FIFTEEN years ago, lake freighters were nearly as common as sailboats on Lake Erie.
The steel industry was booming and cars were being built at a frenetic pace. The most efficient means of transporting iron ore from Minnesota and western Lake Superior ports to the mills of Michigan and Ohio was on these gigantic carriers. In one trip alone, a freighter can carry enough iron ore pellets to build 87,000 cars.
Today, fewer than one-third of these "lakers" transport iron ore, coal, cement, and grain from port to port. The industry has stabilized in recent years, moving 60 million to 65 million tons of cargo a year, up from 43 million tons a year in the early 1980s.
The Lorain Port Authority is a "good barometer for the local community," says Richard Novak, executive director of the port authority. Here, 1,000-foot ships from Lake Superior ports unload taconite (iron ore pellets) that are later reloaded onto smaller LTV Steel-bound ships which are able to navigate the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland.
The recession years of the early '80s "dramatically changed the face of our industry," says Glen Nekvasil, communications director of the Lake Carriers' Association (LCA) in Cleveland.
Dependent on heavy industry and shipbuilding, the port city of Lorain, Ohio, was hit hard. Companies closed down
At one time, more than 1,000 skilled laborers were employed at the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, most of whom left the area when the company closed in 1982. Because parts and engines for these ships were bought locally, many smaller firms were forced to close or look elsewhere for business. Unemployment was as high as 24 percent, Mr. Novak says.
Although community leaders have worked hard to diversify the local economy (the old shipyard is now a marina), times are still tough.
In March of this year, unemployment in Lorain was still more than 12 percent. The area relies on heavy industry. USS Kobe Steel and two major Ford assembly plants are located within 15 miles of the port at Lorain.
The LCA represents most of the major shipping fleets on the Great Lakes, including the "Big Four" - American Steamship Company, Interlake Steamship Company, Oglebay Norton Company, and USS Great Lakes Fleet Inc. - which account for 80 percent of LCA's tonnage.
Ray Skelton, special projects director for the Duluth Port Authority says he has observed the same trend: After a dramatic decrease in tonnage leaving his port, the largest on the Great Lakes, the numbers have leveled off and stabilized in recent years.
The port's best year was 1979, peaking at more than 43 million metric tons of cargo moved. In 1982, this number was down to 26 million, but 10 years later had risen back to 35 million, Mr. Skelton says. He predicts that "35 million tons will be our average year."
Lakers are an efficient means of transport, Mr. Nekvasil says. "One ton [of iron ore] can be moved from Duluth to Cleveland for the cost of renting two videos." Cyclical industry
Downsizing the fleet was a necessary move, the LCA says. With a smaller, more efficient steel industry and the advent of 1,000-foot carriers, the extra ships were scrapped. "We're a cyclical industry" at the mercy of steel industry trends, Nekvasil says.
"Our future is tied to basic industry in the Midwest," says George Ryan, president of the organization.
The LCA says it hopes that a second lock to accomodate 1,000-footers will be built in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., under President Clinton's economic stimulus program. Should the primary supersize lock close for any reason, United States shipping on the Great Lakes would come to a "virtual standstill," the LCA says. A second supersize lock would be an "insurance policy," Skelton says.
Most of the 1,200 ships that use Duluth as a port pass through the locks. Although the replacement lock was authorized by Congress in 1986, funding has not been implemented for the $400-million structure.
Another improvement for Great Lakes shipping could come in the form of a fixed shipping season that may open as early as March 21.
Currently, the season runs from April to the middle of January because of ice. Opponents such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, however, have raised concerns about environmental damage caused to the St. Mary's River by shipping through heavy ice.