Published originally in March, 2008
The travels and travails of the Mesabi Miner
For over a year, I have been following the multiple threads of a story starring the Mesabi Miner, two Coast Guard cutters, the Biscayne Bay and the Alder, and the tugs North Carolina and Kentucky. For two years, the Mesabi Miner has spent the winter at the Midwest Energy
Resources coal dock in Superior. The boat at that dock traditionally moves the first cargo of a new shipping season. With the Soo Locks not opening until March 25, any shipping traffic out of the port before that time is confined to Lake Superior. Almost all our taconite and grain go to ports below the Soo, but coal is regularly taken from Midwest to power plants in Marquette, Silver Bay, and Taconite Harbor. The name of the game is hauling cargo, the more the better, and the earlier your boats get out, the more they can haul in a season. Interlake Steamship is an ardent believer in that principle, and they usually have one of their boats at the Midwest Dock each winter.
Interlake’s Mesabi Miner has spent the last two winters there. Last year, she departed Midwest for Lake Superior ports four times in March. This year it will be the same. It is not until around the 23rd that the rest of the port wakes up. Ore boats leave then, timed to load at Two Harbors and then get to the Soo right after the Soo opens, while the other boats, all downbound beyond the Soo leave around the 24th so they will be in line at the Soo when it opens. Before all that, this year and last, the Mesabi Miner has been the only show in town.
Here the Mesabi Miner has just cleared the Superior entry, marking the first departure of the season for the port. She had to negotiate ice most of the way, but with the Alder and the North Carolina around to help, it did not take too much time. The water here is as blue as can be, but shortly after, the boat encountered ice and it stayed with her all the way to Marquette, Michigan.
Above, you see the reason that the first boat of the season departed the Superior entry. After the Mesabi Miner came home to finish off the shipping season, the bridge went down and stayed there for about 2 months while a $2 million project to complete the painting of the bridge was started up again. The painting actually began as a part of the major upgrade to the bridge done in the winter of 1999-2000. A lack of funds delayed the completion until this year, when it was restarted. The tent you see in the picture was moved around as the painting progressed. It provided a triple benefit, catching the paint as it is blasted off the surface, speeding the drying of the new paint, and last but not least, keeping the workers warm during some very cold and windy days. The project will start up again next winter, just after the end of the shipping season. They hope to complete it by June next year.
This year, Interlake’s Lee A. Tregurtha departed the port from her winter layup at Fraser Shipyards and went up to Silver Bay to load taconite pellets for Indiana Harbor. She had to wait there for the Indiana Harbor. It had departed Duluth a day before to go up to Silver Bay to load pellets. The Indiana Harbor should be at the Soo just about when it opens with the Tregurtha close behind.
Since Midwest Energy works hard in January, the boat that will spend the winter there is always the last boat of the season. Midwest wants the dock open as long as possible before turning it into a two-month motel. So the Miner closes the port, spends the winter here, and then opens the port in the Spring. The only other boats that work that schedule are Coast Guard icebreakers and tugs. Moving boats through ice can be exciting, and thus, over the last couple years, the Biscayne Bay, the Alder, the Miner and the two tugs have shared both the early and late season drama in the port.
Last March, the Biscayne Bay came to Duluth in March to relieve the Alder when the Alder encountered mechanical problems. That matched the Biscayne Bay with the Miner. On March 16th, the Biscayne Bay led the Miner under the Lift Bridge and through a five-mile sheet of ice. Tom McMullen, relief captain on the Miner, was at the helm and called Biscayne Bay captain Cary Godwin as soon as he reached open water to thank him for the help.
Shortly after that, the Biscayne Bay was called away, and the Alder departed. The Mesabi Miner kept to her appointed rounds within Lake Superior without much trouble. On April 1st, with McMullen still in charge and at Midwest Energy ready to depart, he was contacted by two boats that were now stuck in the ice just inside the ice that the Miner had been breaking through in her earlier trips. They had a great idea for him. Why doesn’t he just leave the dock as planned, come under the bridge, and move between them in the hope that he would break the ice between them so they could get under way?
It was not an easy call for McMullen because he had no Coast Guard backup, and there were already two boats stuck in the ice. He did not want to be number three. He called the home office in Cleveland, telling them he thought his chances were about 50-50. They left the decision up to him. He was going to wait until the Assiniboine came in but in that effort, the Assiniboine failed and had to join the Quebecois in the ice, both stuck tight.
