Lumber and Grain, Coal and Ore

Beginning in the 1840s, the Great Lakes became busy highways for moving wheat, corn, lumber, coal, and iron ore. Crops from midwestern farms crossed the lakes to markets in the East. Lumber from the region’s vast pine forests made Chicago the world’s busiest lumber port in the 1870s. Iron ore from the region traveled east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. To this day, iron ore makes up nearly half the cargo on the lakes.



Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Freighters in the Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, about 1900

Canals helped the Great Lakes prosper. The state of Michigan built the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal, called the Soo Locks, from 1853 to 1855 to speed ore and grain from Lake Superior to markets and industries along the lower lakes.


Threshing rig, Goodhue County, Minnesota, 1880s

Farms on the American prairies produced the grain that was shipped east through the Great Lakes or down the Mississippi River. Threshing time—when the grain was removed from the stalks—required many hands to help process the grain for shipment.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Employees at Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co. Camp #15, about 1910

Logging thrived around the Great Lakes from the 1850s through the 1880s, cutting whole forests from the landscape. Even past logging’s peak, demand for lumber kept loggers and shippers in business. The sled of logs displayed here—surrounded by stumps—yielded 13,562 board feet of lumber.

Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Iron miners at the Jackson Mine, Michigan, about 1870s

Mines in Michigan’s Marquette Range, such as the Jackson Mine, supplied all the iron ore shipped on the Great Lakes until 1877. Workers mined iron by hand until 1884, when steam shovels were adopted.

Photograph by Bernard Freemont Childs, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Wheat flowing into a freighter at Duluth, Minnesota, about 1935

From 1831 to 1888, wheat was the primary bulk cargo carried on the Great Lakes. By the 1930s it was still the leading grain carried on the lakes.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Grain elevators at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

Thunder Bay was once the world’s largest grain-handling port. The complex of elevators there still receives and stores grain for shipment across the Great Lakes.

Courtesy of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society

The Mahoning Mine, Hibbing, Minnesota, 1899

Iron ore from the Mahoning Mine has been shipped down the Great Lakes since 1895. It remains the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

C. H. McCullough, Jr. loading ore, Superior, Wisconsin, about 1940

Railroads brought iron ore to giant lakefront piers, where it was loaded into the holds of steamers.

Photograph by Louis Perry Gallagher, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Aerial view of ore-loading docks, Superior, Wisconsin, 1970s

The first trestle ore dock was built at Marquette, Michigan, in 1859. The design took advantage of gravity to unload railroad cars and fill the holds of waiting ships.

Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Hulett ore unloaders at the hold of the Leon Fraser, Gary, Indiana, about 1950

Each of these steam-powered scoops could remove 15 tons of ore every 2 minutes, drastically reducing the time and manpower needed to empty an ore carrier.

Courtesy of United States Steel

The Scow Schooner Milton Loading Lumber

Loggers steadily depleted the forests around the Great Lakes during the 1880s and 1890s. Many small lumbering towns died, including this unidentified community. The sailing vessels they supported disappeared as well.


Scow Schooner Milton

Built at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1867

Length: 102 feet

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Scow Schooner Milton

The Milton spent 20 years hauling lumber on Lake Michigan, along with hundreds of other small boats nicknamed the “mosquito fleet.” Built to carry as much cargo as possible, many of these boats did not sail well. The Milton collided with another ship and twice ran aground. In 1885, five men died—three of them brothers—when the Milton sank during an autumn storm.


Schooner Ed McWilliams

Built at West Bay City, Michigan, 1893

Length: 200 feet

Crew: 6

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Bulk Cargo Carrier

Schooners like this dominated the movement of grain and lumber on the Lakes from the 1820s into the 1890s. The Ed McWilliams was designed with a shallow hull to enter small harbors. The crew bunked under the forecastle at the front of the ship, but they ate in the deckhouse at the stern, surrounded by the master, mate, and cook’s cabins. The schooner’s long middle held the cargo.


Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Crew of the Logging Schooner Joses at Milwaukee

Thousands of German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants manned Great Lakes ships. In 1860, only 20 percent of the sailors in Chicago were born in the United States. By 1900, that number was 51 percent.


Steam barge Edward Smith

Built at West Bay City, Michigan, 1890

Length: 194 feet

Crew: 16

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Wind and Steam

Early steam engines freed ships from unpredictable winds, but they were inefficient and costly to run. Many Lakes boats relied on both sail and steam. The Edward Smith could sail its cargoes of lumber, ore, or coal on the open lakes and still use its engine to maneuver in confined channels. In 1926, the ship sank in a storm on Lake Superior, with no loss of life.


Whaleback freighter Frank Rockefeller

Built at West Superior, Wisconsin, 1896

Length: 366 feet

Now the museum ship Meteor, Superior, Wisconsin

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A Whaleback

To make vessels more stable, steamer captain Alexander McDougall patented a rounded hull that would be almost submerged when loaded. He called his boats “whalebacks,” but others nicknamed them “pigs.” Many ended their working lives as barges. The Frank Rockefeller carried iron ore, sand, grain, petroleum, and even automobiles for 73 years.


Two Whalebacks Unloading Ore at Cleveland, Ohio, about 1900

In 1899, ships on the Great Lakes carried 12.5 million tons of ore, and 12.1 millions tons of coal. Even though dockyards began using unloading hoists like these, workers still shoveled most ore, coal, stone, and grain out of ships’ holds by hand.


Self-unloading ore carrier James R. Barker

Launched at Lorain, Ohio, 1976

Length: 1,005 feet

Gift of Lake Carriers Association

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The James Barker

Three thousand boats worked the Great Lakes in 1893. By 2000, the number was less than 200, but the huge vessels in use today carry more cargo. The James R. Barker is one of the largest ships working the Lakes today. In one trip, the Barker can carry more than 60,000 tons of ore, enough to produce the steel for 16,000 automobiles.