Building on the past
Over the last 125 years, the shipyard on Howards Pocket has gone by many names and filled many niches.
Fraser Shipyard is celebrating its past and exploring other avenues to build on past successes and nurture new opportunities.
"The history and the staying power is pretty unique," said Jim Petruga, sales manager with Northern Engineering, a Fraser sister company.
After all, Fraser is the last remaining shipyard in the Duluth-Superior area.
During World War II, there were seven shipyards in the Twin Ports, which produced 191 vessels for the war effort, mostly buoy tenders and support ships, according to "Duluth: The City and the People" written by Chuck Frederick.
Most closed in the years following the war.
Capt. Alexander McDougall decided to move his whaleback shipbuilding operation from Duluth in 1889 to the undeveloped strip of land on Howards Pocket. For the next nine years, the American Steel Barge Co. launched an average of five ships or barges annually and had as many as 10 under construction at a time.
It is the shipyard where the SS Meteor on Barker’s Island — launched as the Frank Rockefeller in 1896 and the last above water whaleback — was built.
The Superior Shipbuilding Co. operated the yard from 1899 to 1936, building 30 lake vessels and 25 oceangoing cargo ships commissioned during World War I.
The shipyard then became a repair yard from American Ship Building Co. until 1945, when brothers Eigel and Henry Knudsen resurrected the neglected yard in their own name. Known as Heine and Ike, the brothers operated Northern Engineering, a small machine shop specializing in maritime repairs. Ike ran the shipyard until his death in 1953.
Two years later, Robert M. Fraser continued the resurgence started by the Knudsen brothers. In 1957, the Fraser-Nelson Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. was awarded a contract to convert the steamer David P. Thompson from a straight-deck bulk carrier to a self-unloading vessel, marking the beginning of the shipyard’s continuing legacy in all aspects in ship repairs, including lengthening of lake vessels that started in the 1960s.
In 1977, Reuben Johnson & Son took over the shipyard, which continues under common ownership today.
Building on the past
"They’ve built ships here," Petruga said. "They’ve lengthened them; they’ve converted them to self-unloaders — whatever the shipping industry has needed, Fraser has adapted and has been able to provide."
That’s been key to the shipyard’s survival over the last 125 years. That and generations of workers — sometimes spanning three generations — that have done the work.
"The great asset here is the workers. … Without the workers, there wouldn’t be a shipyard here," said Al Rivord of Fraser. "They’re happy to have a place to work that’s local, but they’re also proud of their accomplishments when a boat leaves. They work under a lot of extreme conditions."
It’s not just the workers at Fraser; the shipyard works closely with its sister company, Northern Engineering.
"The companies work together a lot," Petruga said. Fraser does all the structural steel fabrication and Northern Engineering does the mechanical — engines, propulsion and like services.
"Having the two together, they provide great service," Petruga said.
Rivord said a lot has changed over the 41 years he has worked at the shipyard. When he started there in 1974, he said 550 people worked at the shipyard, which was in the midst of converting ships, and 30-40 vessels would be waiting to be worked on during the winter months; now eight to 13 vessels is the average.
"We’re reaching to go that high again," Rivord said. This winter, the goal is to employ 300 if the shipyard can get the work, he said, because larger ships mean bigger workloads.
Making waves to the future
Fraser is striving to be around well into the future.
Part of that success in recent years has been owners that care about their employees and are willing to invest in the shipyard’s success.
In the last few years, Fraser Shipyard has spent millions modernizing its dock and investing in equipment to accommodate today’s larger ships.
The work itself hasn’t changed in the last 125 years — what has changed is the methods of doing that work.
"The industry itself has improved itself but we’re working on the same issues — propulsion, hulls, damage," Rivord said.
And the maritime business is growing in recent years, Rivord said. He said while ships are lasting well past their expected usefulness, components that make the ship operate do wear out, and that wear keeps the shipyard busy.
"We’re rebuilding them from the inside out," Rivord said.
And that benefits Fraser and its customers.
"They’re saving their vessels and we’re doing the construction of it," Petruga said. "They’re contracting with us to put in the pieces."
That work includes the winter work and emergency service provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. Some of that work, like recent work on Coast Guard can be done at the shipyard, or it can be done while the boat is en route to its destination.
"Our guys are ready to go when we call them, whether it’s here or in Michigan," Rivord said.
Creating another niche
Fraser Shipyard is discovering that diversification is a way to continue its longstanding traditions.
"A lot of the equipment, a lot of the steel work that’s done here … it’s the same equipment that’s used in the pulp and paper industry, in the mining industry, wood products, grain handlers … and now we’re going out and talking to them, and they’re finding out we can also be a service provider," Petruga said. "We’re really a competitive option for these people that are within 100 miles of here."
The company is expanding what it does, such as the tank project for Essar Steel on the Iron Range, said James Farkas of Fraser.
"It’s all structural and it’s an expansion of what we do here," Farkas said.
"We’re fabricating tanks that are going up to the Iron Range now," Rivord said. "We’re repairing equipment for some of the ore docks in the area. We’ve done repairs for steam plants, boilers, WLSSD, Sappi."
The advantage for the shipyard is that while its seasonal maritime work is heavily weighted to the winter months, the other work the company is taking occurs when the weather gets warmer, creating an opportunity to provide more stable employment year round.
"There’s always hurdles to get over, and we always seem to find a way to get over them," Rivord said.
"Diversification brings a lot because we’ve got a talented workforce that is available," Petruga said.