Return of the 'salties'

Duluth’s remarkable international port readies for another busy season

By Tom Johnson

The winter ice of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the passage between the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes system, is expected to clear before the end of this month, opening the Port of Duluth-Superior to ocean-going "salties" for another season of heavy-duty international shipping.

These salties (in contrast to "lakers," which stay within the Great Lakes) provide a vital commercial link between the otherwise landlocked Midwest and the rest of the world.

Each year, the 20-dock Port of Duluth moves on average 46 million short tons via 1,150 ship visits, making it the busiest port on the Great Lakes, according to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. This trade helps support more than 11,500 jobs and $1.5 billion in revenue each year, according to a 2010 study by the economic consulting firm Martin Associates.

Iron ore, coal, and grain account for the largest proportions of cargo by tonnage. But recently the port is seeing more wind energy equipment, including towers that can be 300 feet long.

"Because of the sheer size of the components, the landed transportation cost can be complex and expensive," says Adolph Ojard, the acting president of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "Our port allows these shippers to get as close as possible by water, minimizing that cost."

Since 2005, the booming wind energy trade through Duluth has included the importing of turbines from suppliers in Germany, Spain, and Denmark, as well as the export of blades manufactured in North Dakota to Spain, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere.

Exactly when the first saltie arrives each year is anyone's guess, so Visit Duluth runs a contest and awards prizes to those who get closest to the exact day, hour, and minute.

Take your best shot here.