All of the iron ore that is mined in the UP of Michigan and in northern Minnesota is moved out of the region as taconite pellets.  Most of that moves via train cars and then via large ore freighters, such as the one shown below.  Rail transport of taconite takes place from the Marquette range area (where it is mined) to either Escanaba or Marquette, where it is loaded onto freighters for shipping. 

From these Great Lakes ports, it can travel the lower lakes (which are not frozen as long) to Detroit, Gary, Cleveland, Hamilton, or elsewhere. 
projected iron ore traffic flow 1995.JPEG (65139 bytes)

Source: Unknown

In winter, when the Soo Locks are shut down, taconite pellets move out of the mining region by rail to the port in Escanaba, which is open to shipping year-round. 

The first load of iron ore through the Soo Locks amounted to 132 tons in August 1855. Total ore tonnage that year was 1,447. During the 1860 shipping season 120,000 tons of ore passed through the Soo Locks. One century later the total volume of downbound iron recorded at the Soo exceeded 100 million tons.
iron_ore_shipments_in_michigan_1977-90.JPG (25150 bytes)

Source: Unknown

    The images below show ore freighters, with their cargo of taconite pellets, unloading at a blast furnace/steel mill complex in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.   These ships are self-unloading.  offload-taconite-algoma-steel.jpeg (65895 bytes)

Source:  Photograph by Randy Schaetzl, Professor of Geography - Michigan State University

algoma-steel-ssm-whole.jpg (12193 bytes)

Source:  Photograph by Randy Schaetzl, Professor of Geography - Michigan State University

Note the large piles of taconite pellets on land, soon to be processed into steel.
algoma-steel-ssm-zoom.jpg (80349 bytes)

Source:  Photograph by Randy Schaetzl, Professor of Geography - Michigan State University.

The map below illustrates many points about what moves on the lakes, and in which direction.  Note that iron ore moves from the UP to the steel mills of Gary, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.  On their return trips, these ships may carry coal or limestone
gr-lakes-shipping.jpg (179679 bytes)

Source: Unknown

How important was/is the shipping of iron ore to the industrialization of the USA?  Read these excerpts from Michigan History magazine.

On 29 May 1890 the wooden-hulled propeller W.R. Stafford left Marquette, Michigan, with 1,055 tons of iron ore from nearby mines for the bustling docks of Ashtabula, Ohio, along Lake Erie’s southern shore. On its 654-mile trip, this ship towed, as usual, its ore-laden consort, the Cleveland. The Stafford plodded deliberately southward without stopping. After taking the better part of two days to unload, she took on fuel, had her hold filled with Appalachian coal, and retraced her route northward to Marquette. There she discharged the coal, took on a new shipment of ore and repeated the cycle. With few variations, this pattern continued until mid-November when the Stafford finally laid up for the winter in Buffalo, New York.
    Thousands of times that year, hundreds of ships plying the Great Lakes between the rich ore fields along the southern and western shores of Lake Superior and the industrial centers in Ohio and Michigan repeated her schedule. The abundance and quality of the ore these ships transported helped fuel unprecedented industrial growth in the United States in the last decades of the 19th century. Great Lakes transportation played a critical role in that growth. Without this link, it is doubtful the growth of American industry could have occurred as rapidly as it did.

History of Ore Shipping on the Great Lakes

America’s iron industry began along the Atlantic seaboard during the colonial period. Most of these iron foundries were small and produced iron of inconsistent quality. These operations came and went rapidly. Demand for iron in America was small and producers’ plants were too modest to realize the advantages associated with economies of scale. Moreover, they lacked the technical sophistication that allowed Great Britain to dominate the world iron industry at the time. Poor transportation routes kept producers isolated from both their sources of raw materials and their markets. They relied on charcoal as fuel, which had one large disadvantage: the supply was scattered and dwindled once local timber stands disappeared.
    Between 1860 and 1885, American railroads used 1/3 of all iron produced. Eastern plants, unable or unwilling to modernize, fell even further behind production schedules under the restraints imposed by east coast mine owners who limited the amount of ore mined to keep prices artificially high. Therefore, entrepreneurs west of the Appalachians capitalized on newly discovered coal and ore deposits.