McMullen told me, “Then I had to think about it.”
The worst that could happen; he would be stuck in the ice outside the bridge. If he didn’t try it, he would be stranded at the dock until the wind or warm weather would break open the ice. Either way, he would be waiting for weather; so he decided he had little to lose.
He left the dock at Midwest, called his chief engineer and told him to give it all they had as soon as they made the turn toward the Lift Bridge. He estimates he was going about 12 mph as he went under the bridge, twice as fast as he would normally go. By the time he reached the outer edge of the ice, he was down to 2 mph and would not have been able to go much further. I was watching and didn’t think he would even come close to making it—but what do I know?
In talking to McMullen, he reminded me about a concept I learned a long time ago in physics class: momentum. He hit the ice at twelve mph bringing with him about 60,000 tons of coal and 1,000 feet of Great Lakes freighter. It takes a while to stop that, and happily it got him to the edge. As I noted in issue 89, he made it through the ice, and the two boats were freed. Mother Nature soon took care of the ice sheet and the season progressed nicely.
Fast forward to this past January. The Mesabi Miner is again the last boat in, coming under the Lift Bridge at 6:30 in the morning of January 21st. Just after clearing the bridge, the Miner was stopped (or stuck) in (or by) the ice, just behind the DECC. I looked back to find the issue in which I’d written about this and found to my dismay that I had neglected to include this most interesting event. Herewith, it is included.
I was down on the south pier after using the South Pier Inn as a warming house. I ran out to get a picture of the Miner coming in, and then ran back into my warming house. The night nurse at the Inn told me that the boat was not moving. Being the Duluth Shipping News, I told him that it was moving, having just cleared the bridge. He again told me it wasn’t moving. Finally, I looked up and darned if it wasn’t moving. It was still dark as you can see in the picture. I was watching what I thought would be the biggest event of the year, a thousand-footer stuck in the ice behind the DECC.
With Duluth just waking up, it would not be long until the whole town would be down to take a look. I first thought of CNN but quickly realized I had neglected to keep my video camera on after the Miner cleared the Bridge. And a picture of a boat sitting quietly in the water is not a great action shot. This was a story for radio where one could paint a picture of the event and perhaps add a little color to the story—not that I would ever do such a thing.
Elsewhere in the harbor the Alder was preparing to leave her dock in case she would be needed to help the Miner. The tug Kentucky had just left her dock when it happened. Captain Marty Lightner, on the tug, was also out to help the Miner this day but did not think his help would be needed quite so soon. Meanwhile, I had been invited to ride with the Alder, but I had to decide quickly what to do. Should I call the newspaper or a TV station; perhaps prepare my comments for my news conference because I was one of the few people to be there—even though I had to be dragged to the window by the night staff at South Pier Inn.
I decided to get on the Alder. If the Miner was in real trouble, the Alder would be out there in the action. I quickly drove 6 blocks further south on Park Point, to the Coast Guard station. Up on the bridge of the Alder, they were following the progress of the Kentucky and the Miner. They quickly found they had their own problems getting away from the pier. They were also stopped by the ice. So while the Kentucky was freeing the Miner, the Alder’s crew, near by, was trying to break their ship free of the ice. I am sure they wanted to get that job done themselves rather than calling the Kentucky. They finally succeeded, without extra help. The Kentucky made it to the Miner and opened a track in the ice in front of the Miner. That was enough to free the Miner.
I am sure that Briggs was happy to be free and on his way to the end of the season rather than being the lead story in the local news. Of course, I have done my part to make the story well known although I sometimes wondered if it really happened. It did happen, but like the tree falling in the woods, if no one, or almost no one, knew about it, maybe it didn’t really happen. My pictures didn’t prove anything.
Of course, it did happen, but I must have fooled myself when I neglected to mention it in a previous issue. Of course. It did happen.
Now it’s mid-March and the same actors returned for a new show on the same stage. This year, the Alder was ready to break ice, the Biscayne Bay was on her way, and the Mesabi Miner, still here, was about to make 3 trips to Lake Superior ports before anyone else got going
Mesabi Miner captain Scott Briggs was at the helm when both cutters provided assistance to his 1,000-footer in the past year. On Sunday, March 16, he was scheduled to depart Superior with coal for Marquette, the first cargo passage of the season. He needed help to get through the ice.
