The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Currents

March 25, 2012

Mr. Hulett’s invention

Conneaut native introduced his revolutionary unloader in 1899

When the shipping season opened at Conneaut 113 years ago this spring, there was on the ore dock a new piece of machinery that looked like something left over from “The War of the Worlds.”

Rising 92 feet above the rail tracks, the steam-belching contraption’s most notable feature was its vertical, articulating arm, at the lower end of which was a modified clamshell bucket capable of descending into the hold of a Great Lakes ship. Many writers who observed its operation likened it to a steel grasshopper that moved in an arc.

An operator stood in a metal cage just above the bucket and thereby controlled the clamshell’s movements. A second operator was on the machinery’s carriage and controlled the travel of the machine along the dock.

The prototype was destined to revolutionize the iron ore shipping industry on the Great Lakes, but in the spring of 1899, it was a huge experiment and financial risk for its designer, Conneaut native George H. Hulett.

Hulett’s employer, Webster, Camp & Lane Co., of Akron, had convinced Andrew Carnegie to allow the firm to install one of the 1,500-ton machines on the dock at Conneaut. If the machine saved money and labor, Carnegie would purchase it. If it failed to live up to the hype, the contraption would be removed, at substantial loss, of course.

When the day came to fire up the behemoth and put it to work on a cargo of ore, a problem arose among the dock workers — no one wanted to ride inside the cage and make the long descent into the hold, the 24-foot-wide jaws wide open, ready to take the first bite of ore.

“Apparently, the idea of riding the leg up, over and into a boat was too radical,” noted Conneaut native Eric Hirsimaki, a Great Lakes historian.

Eventually, however, some brave soul volunteered for the task and made the historic journey, which would portend the end of an era for the manual dock worker.

Ore history

As with any technological advance, to understand the importance of George Hulett’s invention, one must first comprehend the amount of human labor that was required to unload iron ore manually.

The 1844 discovery of ore in the Lake Superior region was the beginning of what would become one of America’s greatest industries — steel. The impact would stretch all the way from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the grimy valleys of the Mahoning and Ohio rivers, where the ore was combined with coal from Appalachia to create an industry and prosperity.

Getting the ore to the mills was the challenge. At first, the nascent industry focused on converting the ore to bloom iron, which was then shipped to Pittsburgh for further processing. Bad idea. By the time a ton of bloom arrived on the Pittsburgh dock, it cost $200. The market rate was $80.

In September 1853 a shipment of 152 tons of ore left Marquette, Mich., bound for the Sharon Iron Company, Sharon, Pa. The amount of labor involved was horrendous because the ore had to be unloaded, portaged around rapids and reloaded on a ship. The schooner delivered the ore to the dock at Erie, Pa.; the material moved south on canal boats to the furnace at Sharpsville, Pa.

Construction of a canal around the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in the mid-1850s facilitated the movement of ore from the Upper Peninsula into the rest of the Great Lakes system. In 1854, a 1,000-ton shipment of ore that was mined and hauled to the dock by an old gray horse and French cart was loaded onto three vessels, one of them the Sam Ward, named in honor of the Great Lakes shipping magnate who got his start in Conneaut (see May 29, 2011 Odd Tales).

The shipping industry grew slowly but steadily, and by 1888 iron ore became, in terms of tonnage, the major commodity moving on the lake. In 1897 annual ore shipments from the five Lake Superior ranges totaled 12,469,637 tons.

The amount of manpower required just to unload this ore is mind boggling. It would take 100 men, working for a period of 12 hours, to unload a 5,000-ton cargo, according to a biography of George H. Hulett at clevelandmemory.org.

The huge challenge facing the dock workers was lifting this ore out of a ship’s hold and into wheelbarrows on the vessel’s deck. The laborers built platforms inside the holds and laboriously shoveled the ore from level to level until it reached the deck. Once can only imagine the misery of this job as hard labor, summer heat, poor ventilation and dust combined to create a soul-numbing, body-killing experience that consumed thousands of Finnish and Italian immigrants.

As early as 1867 the need for some type of mechanized unloading machinery was met with various steam-powered hoist designs. Nevertheless, it still took days to unload cargoes of ore, thanks in part to the increased capacities of the ships. From 1887 to 1900, those capacities doubled, and owners, ever mindful of the large cost of their investment, wanted to keep dock time to a minimum.

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