    Location, location, location....
    The proximity of fuel (coal, coke and charcoal) to the center of iron production remained the most important influence on the location of 19th-century iron plants. Since the fuel was bulky and also had a tendency to deteriorate, transport costs for long distances were often prohibitive. Thus, convenient fuel resources favored the development of the iron industry near the Pennsylvania coal fields south of Pittsburgh.
    A similar situation existed in Alabama. Here, an iron production center developed around Birmingham, where local iron and coal deposits existed. Unfortunately, the coal contained a high level of sulphur and produced an inferior grade of iron.
    The only other known deposit of ore lay in the inhospitable forests near the southern shore of Lake Superior. Nonetheless, when William Burt and his surveying team discovered iron ore along the southern Lake Superior shore in 1844, it hardly caused a stir. In fact, none of the party even bothered to file a claim on any portion of the area. "The cause of this indifference," wrote one historian, "doubtless lay in the knowledge of the almost insuperable obstacles which would have to be overcome before the iron could reach market." These impediments became painfully evident to the Jackson Mining Company, the first iron mine in Michigan. In February 1847 it established a forge near their mine to smelt the ore into transportable bars of rough iron called "blooms." Investors hoped that shipping iron in this form to Pittsburgh might make the venture profitable. But transportation costs (fuel) pushed the company’s completed cost per ton to $200, while the market price at the time was $80. In sum, the Jackson Mining Company did not have the financial and engineering capabilities to overcome the problem of distance between the Lake Superior iron ore deposits and the steel mills far to the south. During the second half of the century, however, three interrelated developments opened the region.
    Because the Jackson Mining Company operated in an isolated and desolate area 20-30 miles from the lake, they found it difficult to transport supplies into the region and ore out. Initially, they relied only on sleighs in the winter to haul supplies and ore. (The heavy ore sank wagons into the soft topsoil at any other time of the year.) Later, a few primitive roads connected the mines with the lakeshore. Railroads were decades away and even then proved unprofitable. Water offered company officials the only economical option for transporting their ore southward. But there was a major snag---the falls of the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie. The inconvenience at the falls caused time delays, driving up transport costs. For centuries Native Americans congregated there to fish and trade, portaging their canoes around the rapids. In the 19th century, portaging ore-filled boats was out of the question. Workers had to unload both upbound and downbound ships, haul the cargo 1.25 miles around the falls, and reload it aboard another vessel. Occasionally, teams of men and horses dragged entire ships out of the water and towed them around the falls on rollers.
    Thus, it comes as no surprise that, shortly after Michigan attained statehood in 1837, government representatives appealed for federal government funds to build a canal around the falls. With congressional support from the lower Mississippi River states, canal proponents finally received the necessary support in 1853. The canal opened on schedule in June 1855, but its cost ran three times the estimate, at just under $1,000,000.
    The opening of the canal, named the Michigan State Locks, but eventually called simply the Soo Locks, perfectly coincided with the increased demand for iron as railroads expanded westward. Between 1850 and 1860, the railroad network in the United States nearly quadrupled in size. The new locks expedited the shipment of much-needed iron ore to steel mills in the southern Great Lakes. In return, investment capital flowed north to the Lake Superior region, expanding mining operations and improving transportation arteries. 
    The opening of the Soo Locks permitted the efficient movement of cargo southward. The insatiable needs of post-Civil War industry for iron, and later steel, led to a second major improvement in Great Lakes ore shipments---the growth in size, strength and sophistication of the vessels themselves. Wooden sailing ships dominated commercial activity on the Great Lakes 200 years. Although they underwent alterations in order to conform to the Great Lake’s unique characteristics, the shipment of iron ore required major changes in the vessels’ design. In fact most ships’ captains initially avoided iron ore shipments. The loading and unloading of the dirty, jagged ore soiled and disfigured their ships, requiring frequent repairs and continuous cleaning.