Captain Kevin Wirth on the Alder had been breaking ice the week before and would be out both Saturday and Sunday preparing a track for the Mesabi Miner to use when he departed. On Saturday, Wirth invited Briggs to go with him on the Alder while they broke open the route the Miner would take the next day. Specifically, Midwest Energy was set to load the Miner with coal for Marquette on Saturday. Initially, the boat was scheduled to depart Saturday evening but Briggs moved the departure to first light the next morning.
Later I asked him why he did that. He preferred to see the ice he would be passing through. I will be thinking of better questions to ask in the future.
I asked to go aboard the Alder on Saturday morning before they departed so I could get a picture of Briggs and Wirth. I was excited to talk to Briggs to get his angle on the story of his final arrival in January. To my surprise, he brought along his relief captain, Tom McMullen, our hero mentioned earlier. Somehow, I was allowed to join them in the wardroom of the Alder while they talked.
It was interesting to listen to 3 people involved in the same activity but from opposite sides. The Mesabi Miner has received help in the ice from many icebreakers over the years, and Briggs was very experienced in directing that help from his larger vessel. Now he had a chance to indicate exactly what he needed to be done to have a successful departure the next day.
The crew on the Alder, and particularly Wirth, were very experienced at breaking ice for the big commercial vessels that work on the Great Lakes, but they don’t drive thousand footers around all day as Briggs does. The three men talked about the turns the Miner would have to make on the way from Midwest Energy to the Superior entry.
The turns are not always what they might seem to be from shore. The real tracks the big boats follow are the shipping channels dredged 25 to 30 deep. All boats have up-to-date charts on board so they know exactly where the channels are. The Superior channel is especially narrow, and Briggs took this opportunity to share his first-hand knowledge of making a slight change of course on a 1,000-foot vessel to stay within a narrow channel. He was able to show a couple of places where he wanted the track in the ice to be particularly wide. The next morning, he was able to take advantage of his precisely laid-out route to the Superior entry.
A Mesabi Miner DVD?
I have been collecting pictures and video of all this excitement with the Mesabi Miner and have thought about doing a DVD about the various adventures I have witnessed and photographed. When the Duluth Rotary asked me to give a talk on the start of the new shipping season, I decided to put together a DVD that I could use for the talk. Rather than talk just about the new season, my new Mesabi Miner DVD would be a good illustration of the problems associated with a new season.
I am more aware than ever that a shipping season in Duluth runs very well during the vast middle part of it, but a little less so at the start and end. I think they liked it, and since it came a week before the Mesabi Miner started a new season of ice, cold, and coal, it would be a good introduction. Now that I have talked to a lot of the principal players in the drama, I hope to augment the DVD and maybe even sell it. We shall see.
More Mesabi Miner
I figure if I have to follow the progress of one boat while she makes 3 trips before any other boats even get started, then you should have to suffer along with me. Besides, it’s interesting. I mentioned above that Miner captain Scott Briggs took a ride on the Alder the day before he was to depart Duluth. Of course, they went over to Midwest Energy where the Miner was docked, and broke some ice around the boat.
I usually have the marine radio on when there is ship traffic moving around. I listen, as do a lot of other people, as captains talk to one another, letting each other know what they will be doing and more often, calling the Bridge when they need a lift. While Briggs was on the Alder and the Alder was over by the Miner, I heard an unusual exchange between the Briggs and his mate on the boat. Unusual because Briggs was on the Alder watching his mate handle his boat and giving him some instruction. A mate might often have a captain just behind him, watching closely while he navigates the boat, but rarely is the Captain on another boat, giving instructions on the radio.
Even more Mesabi Miner
And while I am on the subject of the Mesabi Miner, I found out some interesting information about the boat, and, I am told, all 1,000-footers on the Great Lakes. I have always been amazed how they are “on” for about 10 months straight, either traveling on the water or sitting by a dock while something or someone either loads stuff into their cargo holds, or unloads it. Every winter, they receive a set of pistons to replace half of those in their engines. The Miner has 32 cylinders in its two diesel engines. She departed the dock with 16 brand new pistons running in half of those cylinders.
That added a small impediment to the job of getting through the ice she found at the Midwest and Marquette Dock and that she encountered for most of the trip to Marquette. Just like a brand new car, you are not supposed to run it at full tilt until you have broken it in. Briggs had a ‘time and distance’ table telling him how fast he could increase the engine’s RPMs. And periodically, the chief engineer had to power down one of the engines while they were under way to check for unusual wear, usually evidenced by metal shavings in the cylinders. Thus, he was not able to use all his power to break through the ice, but it didn’t make that much of a difference. By the time he returned to the Twin Ports, he was running every one of his RPMs.
