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National Maritime Day celebrates importance of ships in Upper Michigan

Published: May. 20, 2022 at 7:34 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - Sunday is National Maritime Day.

It’s a time to reflect on its importance in Upper Michigan. Lake Carriers’ Association Vice President Eric Peace said the industry could not function without all of those who work on the ships that carry cargo across the Great Lakes.

“The men and women that are operating these vessels don’t get a lot of credit, but they should,” Peace said. “Everything they do contributes to everything we have.”

Peace said that the $2.3 trillion economic stimulus package known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021 would not be possible without much of the material being carried by freighters across the Great Lakes. Peace added that the infrastructural developments taking place across the US rely on shipments from the Great Lakes Region.

“None of that happens without the movement of raw materials to actually get things built,” Peace said. “This includes concrete, cement, iron ore, and more. All of those things are going to depend on US shipping here on the Great Lakes.”

The employees that work on these freighters are known as merchant marines. They are largely responsible for transporting materials like iron ore across the Great Lakes. Peace said the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 requires all ships in US ports to be made in the US, which Peace said contributes further to our economy.

“All of the vessels that we represent are US-flagged, US crewed and US-owned,” Peace said. “Nothing in this sector of the supply chain is dependent on a foreign country to move that cargo.”

Peace said that iron ore shipped across the Great Lakes is used to create steel, something Marquette Maritime Museum Director Hillary Billman added is an essential metal.

“That car you’re driving has got so many steel components in it,” Billman said. “There are so many things that use steel, including cell phones. Just about everything relies on iron ore.”

Marquette has relied heavily on mining and shipping iron ore across the Great Lakes since 1849.

“People living in Marquette at the time had to find a place to ship this iron ore out, so that is when the City of Marquette became a port,” Billman said. “It has been one of the most important ports on Lake Superior for a long time.”

Although Duluth, Minn. has the largest port by tonnage on Lake Superior, Peace said the maritime industry is still one of the largest businesses in the Upper Peninsula.

“We ship about 6.5 million tons of iron ore out of Marquette every year which goes to ports in the southern Great Lakes,” Peace said. “There are about 165,000 jobs that are dependent on the maritime industry here in the Great Lakes Region.”

This material is all shipped from the Upper Harbor Ore Dock.

Besides transporting iron ore, the maritime industry carries out other important tasks. Peace said the industry is responsible for commercial fishing across Lake Superior and added that the maritime industry has helped construct some of the largest cities in the midwest.

“Chicago was built by shipping that came from the northern Great Lakes region,” Peace said. “The ships took timber and brought it down to Chicago to build the city. A lot of cities to the south of the UP were built by timber that came out of northern Michigan.”

National Maritime Day isn’t all about ships either. Billman said she encourages anyone walking on the shores of Lake Superior to pick up trash to help keep the lake clean and beautiful for everyone to enjoy.

Billman added that the Marquette Maritime Museum will offer 10% off its gift shop on Sunday in recognition of National Maritime Day.

In addition to National Maritime Day, Congress awarded merchant marines serving in World War II with the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday.

“Over 250,000 merchant mariners participated in World War II,” Peace said. “They lost over 6,700 people across 800 ships. Getting cargo across the North Atlantic was a very treacherous mission for them, and they were never really formally recognized until this week.”

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