Hidden in Plain Sight: A Voyage of Discovery in the Duluth Harbor

A great lakes freighter pulls into the canal in Duluth, MN.

Sometimes the most amazing experiences lie right at your own doorstep.

Or in my case, my adopted “doorstep” of Duluth, Minnesota, home to AIMCLEAR.

I work remotely, but travel to Duluth occasionally to spend time with my AIMCLEAR teammates. I’ve fallen in love with this evolving north country city and have come to think of it as my second home.

Duluth MN Map

So I was delighted when AIMCLEAR founder Marty Weintraub asked me to come with him on a gorgeous summer evening to explore and photo shoot Duluth’s inner harbor. Situated at the southern end of massive Lake Superior, Duluth has a 120+ year history as a primary shipping port, sending Northern Minnesota’s copious natural resource wealth to the rest of the world.

Aside from the active Lakers (freight ships that stay in the Great Lakes) entering or leaving the harbor several times a day, Marty knew there were hidden treasures, the remains of many great ships of the past, to be found somewhere in those waters.

Our mission that beautiful evening was to find and photograph them. That meant taking a boat designed for the lakes of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters into industrial territory of harbor slips designed for ships up to 1000 feet in length. Marty had motored about some but not all of these antique slips, and was pleased to explore further.

In the process we rekindled passions that make us both unrepentant digital marketers: intense curiosity and a love for revealing the unseen.

Here’s a sampling of what we discovered that night, a taste of the delights you can find when you go where you’ve never gone before, even if that unknown territory is in your own hometown.

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Two old all-wood cabin cruiser boats sit in dry dock.
Photo by Marty Weintraub

Everyone knows that dear old couple who seem to have been together forever. Perhaps not as beautiful as they once were, but finding companionship in their sunset years, these two remnants of the days of all-wood cabin cruisers seemed to wave us a greeting in the first slip we explored.

Here’s Marty capturing that photo:

Marty takes a photo of two boats in dry dock.
Photo by Mark Traphagen

Tour to Nowhere

Photos by Marty Weintraub & Lake Superior Magazine

The 64-foot Wenonah, built in 1960, hosted two-hour tours of Lake Superior’s north shore as recently as 2017. The inset photo shows her in more glorious times. Unfortunately, theft of equipment being used in her refitting has left her drydocked since then.

Old and in the Way

The J.B. Ford is a steamship bulk freighter with forward pilot house saw 112 years of service on the Great Lakes and is now being scrapped.
Photo by Mark Traphagen

My favorite discovery of our expedition was the rusting hulk of the J. B. Ford. Launched in 1903, this steamship bulk freighter saw 112 years of active service hauling coal around the Great Lakes. At the time of her retirement she was the oldest lake freighter still afloat.

Her distinctive forward pilot house gives her a look similar to the much larger and more famous Edmund Fitzgerald, whose loss in a storm in 1975 was immortalized in a Gordon Lightfoot song. By the time we happened upon the J. B. Ford, she was in the process of being scrapped.

Silent Superior Sentinels

Duluth-Superior harbor silos
Photo by Mark Traphagen

When you’re on a boat in the Duluth-Superior harbor, the horizon is dominated by massive rows of silos lining the numerous boat slips. These facilities are the receiving/shipping stations for millions of tons of grain or concrete to be loaded on freighters docked alongside. Each compound consists of silos that store the resource and a massive elevator (to the left in my photo) that moves whatever the silos contain into waiting vessels.

One of a Kind Design

The SS Meteor "whaleback" ship is a museum in Superior, WI.
Photo by Marty Weintraub

One treasure of the harbor not hidden is the SS Meteor. It’s the last remaining example of the offbeat “whaleback” ship, designed to maximize cargo space while minimizing draft (how deeply a boat sits in the water). After running aground in 1969, she was taken out of service, repaired, and towed to Superior, Wisconsin, to become a museum.

A Lift for Duluth

The Duluth Ariel Lift Bridge
Photo by Mark Traphagen
Ariel Lift Bridge
Photo by Marty Weintraub

Duluth’ s most iconic landmark is the Aerial Lift Bridge, built in 1905, and refitted in 1929 to be the only lift bridge in the United States. As you can see in the top photo, the road span of the bridge is actually elevated vertically to allow passage of large ships through the canal that connects the harbor to Lake Superior.

In the lower photo, Marty captured the rusting pilot house from an old Laker, severed from its ship and plopped beside one of the harbor slips.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Duluth's amphibious vehicle that once was a Jeep.

Just when we thought we’d seen everything interesting Duluth harbor had to offer, along came this car…uh, boat…uh, carboat? Boatcar?

Duluth resident Kyle Smalley grafted a boat to the bottom of a Jeep to create a truly amphibious vehicle. No trailer necessary; Kyle drives right from the highway down the ramp at Your Boat Club and out into Duluth harbor. We were lucky enough to catch him returning from an excursion as we docked for dinner at The Silos restaurant in the Pier B Resort.

In the background is the main stage in Bayfront Festival Park, where the famous Bayfront Blues Festival would kick off that weekend, emceed by AIMCLEAR‘s own VP of Public Relations, Joe Thornton!

AIMCLEAR is proud of its deep connections to the Duluth community. And as a relatively new AIMCLEARian, I was grateful to get to see some parts of the city many residents have never seen. It reminds me as a marketer and as a human to never stop being curious, to never cease exploring.

Our special thanks to Ben Foster of Your Boat Club who graciously hosted our use of their boat launch adjacent to the harbor.

Header image photo by the author.

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