February 27, 2013

With Demolition Under Way, Local Group Races to Save Historic Ore Dock

  • By: Lauren Walser

The Soo Line ore dock in 2009. Credit: chief_huddleston, flickr
The Soo Line ore dock in 2009

As a young boy, John Chapple would clamber out onto the old ore dock stretching 1,800 feet from the shores of his hometown of Ashland, Wis., into Lake Superior, where he would join his siblings and cousins for an afternoon of fishing, swimming, and jumping off the dock’s lower levels.

“And sometimes, when we got reckless, the higher levels,” Chapple says with a laugh.

Chapple, like many Ashland residents, holds a vast collection of memories of this massive, 80-foot-tall structure, a local landmark since it was built in 1916. But today, as it is slowly being demolished by its current owners, Canadian National Railway, Chapple worries the ore dock will remain just that -- a memory.

“It’s a majestic structure,” says Chapple, president of Save Our Oredock, a group established last October. “To see what’s happening to it now is just tragic and heartbreaking.”

Adds Jeff Peters, Save Our Oredock’s director, “It’s part of our heritage. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Ashland Ore Dock in 1917. Credit: Cam Pinnow
Ashland Ore Dock in 1917

The ore dock, the third of its kind to be built in Ashland, stretched 800 feet into Lake Superior when it was first built by the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault St. Marie Railroad (the Soo Line) during World War I. In 1925, its size doubled to 1,800 feet long, increasing its capacity from 52,000 tons of ore to 110,000 tons -- making it the largest ore dock of its kind in the country.

During its heyday, the dock helped fuel a mining boom, allowing iron ore from Michigan and Wisconsin to be transferred to the steel producing plants throughout the region.

The last load of iron was transported from the dock in 1965, and while it continued to provide shelter for other boats and served as a popular local fishing spot, it fell to disrepair.

A lack of maintenance over the years created substantial safety concerns, Chapple says, leading Canadian National Railway to move toward demolition. (The company did not return requests for further information.)

So far, the uppermost portion of the dock, which held the railroad tracks, has been removed, taking the structure down to its concrete pillars and the steel chutes that were used to load iron ore onto ore boats. The trestle leading to the ore dock is also gone.

Great Lakes oreboat at dock in 1960. Credit: Cam Pinnow
Great Lakes oreboat at dock in 1960

The members of Save Our Oredock have been in contact with the railroad, and both the group and the city are working to come up with alternate solutions to save at least a part of the structure.

“Canadian National Railway has been patient in their deliberations, but nothing substantive has really come up,” Chapple says.

Both Chapple and Peters see huge potential for the structure to become an economic generator for the city, and with two major highways merging near the dock, they believe it would make a popular travel destination.

They envision establishing an observation deck and a maritime interpretive center on the site to educate the public about the region’s maritime heritage and unique ecosystems. And with Lake Superior offering a scenic backdrop, they would love to add outdoor picnic areas, fishing piers, transient boat docking, and kayak and boat rentals. The dock would also be an ideal location for a cruise line terminal, Peters believes.

Further, he says, the mainland area around the dock has potential for new development, including hotels and restaurants.

Building Ashland Ore Dock, July 21,1916. Credit: Cam Pinnow
Building Ashland Ore Dock, July 21,1916.

“This could be a huge benefit to the area’s economy,” Peters says. “And 1,800 feet into Lake Superior -- no one has that to offer.”

Unfortunately, Chapple and Peters point out, it’s a huge economic undertaking, but they’re not giving up. They will continue to raise money and awareness, before the dock is leveled further.

“We’re definitely in the midnight hour,” Chapple says.

Chapple and Peters encourage those interested in saving the dock to contact state officials Tammy Baldwin, Robert Jauch, Ron Johnson, Janet Bewley, and Sean Duffy. Donations to the cause can be made through the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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