TV6′s Elizabeth Peterson begins her journey with the Lee A. Tregurtha through the Great Lakes

The voyage begins at the ore dock in Marquette’s Upper Harbor and will end in Burns Harbor, Indiana
Our leg with the Lee A. Tregurtha begins with loading 26,000 tons of iron ore into the belly vessel.
Published: Oct. 16, 2023 at 7:42 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 30, 2023 at 1:42 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - For those along Lake Superior they are perhaps the most photographed, the most iconic, the most mysterious attraction of the Upper Peninsula.

We’re captivated by them, drawn to them. We sit along the shore watching as they glide through the water, seemingly unphased by the wind, waves and wild weather conditions.

We track them. Tourists plan trips for a chance to view them. We’re in awe at their size and all they accomplish.

They have become a symbol of who we are.

The ore boats of the Great Lakes. Rich in history. Rich in U-P culture.

They are as much a part of us as the food we eat, the snow we shovel, and the mountains we climb.

This week, TV6′s Elizabeth Peterson takes you along on a journey through the Great Lakes aboard the Lee A. Tregurtha, a vessel with the Interlake Steamship Company.

Her leg begins in Marquette, as the Lee A. docks to load taconite, iron ore pellets, before departing for a 37-hour sail to Burns Harbor, Indiana.

One of the first lessons of boarding the Lee A. Tregurtha, is she moves at her own pace, and we adjust to her.

She arrived to the Ore Dock in Marquette’s Upper Harbor nearly four hours later than we were told. on a calm, clear morning around 3:30am. She barely seemed to make a sound.

One of the second lessons? While it may not seem like it from the quiet shore, there’s a crew onboard that never stops bustling to keep the ship, the schedule, and the cargo moving.

Captain of the Lee A. Tregurtha, Nick Parsons emphasized, “We’re a work boat, we’re moving 24/7 unless we’re loading or unloading, we’re constantly on the move.”

On this morning, the crew is loading nearly 26,000 tons of iron ore from the Tilden Mine into the belly of the ship. It’s a mesmerizing process, one that takes 6 to 8 hours, and one that has stood the test of time.

“Outside of a few minor adjustments,” said Captain Nick. “This is the same Ore Dock that has been here for over 100 years now.”

The process is relatively simple, the chutes come down, now by a hydraulic system, the pellets go in, and water goes out.

Captain Nick explained, “When we pull into the dock we’re carrying ballast water in our tanks and that’s just water that we carry to compensate for not having any cargo - And as we load here or at another dock the iron ore goes into the cargo holds and we’re pumping out then in turn.”

One of the primary duties of the first mate is to load the boat - Chris Pilkington, who will celebrate his third anniversary with the Interlake Steamship Company on this trip, takes to the deck, monitoring the entire process from first pellet to last.

Pilkington said, “At the docks we stand at cargo watch, in Marquette in particular, the first mate is in charge of loading the boat - the other mate pumps the ballast - so I’ll be out there with my little clipboard putting all the ore in the boat.”

It’s a big responsibility, ensuring the boat is loaded properly, though the third lesson of Lee A. Tergurtha: every crew member carries a big responsibility.

“I still feel like I’m learning stuff all the time,” added Pilkington. “You can move up pretty quick here but I still feel like I’m learning every day.”

Marquette has a shifting dock, meaning the boat will move back and forth through the process, lining the chutes up to the shipping compartments. It’s why the process takes a bit longer in Marquette than in other ports. But still, it’s efficient and the most economical way of transporting iron ore.

“When we get done loading, we’ll have taken the equivalent of 454 railcars from Marquette to Burns Harbor, imagine that on your train tracks,” said Captain Nick.

The Lee A. is transporting iron ore on the trip, but the ship can also transport coal, stone and salt. The Interlake Steamship Company calls it the building blocks of America and they’ve been doing it for over 100 years, headquartered out of Cleveland, Ohio.

Once loaded, it takes Captain Nick, just 30 minutes to back her out and begin the journey east on Lake Superior.

The crew will rest during the 15-hour trip to the Soo Locks, watchmen will take shifts in the pilot house, there will be lunch and dinner - a sunset and night skies.

These are the quieter times on the boat, as they anticipate and prepare for the next shift, navigating the Soo Locks and the St. Mary’s River.

Pilkington said, “going through the rivers, us, the captain, the wheelsmen - talking, drinking coffee, hanging out - it’s a good life.”

Follow along the entire journey:

Part 1: TV6′s Elizabeth Peterson begins her journey with the Lee A. Tregurtha through the Great Lakes

Part 2: Getting to know the crew of the Lee A. Tregurtha

Part 3: Feeding the crew on the Lee A. Tregurtha

Part 4: Navigating the Lee A. Tregurtha through the Soo Locks

Part 5: The final leg of our journey with the Lee A. Tregurtha