The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Thomas Andrew Sykora
We are standing on the dock at the foot of Woodward Street in Detroit, Michigan. Looking out over the Detroit River we see a giant bulk freighter sailing silently, swiftly down river. Loaded down deep in the water she shows a beautiful line and a graceful sheer to her hull as the tremendous 18,000 ton iron ore cargo strains every frame and bulkhead. Where is she headed? What steel mill will consume her cargo to make steel for our nation’s thousands of steel products? These are among the many questions one might ask about the ship, her cargo and the traffic that takes place in this fascinating Great Lakes marine industry.
The big ship moves on and without slowing down she takes aboard mail and supplies from a small but fast mail boat, and then continues to sail on by the great automobile city. She sails abreast of the extensive docks and terminal companies lining the River’s edge, travels past giant chemical and electrical power plants and passes a sprawling, puffing steel plant where we observe a mountainous pile of iron ore, coal and stone fronting the River. Our ship sails by a shipbuilding works where the Great Lakes’ largest vessel is being constructed, then passes by another chemical plant; sights, all of which are representative and very much the result of the extensive transportation role that our Lakes’ fleet assumes in the efficient, low cost floating of raw materials and commodities over our Inland Seas.
The block-long boat continues down river into the Fighting Island Channel, through Ballards Reef Channel and finally to the Livingstone Channel. Then as she sails out of Livingstone Channel, released from the close bounds of these man made shores, she seems to glide to the freedom of open Lake Erie. On and on, sailing into the west end of the Lake she gradually gains speed as her high, blunt bow begins to push a wall of foaming water higher and higher, causing the surging waves to flow with a resounding crash and rumble into her anchor pockets .
Soon, in the pilothouse, as our freighter sails abreast of the Detroit River Light, the captain orders the wheelsman, “left rudder,” gradually turning the ship SSE heading in the direction of the Colchester Reef Light offshore of Colchester, Canada. The cargo is consigned for unloading at Erie, Pennsylvania.
Suddenly, as the big ship completes her wide turn, the ship-to-shore phone rings out. The captain, knowing it is safe to leave his long vigil at the pilothouse window, receives a terse message from the fleet dispatcher at the home office in Cleveland, changing the unloading consignment orders from Erie to the Lake Front Dock at Cleveland.
Now, “know how,” timing and cooperation begin the series of coordinated moves that are everyday occurrences in managing marine and rail traffic on our Great Lakes. With our picture gradually evolving, at this same moment two hundred miles to the East at the other end of Lake Erie, a big Canadian self-unloader is just clearing light, that is, with no cargo, from Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada, and heading for Erie. Her captain has a look of anxiety on his face because of a six hour and thirty-five minute delay in locking upbound through the Welland Canal where his ship had traveled from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. His anxiety has come from an unpredicted heavy traffic delay caused by fog which shrouded the whole canal area. At this point he phones his fleet-dispatching office in Cleveland. He reports his Port Colborne clearance time and the best estimated time of arrival at Erie where his boat is to load a cargo of coal. He has previously had knowledge of a certain, small canaller sailing steadily along from the West from the opposite direction which has just unloaded an iron ore cargo in Cleveland and has sailed from there light, with orders to load coal for consignment to a St. Lawrence River port. But it seems the canaller will load at the same Erie coal dock as the Canadian self-unloader. Also, her captain hasn’t had the information that unforeseen delays at the Port of Cleveland have set back the clearance of the canaller the same length of time as the Canadian carrier’s delay in the Welland Canal.
The overall problem is complicated even more by the fact that the right railroad coal cars at Erie must be switched in and made available at the loading machines for the first ship that arrives. Further, at Erie a few hundred yards away from the coal loading dock, there is a long train of empty rail cars. We now remember that a cargo of iron ore had been diverted from this dock to Cleveland. What will be done with all these cars? In this hypothetical situation we find out that this particular ore had been ordered by another steel plant which is served by a railroad from the Cleveland dock. Now what about all those empty railroad cars at Erie? Probing further into this situation we discover that another giant, rust-hulled freighter, only four hours away from Erie, has been diverted to this port with just the right grades of iron ore for the particular customer who needed our first boat load.
“Wow!” an inquisitive reader marvels, “How are all these details handled with immediate dispatch? How are all these vessels loaded with coal or unloaded with iron ore with such a minimum of delay?” Without time to receive an answer, the reader asks again, “How and why is it that the tremendous Great Lakes bulk fleet of several hundred boats does not run into a seemingly obvious state of traffic snag and confusion?”
The answer to all of these questions is that a central operating agency coordinates Great Lakes joint vessel and railroad traffic. This central operating agency, located in Cleveland, is known as the Ore and Coal Exchange. It provides an efficient, coordinated service of invaluable help to numerous railroad companies, vessel owners and operators, also many lake coal forwarding companies. It assures this fascinating show of coal transportation by rail and boat a smooth performance, worthy of very loud applause!
The Ore and Coal Exchange was formed as a service organization for the handling and dumping of coal from freight cars to vessels, tying in with the rail transportation of iron ore on the last leg of its journey to the steel mills, although it has no control over it. In effect, it facilitates the shipments of the enormous tonnage of these raw materials. During the 1957 shipping season, 47,083,944 tons of coal and 84,634,907 tons of iron ore were transported over the Lakes, and from this, one can clearly understand why such an organization is so necessary for the direction of Great Lakes’ traffic.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, there was no organization or regulatory agency to coordinate the loading and unloading of cargoes carried by the many vessels, sailing ships and barges, to and from the thousands of rail cars which dumped millions of tons of coal at Lake Erie ports. A little over sixty years ago there was an astounding number of about seven hundred bulk boats in the United States Great Lakes fleet alone, and one can imagine the traffic problem that must have ensued. At that time boats arriving with ore or waiting for coal were often detained in port for one or two days, and delays of ten days were not considered unusual. It became imperative for some central agency to facilitate and regulate the enormous tonnage effectively. By 1917, the Council of National Defense pooled all the lake coal movements under the supervision of an organization called the Lake Erie Bituminous Coal Association, which was maintained by and at the expense of the railroads. Then, on March 1, 1918, the Ore and Coal Ex change was formed by these railroads, along with the lake coal shippers and receivers, ore shippers and the vessel interests, as an aid in conducting their tremendous lake business. At the close of the 1918 season, the pooling of lake coal was stopped, but the operation of the Exchange was continued by the United States Railroad Administration and the cost was borne by them.
