I find traveling to new places to be not only an opportunity to see or experience something new, but to also learn something along the way. My trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula (or the "U P" for short) provided a wealth of education.
Marquette, MI was my first scheduled stop on my three day trip. As I approached the harbor along Lake Superior, I noticed a huge structure rising from the water. I had no idea what it was, or what purpose it may have served in the past. What I could tell was that it was an abandoned structure from a by-gone era of shipping but that was about it.
Later at the Marquette Maritime Museum I learned that the area was rich in iron ore which was the primary reason for its settlement back in the 1840's. Today, mining iron ore is a primary industry in Michigan bringing significant financial resources to the state.
By the 1860's Marquette was tied to other industrial centers by rail and water. It was the railroad that brought the iron ore from the mines to Marquette and ore freighters that would haul it south to be used in steel mills around the Great Lakes Region.
Generally speaking the ore dock (or pocket docks as they are also known) literally connect land to sea, with the railroad track coming in from the mills and terminating on the docks, above the waters of Lake Superior. Ships pull along side the dock, where the iron ore in the form of taconite pellets can be poured from the rail cars above into the dock's pockets. From there the pellets are sent directly into the holding area of the ore freighter below via long steel chutes. Significant enhancements have been made to the process over the past 50 years, which is why the older dock remains as a historical relic of the past.
Construction on that first structure I saw in the lower harbor was completed in 1932. Its use as an ore dock, however, was short-lived with operations terminating in 1971. The reason this dock became obsolete was because it could only fill a freighter on one side, requiring the ship to then move to the opposite side of the dock to fill her other side. With the train trestle removed in 2000, just the offshore portion of the dock remains as a historical landmark.
The current ore dock that is in operation was actually built before the one in the lower harbor. The upper harbor dock was built in 1896 and was of wooden construction. When storms badly damaged the original wooden structure, a new more durable reinforced dock of concrete and steel was built. With construction beginning in 1911, they were fully operational in July 1912.
I have attached a couple of photos of both ore docks. Fortunately during my time in Marquette, the ore freighter Lee A. Tregurtha was at the upper harbor dock and had was just beginning to take on taconite pellets for shipping "down" the Great Lakes. As I stood on the nearby beach, I was amazed at how loud the pellets were as they pour from the dock pockets above, down the chute and into the freighter's hatch. I was also in awe of how large the freighter was . . . and she is one of the "smaller" ones.
The 826 foot M/V Lee A. Tregurtha has a capacity weight of nearly 30,000 gross tons. I was told it would take roughly five hours to load her up and send her on to her destination near Detroit. As they were filling up the freighter, I could see the chutes lowering, pellets pouring down, and then the chute being raised back up. It was an amazing orchestration of movement . . . and loud! Over seven million tons of taconite pellets are loaded and shipped from this dock every year.
I think I could have stayed there for hours watching the loading process. I have seen photos of ore freighters at the ore dock at night and would love to see that someday too.