Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Big Toys in Duluth

The steel industry is full of big toys.

There is still a steel industry in America, although Pittsburgh is no longer choked with smoke and the rolling mills are long gone.   The Missabe Iron Range still produces taconite - a low-grade iron ore that in some ways is easier to process than the damp, high-grade kind.  What is fascinating about the steel business is how large everything is.

A train is a huge thing, to be sure, but even one railcar is enormous.  You wouldn't want it to run over your foot.  So imagine an entire train on top of a dock, a hundred feet in the air, looking like a child's toy.  You get a feel for the enormity of the ore docks in Minnesota (and Michigan).  Ore trains are driven right out on top of these huge docks and the ore dumped into wedge-shaped bins.  Below, a "laker" awaits, 1,000-feet long, to accept the ore.  During loading, the ore is carefully dumped in (today, via conveyor) to keep the ship from overturning.

It staggers the mind that mankind created such huge things.  What is even more staggering is that what we see today is a mere shell of what once was.  The ore docks in Duluth had their heyday towards the end of WW II, and it has been downhill ever since.  At one time, they would load several ships - over a dozen - a day, today, it seems that maybe we see one a week.  A lot of this heavy industry has moved overseas.

Across the river is Superior, Wisconsin, which Duluthians don't seem to talk about much.  I guess there is only one "twin cities" allowed.   In this neck of the woods, we do see a lot of Wisconsin cheese products - cheese kurds and something called "Wispride" cheese food product.  Yum.  We are crossing over the Richard Bong bridge tomorrow for a brief sojurn into Wisconsin and then Illinois.  Richard Bong was something of a local hero - having shot down more planes than any other ace in World War II.  I had a chance to see his P-38 lightning at Oshkosh a few years' back.  Now it is in a museum named after him.

Ironically - or not so much - the Bong bridge is made of Japanese steel.

The ore trains still run though town, and we can hear them every day and every night.  We have a saying when RVing - "there's always a train!"   RV campgrounds are often in less expensive, less desirable locations where land is cheap and, well, trains are nearby.  Then again, trains are loud and even on Jekyll Island, if the wind is right, we can hear the train whistles from the port, carrying new cars to and from the ro-ro's, on a clear night.  You can also hear the throb of ship's propellers, right through our foundation.

But speaking of trains, Duluth has one of the best railroad museums around - mostly under cover, too.  You can go on a train ride as well, which usually includes admission to the museum.  We went on the "Gay Pride" train and it was a little out of control!  Everyone had fun, though.  Yes, those emergency brake levers are indeed hooked up.  Don't touch them!

And speaking of "lakers" - if you want to see these ore boats and ore docks up close, you can take a harbor tour for an hour or so and get a feel for the history of the place as well as the layout.  From water level, the ore docks are certainly intimidating.  Stop by the S.S. William A. Irvin while you are waiting for your boat ride, and see the inside of one of these ore ships, albeit a smaller one (still huge!).

These ore boats are big.  View of the maritime museum and famous lift bridge.

This is our second stay in Duluth - having come here years ago and staying at the marina near the lift bridge.  It is a short walk to downtown and a local distillery as well as museums and restaurants.  We couldn't get in there this year,so we stayed at the Indian Point campground, which is adjacent a long smooth paved bike trail and also is an ideal place to kayak, away from most heavy boat traffic.  Down the bike path is Spirit Mountain, which also has a campground.  It is a ski resort, but in the summer months, you can put your mountain bike on the 5-seat chairlift and take it to the top of the hill and coast down.  Trails for all skill levels.  No, we didn't do 360-degree flips in our 23-year-old mountain bikes.

For an old industrial town, Duluth is a nice place to visit - in the Summer.  It is about the size of Syracuse - another old industrial town - and the weather is about the same.  Cloudy.  There are the usual breweries and local funky craftsmen and artists.  The city is surprisingly easy to navigate - there is plenty of parking and lots of bike trails and bike lanes.  I-35 is under construction, but still takes you right to the heart of downtown - although taking surface streets gives you more of a feel for the city, including its less attractive industrial sections.

Maybe we'll be back again some day.  Next year we will probably travel less and stay on the East Coast.  Provincetown?  Perhaps.  I understand the campground is under new management.

Tomorrow - off to the land of cheese curds!