At that time the railroads were in a very serious financial condition with their declining net earnings, with no rate increases from the Interstate Commerce Commission. However, a substantial increase in rail traffic took place as a result of World War I, and this increased demand for service caused the Railroad War Board, as an emergency measure, to operate the lines as one great continental railway system. But this expansive private railroad operation broke down, and the government took over and operated the roads for two years until President Wilson returned them to private control on March 1, 1920.
The Ore and Coal Exchange now began to grow and to function as a central body. On March 25, 1920, it was reorganized and changed from its former authority over the railroads, the coal shippers, and the vessel owners, to a centralized agency, established and maintained by the railroads and acting as their agent. Today it has jurisdiction over shipments of lake coal to all Lake Erie and Lake Ontario ports and operates from a main office located at 1101 Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Ohio. A branch office is also maintained in the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad passenger station in Buffalo, New York. This Buffalo office handles all the dumping of coal at the Port of Buffalo and the ports on Lake Ontario, and functions in the same manner as does its main office in Cleveland.
The Ore and Coal Exchange, functioning as a coordinator of traffic, is probably the most important organization on the Great Lakes because of its influence over the transport of the vast coal tonnage carried on them. The importance of this organization becomes clearer as we learn about its many functions. The Lake ports are not public markets or depots to which lake coal may be shipped for speculative purposes. A shipment of lake coal, therefore, must be routed through by rail and water and we find that the Exchange is merely the medium by which the flow of coal is regulated in its shipment to the ports, for transshipment by boat.
Now let us go back to our first big freighter which was ordered to unload at Cleveland. Her next cargo has been scheduled to be coal, consigned for unloading at an Upper Lakes port at a dock located in the Duluth-Superior harbor. The big ship has had her tremendous iron ore cargo unloaded in a matter of hours at Cleveland and now sails light for Toledo, where in six hours she will have thousands of tons of four different grades of coal dumped into her freshly washed and cleaned cargo hold. The big boat has four compartments and each grade of coal has to be separated and loaded as ordered by the customer. The cars have been set up in the classification yard and everything is thought to be ready. The boat will arrive on time, but coal for twenty cars has been mined too late, and although it is on its way to Toledo, it has been found that arrival will be too late for this cargo since the diversion of the boat from Erie to Cleveland a while back has caused her to arrive earlier in Toledo to load the coal. The vessel owners cannot afford to wait unprofitable hours at the dock, so we see a plan about to go into effect.
At the Noonday Luncheon Club dining room in Cleveland, located adjacent to the offices of the Exchange, although not operated by them, the transshipper of this cargo makes a verbal deal with another transshipper handling the very same kind of coal. He wants to borrow twenty cars which are available. The switch is acceptable, both men are satisfied and the boat is loaded with no delay. At the Noonday Club an average of ninety members, representing many railroad and steamship owners and transshippers, eat and meet to discuss by word of mouth, orders to sell, load, ship or hold, coal and iron ore. The luncheon club was conceived as a common meeting place for Exchange members and instead of having several persons involved in complicated local and long distance telephone calls, a member often works out a deal in a matter of minutes, thus saving much valuable time and expense.
Each coal dock furnishes the Exchange with daily reports of each car’s location en route to the dock, at specified intervals of hours prior to arrival, with the number of cars in each consignment. A “consignment” at the loading ports consists of a permit issued by the Exchange Manager for the seasonal use of cars to be unloaded by one transshipper. The permit gives this group of cars a name, any name, such as “Inland,” “Seas” or “Journal.” The Exchange also compiles daily reports showing the amount of coal at each dock and in transit, and the previous day’s dumping and the estimated dumping for the current day, besides a record of the many vessels unloading and the Lake Erie ports which are named for coal loading. It further reports the time the boats will be unloaded and ready to sail besides receiving orders from transshippers for loading coal into vessels, and the transmitting of these orders to the docks.
This data was assembled by the Exchange’s competent staff of eleven people headed by Mr. L. Gordon Walker, a long time railroad man who has been Manager of the Exchange for six years and is an active member of the Great Lakes Historical Society. He is responsible for the transshipment of the millions of tons of coal during the normal eight month Lakes season and sometimes even throughout year around operations. The department of ship dispatchers is headed by Mr. Alvin E. Frantz who has had twenty years of experience and who appears to be ubiquitous in acquiring his hourly knowledge of all facets of the operation of coal loading on the Lakes.
This coordinating and service agency has proved to be one of the most important traffic organizations of its kind in the world, keeping our Great Lakes marine and railroad industry operating efficiently. Much credit is due the railroads for their foresight in establishing the Ore and Coal Exchange which functions as a mighty arm in an important industry to help make and keep America the top industrial nation on this earth.
About the Author: Mr. Sykora is a member of the Operating Department of the Bethlehem Transportation Corporation, located in the Terminal Tower, at Cleveland, Ohio. Also an interested and active member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, he has obtained many new members for our organization and readers of our journal will recall other articles which he has contributed to Inland Seas.