Cargo oddity in January caps 'solid season' in port of Duluth-Superior

Coal experienced its lowest total since 1985.

2019 shipping.jpg
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Among the 33.5 million tons of cargo moved in the port of Duluth-Superior for the 2019-20 season, one shipment stood out.

It came near the end of the campaign, when the 704-foot lake freighter H. Lee White loaded with 18,015 tons of spring wheat on Jan. 2.

Duluth Seaway Port Authority records date back to 1871. But records related to grain departures date only to 1996, and those records show that the H. Lee White’s was the first grain shipment to leave Duluth in January. Grain almost always stops moving in December, when the foreign vessels stop arriving through the Saint Lawrence Seaway on the Atlantic Coast.

The cargo oddity contributed to a banner year for grain, reaching 1.5 million tons — up 18% over the previous campaign and 10% over the five-season average, the Port Authority said in its season-ending news release on Monday.

All told, the 2019-20 campaign was slightly down — with declining coal shipments being the main culprit.


“Despite some headwinds, it was a solid tonnage season for the Port of Duluth-Superior, and record-breaking for wind energy cargo,” Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca said in the news release. “Looking ahead, we have reason for optimism in 2020, with the prospect of greater international trade certainty and more project cargo scheduled to arrive. The outlook is mostly upbeat.”

The 33.5 million tons of cargo moved marked the fourth-highest total dating back to 2014-15, when a recent high of 37.6 million tons moved through the port. Four of the port’s six cargo categories notched season-over-season tonnage gains, the Port Authority said, led by a record-breaking year for wind energy parts at 306,000 tons.

The 2020-21 shipping campaign opens March 25 with the reopening of the Soo Locks at the eastern end of Lake Superior following the regular off-season on the Great Lakes.

Inbound salt posted a substantial season-over-season increase, climbing 35%, the Port Authority said. Limestone rose 2% over the previous campaign.

Iron ore, despite declining from a 23-season high in 2018, remained the port’s top tonnage cargo in 2019, totaling 19.7 million tons and exceeding the five-season average by more than 12%.

Tonnage gains were offset by a sharp drop in coal, which posted its lowest tonnage total (8 million tons) since 1985.

Examining the St. Lawrence Seaway as a whole, one year removed from its best season in more than a decade, international shipping volume through the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence Seaway declined 6.4% in 2019. Contributing factors included international trade conflicts, crop-hindering weather and challenging navigational conditions due to high water levels, the Port Authority said.

Eighty-five overseas vessels arrived in the port of Duluth-Superior during the 2019 shipping season, the most since 2010.


Approximately 800 vessels and 35 million short tons of cargo move through the port of Duluth-Superior each year, making it the Great Lakes’ largest tonnage port and one of the nation’s top 20, the Port Authority said.

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