The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 25, 2012

Mr. Hulett’s invention

Conneaut native introduced his revolutionary unloader in 1899

Staff Writer

— 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

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.

Big business

George Hulett’s invention was thus a very welcome addition to the bulk material handling facilities of docks that received iron ore. Hulett, although born in 1846 to pioneer settlers from Vermont, spent only his first 12 years in his native Conneaut. The family moved to Cleveland and Hulett completed his education at the Humiston Institute of Cleveland, graduating in 1864.

Hulett returned east after graduation and established a general merchandise store in Unionville. He operated the store until 1881, when he sold out and returned to Cleveland.  He was in the produce and commission business there until 1890, when he made a huge career change and got into the manufacturing of machinery to handle coal and ore.

He was associated with a number of Cleveland-area manufacturing companies — Variety Iron Works, McMyler Manufacturing, Webster Camp & Lane and, finally through merger, Wellman, Seaver & Morgan Co., where Hulett was vice president and director.

Hulett had already invented a car dumper machine known as the McMyler Car Dumper, before rolling out his Hulett Unloader in 1899 at Conneaut. The Hulett Unloader quickly proved its worth and Carnegie not only purchased the prototype for $40,000, he ordered two more for the dock.

The original Huletts were steam powered and must have been miserable to operate during the summer months as the steam lines passed through the cab. All told, five of these steam units were installed at Conneaut, two at Buffalo and one at Huron.

Electrical units were more numerous, but they consumed a huge amount of power, often necessitating construction of dedicated powerhouses at the docks. When the Huletts were connected to municipal systems, it was common for the town’s lights to dim considerably whenever the machines were at work.

Most of the Huletts ended up being built by Wellman, Seaver & Morgan, which acquired the assets of Webster, Camp & Lane when that company failed. All told, more than 80 Hulett Unloading Machines were built between 1898 and 1960.

Lake Erie and Michigan ports accounted for all but six of the Huletts in service on the Great Lakes. An article in the Aug. 3, 1905, “Engineering News,” states that there were 12 Huletts in operation at Great Lakes ports at that time, a third of them at the Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock Co. Collectively, those four machines unloaded 7,257 gross tons in just 4.5 hours. One machine and its very efficient operator managed to unload 681 tons in one hour. The size of the labor force required to unload a ship was cut by 75 percent.

In the early days of the machinery’s history, a skilled operator could grab about 90 percent of the ore using just the clamshell. Shovelers would have to scoop up the remaining ore to make it accessible to the clamshell. As ship builders tailored their holds to the needs of the machinery, 97 percent of the ore could be reached without shovelers. Later, front-end loaders were lowered into the holds to further reduce the need for manual labor.

The Hulett Unloader operated in tandem with Hulett traveling conveyor bridges, which were fitted with seven-ton buckets. The buckets dumped the ore into a self-propelling hopper, spanning two railroad tracks, upon which ran self-propelling hopper-bottom cars for filling the bins.

The Huletts, technological wonders that they were, eventually fell to even better technology. Foremost was taconite enrichment, a process that converted the raw iron ore to a concentrated pellet form that could be unloaded using the self-unloading equipment that increasingly blighted the decks of freighters.

By the 1980s the steel companies’ fleets had largely been converted to the self-unloading vessels and most Huletts were mothballed and eventually scrapped. By 1992 only nine Huletts were still working around the lakes — four on Whiskey Island in Cleveland and five at Conneaut. The Conneaut machines were idle that year, while the Cleveland Huletts unloaded only 30 cargoes during the entire season.

No Huletts take up valuable dock property these days, but a small piece of one of these behemoths is displayed at Point Park (end of Walnut Boulevard) in Ashtabula.