SIC 4432 Freight Transportation on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway


SIC 4432

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in the transportation of freight on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, either between U.S. ports or between U.S. and Canadian ports.



Coastal and Great Lakes Freight Transportation


In 2005, the U.S. Flag Great Lakes Fleet consisted of 56 vessels, 46 of which were in active service on April 1, 2005. According to the Lake Carriers' Association (LCA), the active fleet included 38 dry-bulk carriers, four cement carriers, and three tankers. In addition to engaging in the transportation of domestic freight on the Great Lakes and upper St. Lawrence River, these ships also carried freight between U.S. and Canadian ports. Federal cabotage laws, under the Jones Act, required that cargo shipped between U.S. ports be carried in ships built and registered in the United States and owned and crewed by U.S. citizens. Ships of other maritime nations also sailed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. Any U.S. flagged ships involved in international trade other than to Canadian ports would be classified elsewhere. The U.S. Flag Great Lakes Fleet moves over 100 million tons of maritime commerce—inbound, outbound, and in transit—through the Great Lakes each year.

The principal cargoes shipped on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway are iron ore and coal. Freighters carry iron ore mined in Minnesota and Michigan to steel mills in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. A single Great Lakes freighter can carry enough iron ore to produce the steel needed to build 87,000 automobiles. The second largest cargo is coal, mined primarily in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, and shipped to utilities and factories in the upper Great Lakes states and Canada. Great Lakes freighters also carry low-sulfur Western coal shipped initially by rail to Superior, Wisconsin. The U.S. fleet typically hauls millions of tons of cargo annually during a nine-month navigation season. The principal cargoes of foreign transporters are wheat, barley, corn, and other grains from the Midwest and Canada that are destined primarily for European markets.

Nearly all of the U.S. flag ships engaged in freight transportation on the Great Lakes are members of the Lake Carriers' Association, founded in 1880 and one of the oldest active trade organizations in the United States. The Cleveland-based organization lists 13 members who own 56 vessels. Their collective gross registered tonnage is approximately 950,000, with a midsummer capacity of about 1.7 gross tons.


The Great Lakes constitute the single largest body of fresh water in the world, covering more than 95,000 square miles. Lake Superior alone covers 31,700 square miles, making it the world's largest freshwater lake. With their connecting waterways, the five Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—also constitute the world's largest inland water transportation system. Eleven hundred miles separate Duluth, Minnesota, the westernmost point of Lake Superior, from the St. Lawrence River, which stretches another 800 miles to Quebec, where it empties into the long, narrow Gulf of St. Lawrence. This waterway provides access for the transport of goods from the heart of the Midwest directly to the Atlantic Ocean.

This massive, interconnected waterway has been an important trade route for more than three centuries. As early as 1660, French explorers were transporting furs by canoe from the upper reaches of Lake Superior to Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. In 1679, the explorer Sieur de La Salle built the Griffin, the first commercial vessel on the Great Lakes. Built and launched above the falls on the Niagara River, which connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Griffin was also the first ship to sail on the upper Great Lakes.

La Salle sailed the Griffin to Green Bay, then a French outpost on the western shores of Lake Michigan, where it was loaded with furs. The five-man crew of the Griffin then set out on the return trip, while La Salle headed south to explore the Illinois River. The Griffin never survived its maiden voyage, however, as it was apparently lost during a violent storm. Father Louis Hennepin, who sailed with La Salle, later wrote an account that suggested the Griffin foundered on Lake Dauphin, the French name for Lake Michigan. In 1890, a lighthouse keeper discovered seventeenth-century artifacts and four skeletons in a cave on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, but the Griffin and the chest of gold coins it reportedly carried were never found.

Struggle for Control

The next ships to sail the Great Lakes after the ill-fated Griffin were warships built on Lake Ontario in the years leading up to the French and Indian War, in which France and England struggled for control of the profitable North American fur trade. The first naval battle fought on the Great Lakes took place in 1756, and the English commander fled without firing a shot. However, British forces eventually captured Quebec and Montreal, the two most important French settlements. In 1763, France ceded Canada and most of its possessions east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain. The English established a shipyard at Navy Island on the Niagara River and built the first commercial ships to sail the upper Great Lakes since the Griffin.

In 1783, following the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris established the Great Lakes as the boundary between the United States and Canada, with the exception of Lake Michigan, which was entirely in U.S. territory. However, the Great Lakes remained the "English Seas" until Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie was the last naval engagement fought on the Great Lakes. Neither the United States nor Canada maintains warships or fortifications on the lakes. Although the international boundary runs down the middle of the lakes, the two countries have granted admiralty and criminal jurisdiction to each other covering the entirety of the Great Lakes.

Canals Expand Great Lakes Trade

The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River were always connected by natural waterways, but not all of those waterways were navigable. Fur traders were able to portage around the spectacular falls on the Niagara River or the much smaller falls on the Saint Mary's River, which linked Lake Superior with Lake Huron. But larger ships of commerce were unable to sail the entire stretch of the Great Lakes or navigate the Lachine Rapids on the upper St. Lawrence River.

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was the first navigable waterway to link the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean. It connected the city of Buffalo, at the eastern edge of Lake Erie, to Albany, 363 miles away. From there, ships were able to reach the harbor at New York by sailing down the Hudson River. The St. Clair became the first ship to travel all the way from Detroit to the Atlantic, lowering its masts at Buffalo so it would fit under the bridges as it was towed down the canal by mules.

With the opening of the Erie Canal, the cost of transporting freight from Lake Erie to New York fell from $120 a ton to $4 a ton. Several other canals were also dug in the early nineteenth century, linking other inland waterways with the Great Lakes. The Ohio-Erie Canal, also opened in 1825, ran from Cleveland to Akron, Ohio, and then followed the Scioto River to the Ohio River. The Miami-Erie Canal linked Toledo with the bustling Ohio River port at Cincinnati through the Great Miami Valley. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, completed in 1848, is often called the single most important factor in the development of the state of Illinois. It linked the growing port at Chicago with the Mississippi River.

In 1829, a Canadian company opened the Welland Ship Canal, which further encouraged trade on the Great Lakes by making it possible to sail between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The original canal linked Lake Ontario with the Welland River, which flowed into the Niagara River above the falls. A laborious system of 40 locks lifted and lowered the ships. In 1833, the canal was extended from Port Robinson on the Welland River to Port Colborne on Lake Erie, entirely bypassing the 25-mile-long Niagara River. Canal reconstruction conducted between 1873 and 1887 reduced the number of locks to 25, and a new canal completed in 1932 further reduced the number of locks to eight.

The opening of the Welland Canal left only Lake Superior cut off from the rest of the Great Lakes, since the 42-mile-long Saint Mary's River contained several stretches of rapids and a 19-foot waterfall. In 1668, French trappers established a portage and trading post on the river at the city of Sault Sainte Marie. Then in 1797, the Northwest Fur Company, an English enterprise, built a single-lock canal around the falls, which allowed canoes and flat-bottomed boats to navigate the river. However, the canal was destroyed by American troops during the War of 1812. In 1850, John Jacob Aster's American Fur Company built a tramway to carry cargo between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, but the need remained for a navigable waterway. With the growing importance of Lake Superior trade, entire ships were sometimes dragged between the lakes on wooden rollers.

Soon after Michigan became a state in 1837, Governor Stevens T. Mason announced plans to build a canal on the American side of the Saint Mary's Falls. However, the proposed...

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