Big ship diary

July 5, 2011

by Allison Swaim

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Front and Center/Allison Swaim
The deck crew prepares to load the boat.
Front and Center/Allison Swaim
Work happens around the clock on the ship, men stand on deck as the ship pulls up to the coal dock in South Chicago at 5:00 a.m.
Front and Center/Allison Swaim
The boat floats the middle of Lake Michigan, somewhere.
Front and Center/Allison Swaim
Mid-afternoon, the galley is deserted.
Front and Center/Allison Swaim
Limestone pours into hatch 13.

The gravel in your driveway, the steel in your car, and the coal that produces electricity for your home may well have spent time on a Great Lakes freighter on its way to you. At the height of the steel industry, bulk ore ships were in bumper to bumper traffic on the Great Lakes.  Shipping may seem an outdated mode of transportation, but it's still by far the most efficient way to transport bulk material. Each year, over 100 million tons of iron ore, coal, limestone and other products travel through the Great Lakes navigation system by boat.

 

 

Last November, radio producer Allison Swaim spent nine days aboard a bulk ore ship called the Calumet. It's a huge ship. At 630 feet, it's longer than two football fields and holds close to 20,000 tons of cargo. You'd need almost 1,000 semi-trucks to carry the same load.

Seventeen crew members live and work on the ship for a month at a time. It's a working boat, and the work never stops. When they're not loading or unloading thousands of tons of rocks into and out of the belly of the ship, they're headed full speed through the lake to the next dock. Then, both pick-up sized engines are at full throttle and the whole boat shakes and rattles.

Allison boarded the ship at a limestone quarry in Marblehead, Ohio, just west of Cleveland, and got off nine days later in South Chicago. This route took  the Calumet from Lake Erie up the Detroit River, across Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac, and back and forth across Lake Michigan.

 

Day 1: Marblehead, OH-- loaded limestone/dirt mix ("work dirt"-- used for construction)

Day 2: Marine City, MI-- unloaded half the dirt, Marysville, MI-- unloaded the rest of the dirt, Sarnia, Ontario-- stopped for gas at a fuel dock

Day 3: Meldrum Bay, Ontario-- loaded limestone

Day 4: Grand Haven, MI-- unloaded limestone at a power plant

Day 5: South Chicago, IL-- loaded coal at KCBX Coal Terminals, Inc.

Day 6: Green Bay, WI-- unloaded coal

Day 7: Port Inland, MI-- loaded limestone

Day 8: Grand Haven, MI-- unloaded limestone

Day 9: South Chicago, IL-- loaded coal

As part of Front and Center's series covering the Great Lakes region, Allison produced this audio documentary to tell the story of life on board a big ship on the lakes.  See her slideshow, Not a cruiseship or visit Out-here.tumblr.com to see and hear more from the Calumet multimedia documentary project.