, including Rear Admiral W. A. Jenkins, Commander of the Ninth District and Rear Admiral C. A. Richmond, head of Coast Guard Research and Development. They traveled through the Sault St. Marie locks aboard the Philip R. Clarke, flagship of U. S. Steel’s Great Lakes fleet.


At the same time cutters assigned to “operation Coal Shovel” labored to insure a winter supply of coal for the Detroit-Port Huron area. Working almost feverishly at times, the tiny cutters Kaw, Ojibwa, Acacia, and Bramble shuttled steamers back and forth between Toledo and Detroit with their loads of needed “black gold.” “Coal Shovel” ran through February 3, when the cutters and their tired crews headed home. Ojibwa had the longest and slowest trip; she’s homeported in Buffalo.

Of the “Coal Shovel” cutters, Bramble had the best chance to win a special bit of distinction. On January 15 she cut a track for the tanker Mercury into Saginaw Bay. She fought her way through ten – to thirty – inches of ice to complete what is believed to have been the latest transit of the Saginaw River on record.


As “Taconite” and “Coal Shovel” were drawing to a close, “Operation Oil Can” was just getting up steam. The cutters Sundew and Raritan, fresh from “Taconite” assisted Mesquite, Woodbine, and Arundel in keeping the fuel oil flowing from South Chicago ports into Traverse City, Grand Haven, Muskegon, and other Lake Michigan cities.

In addition to being more ambitious this season, the icebreaking effort was also more cohesive. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe announced plans for a far-reaching program to make navigation on the Great Lakes a year-round enterprise. He said, “The needs of the Great Lakes area, with its thriving industry and commerce, cannot be met until that goal is achieved.”

To tie together hitherto diverse operations, the Coast Guard established an Ice Navigation Center (INC) in Cleveland. The long-range goals of INC were: (1) To establish a practical method and coordinated plan for the collection of ice data by Coast Guard field units and the transiting merchant fleet, and to train these units to insure the collection of high quality data; (2) to maintain a plot of existing ice conditions and to forecast future developments; (3) to disseminate this highly accurate data to all interested parties; (4) to coordinate vessel movements; (5) to plan research projects; and (6) to coordinate the efforts of all agencies and organizations involved.

Rear Admiral William A. Jenkins

Throughout the season, INC made great strides in realizing these goals across a united front. Constant surveillance of ice and weather conditions by the Coast Guard units afloat, in the air and on the ice, and rapid dissemination of data, represented a new high in ice forecasting.

At the same time, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC) investigated the possibility of heated locks, while both they and the Coast Guard experimented with special “pop up” buoys which, when perfected, will work their way up through frozen waters. (Conventional aids are removed each winter because, when ice-covered, they sink or move off station, becoming hazards to navigation.)

All in all, year-round navigation on the Great Lakes received a tremendous “shot in the arm” from the Coast Guard and cooperating agencies this winter of 1971. Rear Admiral W. A. Jenkins said to the men of “Coal Shovel” as the operation drew to a close, “I note with pride the fine record of all units concerned. Your personal interest and support of the extended navigation season until 3 February is indeed an accomplishment to be proud of and goes far toward demonstrating that the extension of the season is feasible. The experience and data acquired will be valuable in assessing future winter operations. Well done.”

The same may justly be said of all phases of Winter 1971 operations. Indeed, this hearty “Well Done” was earned in a record navigation season.

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About the Author: Mr. James O. Castagnera is Public Information Officer for the Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, Ohio. He entered Coast Guard service in July 1969 after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College, Lan- caster, Pennsylvania, and has written before for INLAND SEAS pertinent to this article, Mr. Castagnera and his staff spent consider- able time aboard the Mackinaw and the Kaw, observing several of the operations related here.

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