Lake Superior Ports

March 30, 2014
Ports and Waterways

One of the engineering marvels of the 20th century, the St. Lawrence Seaway provides access from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. An essential part of the North American transportation infrastructure, it has become a lifeline to doing business with the rest of the world.

Movement of goods on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway goes back as far as its human history. As populations grew, it was clear that moving bulk commodities via this waterway could be a source of tremendous opportunity and wealth. Early in the 19th century, the Seaway was already an ideal route for transporting relatively small volumes of North American mining and agricultural products. Liner services, ferries, package freight, and bulk freight systems all existed among the Great Lakes up to 100 years before the Seaway's official opening in 1959, which linked North American products with markets in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, and South America.

Bi-national backbone of commerce.

Duluth-Superior truly became a world port when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to deep-draft navigation in 1959. That milestone created the world's largest inland waterway and our nation's fourth seacoast. Today, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway (GLSLS) moves an average of some 200 million tons of freight each year. In fact, 24 of the top 100 tonnage ports in the U.S. are located on the Great Lakes.

Increasingly known worldwide as Hwy H2O, the GLSLS System is comprised of five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie); the St. Lawrence River and Seaway; 16 sets of locks; and a series of canals, rivers, and inland lakes that connect U.S. and Canadian centers of mining, manufacturing, and agriculture to the global marketplace.

It takes about a week's sailing time for a vessel to transit the full-length of this 2, 342-mile (3, 769- km) commercial waterway. Some 40 ports serve as "on/off ramps" connecting maritime traffic to a vast intermodal network of roadways and rail lines for door-to-door service.

Marine highway delivers prosperity.

This bi-national marine highway offers the safest, most fuel efficient, environmentally friendly, and most reliable mode of transportation for moving cargo in and out of North America's heartland. A 2008 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that the Great Lakes Navigation System saves customers approximately $3.6 billion per year over the next least-costly transportation mode. An Economic Impact Study released in Oct. 2011, determined that maritime commerce along the Great Lakes-Seaway supported 227, 000 jobs; contributed $14.1 billion in annual personal income, $33.5 billion in business revenue, and $6.4 billion in local purchases; and added $4.6 billion to federal, state/provincial, and local tax revenues.

The GLSLS System is used by a wide variety of vessel types including Seaway-size oceangoing ships; self-unloading bulk carriers as large as 1, 000+ feet (305-meters) trading exclusively within the Great Lakes; plus tug/barge units, ferries, cruise ships, fishing boats, and pleasure craft. Remarkably, the Seaway System still has room to double its current capacity which bodes well for the future as forecasts call for marine traffic volumes worldwide to triple within the next 20 years.

Transiting the Seaway - What you need to know

There are several steps to undertake when planning to transit the GLSLS System. The Seaway website provides a convenient checklist. A local shipping agent can also help with meeting any/all requirements and should be consulted before a commercial trip is undertaken.

GLSLS Navigation Season (May be seasonally adjusted)

Oceangoing: March 25 - December 26
Great Lakes: March 25 - January 15

The navigation season within the Seaway is limited to nine months. However, to service steel mills, utility companies, and other industries in the region, shipping on four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie) typically extends into mid-January. Many ports, including the Port of Duluth-Superior favor extending the season for GLSLS navigation. "Short sea shipping" options would offer customers a complementary route to rail and truck traffic - a marine alternative that would reduce emissions, improve air quality, enhance safety for the motoring public, and alleviate congestion along our nation's roadways and borders.

Water. The clear choice.

Waterborne shipping is the mode of transport for 3/4 of the planet's international trade. Per ton of cargo, ships today are still more fuel efficient, less polluting, and significantly safer than other modes of transportation.

Fuel Efficiency and Environmental Impact on Great Lakes Navigation

Additionally, the maritime industry remains vigilant in its efforts to further reduce its carbon footprint and adopt standardized ballast water treatment methods to stem the introduction/spread of aquatic invasive species.

As the inland hub of this marine highway, the Port of Duluth-Superior remains the cornerstone of this region's economy and will continue to play a pivotal role in sustaining this international trade route.

Did you know?
The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway.

  • is home to more than 100 million people, nearly 1/4 of North America's population
  • transports 80% of the iron ore used in U.S. steel production
  • serves a region that accounts for some 40% of U.S. manufacturing, produces 2/3 of Canada's industrial output, and creates more than 1/3 third of the continent's gross national product
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