Monday, August 25, 2008

Porcupine County's lifeblood

Without the 25,900-ton laker John G. Munson, it's fair to say that Ontonagon, County, Michigan -- prototype of my mystery novels' Porcupine County -- would plunge into its final economic decline and become a ghost town on the shore of Lake Superior.

Several times a year the Munson calls at Ontonagon with loads of coal to fuel the town's largest employer, the Smurfit-Stone paper plant at left, as well as the power plant at White Pine some 20 miles to the west. Without easy lakeside delivery of these many thousands of tons of coal, both industries would have to shut down.

Just last year the Army Corps of Engineers, pressured by the White House, announced it would have to halt dredging, without which lake freighters could never enter the shallow Ontonagon harbor. It took fast footwork in Congress to keep the dredging going. That's the dredge at work next to the Munson.

On the night of August 23 the Munson, having passed through the Soo Locks with a load of coal picked up in Sandusky, Ohio, anchored off Ontonagon in rough waters. Shortly after dawn the ship stood in to the harbor and tied up at the Smurfit-Stone quay, swinging its "self-unloader" boom out over the shore.

Here the business end of the boom deposits the vital black blood that keeps a small town's heart beating.

After four hours and several thousand tons of coal, the Munson rides high in the water, still unloading in this photo taken from the M-64 highway bridge more than a mile south.

Barely two hours later the Munson stands out into the lake, four miles from Ontonagon and three miles from the beach of the Writer's Lair, headed for Two Rivers, Minn., where it will pick up bulk cargo and return to Ohio.

[August 29.] Three days later a tug towed the dredge, itself pulling a small barge, to its home port in Duluth. I happened to be on the beach with a long lens as the tow went by two miles out.


  1. Is that the same kind of ship as the Edmund Fitzgerald? Looks like a similar one to me. Colin.

  2. Yes, it is. The Fitz displaced 26,600 tons against the Munson's 25,900. They were not sister ships, though -- just had the same general design and lines.