    Even if shippers were enthusiastic about carrying ore, certain innate limitations hindered sailing vessels in the ore trade. Rigging and sails took up valuable cargo space. When in place, the rigging was an obstacle to loading and unloading. Most 19th century ships had a cargo capacity of about 200 tons, too small to carry a profitable amount of ore.
    In 1869, in response to these problems, Cleveland investors launched a ship designed especially for the iron ore trade. The R. J. Hackett was wooden-hulled and steam-powered. Despite its modest 213-foot length, the R.J. Hackett became the prototype for lake freighters. Its continuous hold with hatches spaced every 24 feet simplified unloading.
    The construction of wooden vessels had another problem: it relied on the readily available oak in the forests along the shores of the Great Lakes. While lumber was plentiful, the only problems with wooden ships lie in their inherent weaknesses discussed above. However, once the forestes became depleted of high quality wood, such ships were doomed, and iron ships took over the cargo demands of the Great Lakes mines.
    Three ships launched in 1871 were among the first commercial lake ships built of iron. These packet/passenger ships demonstrated the strength and flexibility of design available with metal construction. After the federal government enlarged the Soo Locks in 1893, builders raced to construct larger ships capable of cargo capacities that dwarfed their predecessors.
    In the 1850s men unloaded ore in much the same way that they loaded it-with shovels. They scooped the heavy, dusty ore from the holds onto the deck of the ship. Another gang of workers transferred it to wheelbarrows and rolled it down gangplanks to waiting canalboats, wagons or railroad cars. The pressing demand for ore in the late 1850s forced innovation. Workers learned to lower tubs of varying sizes into ship’s hold where shovelers filled them. Horses pulled up each load with the help of a block and tackle. This process was especially difficult in heavily used ports like Cleveland.
    In 1926 economist J. Russell Smith observed that in the United States economy "a thousand industries must have iron and steel or they cannot go on." The railroad, the catalyst for the iron industry’s early growth, connected communities across the country with its network of iron and, later, steel. A large number of these cities, in turn, produced items of iron and steel transferred by the trains: farm equipment from Cyrus McCormick’s Chicago factory to rural areas of the Midwest and Great Plains, the revolutionary typewriter from New York to offices around the country and spools of barbed wire from midwestern plants to the Great Plains.
    The importance of iron in settling the Great Plains during the Gilded Age is apparent in a letter dated 28 August 1877 by Kansas homesteader Howard Ruede. In the letter, he provided an inventory of his worldly possessions for his family in Pennsylvania, listing besides food and staples, "stove, tin wash boiler, 2 iron pots, teakettle, 2 spiders (a cast-iron frying pan with short legs to stand among coals on the hearth). 3 griddles, 3 bread pans, 2 tin cups, a steamer, coffee pot, coal oil can, gridiron, wash basin and 2 lb. Nails." Although Ruede could not then afford one, he referred frequently to his neighbors’ plows and how important it was for him to purchase one. He wrote of the various iron tools he used-axes, shovels and pitchforks. With few exceptions, everything Ruede mentioned was made of iron.
    In larger cities, iron and steel made architectural creations possible. The Commercial Style that emerged in the 1870s relied on iron beams for strength. The increased used of steel girders and beams allowed further architectural innovations, culminating in the mighty skyscraper. A growing United States presence, first in the western hemisphere and later worldwide required a plentiful supply of high-grade steel. Both battleships and iron-carrying vessels sailing from the Lake Superior mines made use of steel construction.
    These uses made iron production an indispensable ingredient in America’s national economic growth. Although many factors contributed to the development of the iron and steel industry, it is difficult to imagine one more critical than ore carriers, given the geographic proximity of the components necessary for iron and steel production near the shores of the Great Lakes.

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl ( for more information or permissions.