The last ore boat leaves Escanaba

Courtesy photo Wilfred Sykes coming into port in Escanaba in the winter.

ESCANABA — A salute was given to Port Escanaba.

The last ore boat slipped out of Little Bay de Noc Tuesday evening without much fanfare.

A few tears, a few good and bad memories and a few photographers helped wash the Wilfred Sykes out into Lake Michigan on that gray evening.

Ore boats have been visiting Escanaba since the late 1800’s and at one time Escanaba was dubbed “the iron port of the world.” Over the decades, ore was brought to Escanaba by train from the mines on the Menominee Iron range and the Marquette Iron range. This week brought an end to an era.

As for most citizens, the last ship went unnoticed. Nobody really cared.

I was conceived in the shadow of the Escanaba’s last wooden ore dock and have lived in north Escanaba all my life. The boats and the Bay Shore are like home to me.

Oh, how I remember racing up the steps to the attic window in the old St. Paul Boarding House where we lived when I was little, and watching that first ore boat of spring sail up to the dock.

As a child and a teen, my siblings and I spent a great deal of our summer days down at the Bay Shore. From picking wild strawberries and lily-of-the valleys, to catching frogs and swimming, we were always watching the ore boats come and go.

In recent years many local people did not even know that we still shipped ore out of Escanaba. The reason for that is back in the 1970’s, the Chicago Northwestern modernized the way it got the ore pellets from the train to the ship. Gone was the huge wooden ore dock and a conveyor belt system was installed to move ore from stock piles on the ground to the boats.

The new system may have been “state of the art,” but it hid most of the process from public view, cut off the Bay Shore for fishing and recreation, and displaced a community of squatters (mostly immigrant folks) that lived there and created a new dust pollution problem for north Escanaba.

A couple of lawsuits tried to make the company be more responsible for their fugitive dust and noise violations when dust wipe from window sills could be moved with a magnet.

Some improvements were made and an agreement was signed, but over the years most of it was not enforced. And nobody really cared.

We still watched the boats like some people watch the birds. Tourist often came down Ludington Street just to catch a glimpse of the ladies of the lakes as they dance over the waters of Little Bay de Noc.

If I had a nickel for every time I hiked, biked or walked dogs along the train tracks, ore yard or north shore line, well I’d be rick enough to stop writing columns.

But the most amazing thing about all those miles so close to industry was the wonderful, dedicated, hardworking and friendly people that worked on the trains and boats and in the ore yard over the years.

A toot from the yellow engine, a wave a “have you found any berries today or what critters you photographed today?” the workers would ask. There was a great sense of good neighbors back then.

My own favorite switchman was my late uncle Bob. Flannel shirt, denim bib overalls, and a walkie talkie, he knew many long, hard hours along the pellet scatted rails, but never too busy for a smile or a joke or a report on all the wildlife he saw along the way.

Yes, it was definitely the workers that made their living on the trains, the docks and the ore boats that made Escanaba “the iron port of the world.”

This salute is for you!

Who knows what the future holds for Escanaba? Beyond the eastern most train track and the newly removed stock piles, there still exists a bay shore. For decades this strip of trees and sand have been unreachable to people. Wildlife like Sandhill cranes, osprey, eagles, mink, muskrat, ducks and geese, deer and fox thrive there.

And yes, the old oak tree the once support the Tarzan swing is still growing there. Some of the artifacts and apple trees of shanty town can be found there.

One era has come to an end. Maybe the next one will be more “green” with a great combination of business, industry and Bay Shore.


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.