before the hotel / Atop the Castle Walls
If ‘every boy needs a pirate ship’, this is that boy’s seaside fortress.
There was something in the air beside the dark; “tastes like chalk,” I said to my friend. “Probably should have taken the masks.”
“Probably should have taken the electricity,” came their reply. Smartass.
“Not much left here to power, obviously.” The round beams of our headlamps reflected in the crisscrossing stainless conduits bolted to ugly eggshell walls. Their paths—along with the bare brackets on the concrete floor and concrete ceiling—marked where the equipment was.
What kind? Not sure. I bet they had something to do with concrete too, though.
As the weak lights found a staircase—the only staircase—something else found its way into the industrial-strength darkness: ringing.
Bells chimed and chimed again over their echo. A familiar sound to me, though the reverberations made it strangely alien. My partner’s face was perplexed and alarmed, until two words, “the bridge,” assured them of the source.
Duluthians know the ring of the lift bridge bells. The sound says, “one’s coming, and I hope it’s a big one.” A lake freighter was about to pass very close by, and before us was the only route upward…
There is a God of Adventure, and these moments are found in his winks.
Up. Chutes and a maintenance room. At the first window: “I can see it. Looks to be a few minutes out. Shit, it’s a thousand-footer. This is going to be big.”
Up. Dust collectors and a records room. At the second window: “Alright, the front is just under the bridge. It’ll blow soon. We have to get higher… hurry!”
Up. Augers to convey cement mix into the silos. At the top window: Our dark faces are framed in a dark window on the top floor, lit only by the lift bridge lights. The time comes we have been waiting for:
HRAUUUUUUAHNK … … HRAAAAAAAHUNK
“…ANGK angk angk.” The echoes of the boat horn resonated in the concrete silos below our feet as the steamship slid past.
Its propellers made the surface of Lake Superior boil and spit behind it while jets pushed the aft around until the pilot house faced Superior, directly away from Huron-Portland Cement. This is how a ship says, “Nice to see you. Hope to talk again. Good night.” You see, these freighters are widely regarded as quite polite, if a little old-fashioned.
I am a little boy, and this is my castle; I look out on Duluth; a conquered kingdom, if only for a night.
Duluth’s Huron Portland Plant
Duluth is not known for its cement. Ore docks and grain elevators: these are the icons that the city chose for itself.
Local history buffs, though, will tell you about the giant Universal Portland Cement factory. “Built in 1915 to reuse byproducts from the steel-making process,” they may say, touting the long-demolished factory as an honorable blip from the past. Sadly demolished, sadly forgotten, as always.
Less than a mile from the center of downtown, another cement factory hides in plain sight.
Drive down Railroad Street past Bayfront Park and note the silos across the abandoned shipping slip from the stage. Did you notice them before? Study the faded letters on the abandoned concrete silos: Huron Portland Cement Company. They have been there since 1917, and this is their story.
Huron Cement was an Alpena, Michigan company, and Duluth’s was their third plant.
The reason it was built at this spot is only visible from the sky, where the outlines of factories past trace the history of a lost industrial district. The shoreline here was saturated with factories, many of which dated to the early 1900s and before.
Where Bayfront Park stands was a Land ‘O Lakes Creamery, a Soo Line Railroad warehouse, and a Northern Cold Storage warehouse. On the other side of Huron Cement was a Western Electric factory, where telephone equipment was assembled, and another cold storage warehouse.
In between the two warehouses stood a series of lime kilns built in the 1890s by Kelley Island Lime & Transport Company, an Ohio interest. Cutler-Magner acquired Kelley’s operation here by 1921. Such kilns apply heat to finely-ground limestone to produce quicklime, an essential ingredient in Portland cement. These are the reason Huron Cement built its facility at the end of the 8th Ave Pier on Slip #3.
Construction of the cement silos and dock was quick. In early 1917 Huron Cement bought a warehouse between the bay and Kelley Lake Lime. The warehouse was soon demolished and ground broke on the cement plant in May. By November the first Huron Portland Cement steamship to visit here, the Mitchell, unloaded limestone for the kilns.
About one year later, the completed Duluth Plant was shipping cement by steamship all over the Great Lakes.
Photo Comparison: 90 Years
Huron Portland’s Duluth Plant was a very busy place, moving hundreds of thousands bags of cement annually for Cutler-Magner, who acquired Kelley Lake’s operation shortly after Huron’s entrance. The cement plant would be developed in later years to include a packing department and an additional warehouse.
When the kilns in Duluth grew too old to operate efficiently, operations were consolidated across the bay in Superior, WI. This led the successors of Huron Portland Cement, the National Gypsum Company, to repurpose their Duluth plant into a transfer station.
They revised the dock facilities to move cement from barge to rail, utilizing the original train shed adjacent to the plant. When cement trucks became the construction standard, the shed’s rails were pulled out. These rails still approach the shed, but are removed or buried about 200’ from the doors of the plant.
The process was this: The Duluth Plant would take on cement from National Gypsum vessels like the JB Ford and load it into work trucks for specific projects using its adjacent loading shed.
This methodology seemingly did not change when the LaFarge Corporation acquired National Gypsum in 1987.
Like its predecessors, LaFarge relocated operations to Superior as its Duluth facility aged, and under pressure from the City of Duluth, which was publicly pushing to redevelop the Bayfront area to be tourist-friendly. It would slowly phase-out the plant in the mid-2000s. LaFarge officially excised the property in 2008.
Since that time, a few developers have made promises about the future of the property, but no changes have been observed.