Taconite and iron ore pellets
If you thought that iron ore and taconite pellets were the same thing, you are sadly mistaken. And over the years, I may have been responsible for some of your misunderstanding about the terms. It turns out, I am confused, and sadly still am. I have been bothered maybe 5 times a year since I got started doing this by people who insist on correcting me when I say that boats leaving Duluth carry taconite. They say the boats are carrying iron ore pellets. Taconite is a material that is taken out of the earth in the Iron Range. It is low grade iron ore that was useless for steel-making until some University of Minnesota professors in the 60s developed a process that separated out the iron magnetically and baked the resulting material into high-grade pellets.
Others tell me that iron ore is also taken out of the ground; it is not a pellet. I think maybe there is no good answer but since I write about this stuff a lot, I figure I at least should be consistent. I am working on this problem, but I must tell you, the more I work on it, the harder it is to figure out.
You may notice that this is the 100th issue of the monthly Duluth Shipping News. I still have 2 readers who have received all 100 issues and 3 readers who have received the last 99 issues. You know who you are and I am counting on you to be here for the next 100 issues. In fact, if you ever don’t renew, expect to find me crying on your doorstep, you mean that much to me. As for the rest of you, thank you to all for your support. A special thank you to all the 8 year olds who read this (yes I know, you are all older now, but in my heart, you are still 8 years old; I don’t have real children so you are my dear, but fake, children. Just remember, I myself am a fake reporter). All of you can be found in 3 countries and 41 different states. I will be unable to cry on all your door steps if you don’t renew, but please, don’t tempt me, I still have some frequent flyer miles. To all, I appreciate you support.
Captain Marty Lightner was at the helm of the tug Kentucky when he helped the Mesabi Miner first get free from the ice just after passing under the Aerial Lift Bridge and then assisted the boat while she slowly made her way to her winter layup dock at Midwest Energy Resources in Superior. This all on January 21st, 2008.
Here the Mesabi Miner has just cleared the Superior entry, marking the first departure of the season for the port. She had to negotiate ice most of the way, but with the Alder and the North Carolina around to help, it did not take too much time. The water here is as blue as can be, but shortly after, the boat encountered ice and it stayed with her all the way to Marquette, Michigan. At the right, you see the reason that the first boat of the season departed the Superior entry. After the Mesabi Miner came home to finish off the shipping season, the bridge went down and stayed there for about 2 months while a $2 million project to complete the painting of the bridge was started up again. The painting actually began as a part of the major upgrade to the bridge done in the winter of 1999-2000. A lack of funds delayed the completion until this year, when it was restarted. The tent you see in the picture was moved around as the painting progressed. It provided a triple benefit, catching the paint as it is blasted off the surface, speeding the drying of the new paint, and last but not least, keeping the workers warm during some very cold and windy days. The project will start up again next winter, just after the end of the shipping season. They hope to complete it by June next year.
Ice is nice as long as you are cruising through it on a Coast Guard ice breaker which I was when I took this picture over the side. Actually, the Alder is a buoy tender but in the winter, I like to call her an ice breaker.
Alder commander Kevin Wirth (left) invited Captain Scott Briggs (right), captain on the Mesabi Miner and his first mate and relief captain Tom McMullen (middle) to go out with them on Saturday, March 15th while they broke ice in the harbor. They worked the track the Miner would take when she departed the next day. Above, they are comparing notes on the ice in the Alder’s wardroom.
Mesabi Miner captain Scott Briggs is quite a photographer. He often takes pictures from his boat as people like us take pictures of his boat. I have been working on a DVD that details the Mesabi Miner’s tribulations and triumphs with ice and the Coast Guard, and Briggs will be able to supply me with pictures from the other side. Above, he stepped out from the bridge to take pictures of us (on the Alder) while we were taking pictures of him during his first departure of the new season moving out the Superior entry. (Actually, I was taking pictures, the Coast Guard was breaking the ice.)
The Mesabi Miner was the last boat to come under the Lift Bridge in the Twin Ports 2007-08 shipping season. It was 6:30 in the morning of January 21st. About 2 minutes after this picture was taken, the boat was stopped in the ice behind the DECC.
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