Duluth, Two Harbors, and Lake Superior

If you read the news lately you might think that Grand Forks is a pretty depressing place. Heck, I’ve even argued that we have the world’s most depressing dog park.

Last week, I spent a few days enjoying the spectacular hospitality of the history department at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. Duluth is a great town with good beer, an attractive and interesting downtown, and the lake.

At the same time, there’s something – particularly this time of year – melancholy about the lake and the communities that rely on the lake for their livelihood. This week is the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior as it sought safety from a storm. 

While visiting Duluth, we went up the coast to Two Harbors, Minnesota. It’s one of the larger taconite ore depots on the lake.

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When we arrived, a group of middle aged folks were walking out on the breakwater, despite the blustering cold wind. 

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We got to the end of the breakwater and saw a ship in the distance. We asked the folks standing there (explaining that we were from North Dakota where large things in the distance tend not to move): is it worth standing out here in the cold to watch that ship come in. They said, without any hesitation, “YES.”

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So, we hung out and watched the ship come in. One of the old timers on the breakwater mentioned that he sailed on the SS Arthur M. Anderson out of Two Harbors. In its day, the Arthur M. Anderson was one of the largest ships on the lakes. She was never the Queen of the Lakes, but she was famous for shadowing the Edmund Fitzgerald on that fateful night 40 years ago. I didn’t ask if the guy we met on the lake was on the Arthur M. Anderson that night.

We hung out and chatted with the folks there and watched the SS Edgar B. Speer approach. She was, briefly, the Queen of the Lakes in 1980, and at 1000 feet, she is a massive ore ship. The folks on the breakwater entertained our naive questions about how a ship this big would navigate between the breakwater and the taconite piers. The maneuvering involved front thrusters and several thousand horsepower.

They told us that this will be the last ore ship into Two Harbors. They stressed that it did not have to be the last ship. The Soo Locks remained open until January 15, but it would be the last ship because no one needs taconite (which is a kind of palletized iron ore) right now. The Edgar B. Speer was heading to Gary, Indiana with its load. 

We watched as she came into port. I cannot emphasize enough how large this ship was and narrow the space was between the breakwater and the taconite piers.

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After the ship made her way to the rusty piers where she would spend 12 hours being loaded with taconite, we walked back along the breakwater. The clouds were low, the wind was cold, and we were pretty quiet. We chatted about how cool it was that the folks at the end of the breakwater were willing to share what they knew about this ship, how it would dock, and their own time on the lake.

At that moment, we understood why the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was such a big deal.