Great Lakes Freighters

How much freight could the great lakes freight if the great lakes freighters weren’t late?
If you’ve spent any time on our Great Lakes you’ve no doubt seen one of the largest vessels on ANY body of water: the North American “Laker”, more commonly known as a “freighter.” These giant ships transport cargo across our Great Lakes navigation system from Duluth Minnesota to Ogdensburg, New York- almost 1,600 miles! Given the Great Lakes small footprint compared to the vast oceans our planet has, it’s easy to wonder why any shipping gets done on our fresh water at all, but with 63 commercial ports and almost 200 million tons of cargo moved annually on the lakes, it’s actually a very busy means of shipping.
Great Lakes Shipping Navigation Ports
The Great Lakes shipping season begins in late March and ends in January. During the short off-season, crews take an extended leave and see their families and friends while maintenance is done to the lakers. The ice that freezes over the lakes in those early months makes the lakes impassable which gives a welcome respite from the long days on the water. When the water is open, however, the vessels are usually moving cargo of natural resources including coal, ore, limestone, iron, grain or salt but may also carry things like cement or car parts. Some lakers are over 1,000 feet long to carry HUGE amounts of cargo. While it may seem silly to have such giant vessels on a chain of lakes, these larger lakers are actually much more efficient than smaller vessels. One modern 1,000 laker carries as much cargo as three 600 foot lakers can, all while using less fuel and fewer crew members.
Speaking of efficiency, one modern laker can unload its cargo completely in 6 hours, often with only one person at the controls. The modern vessels also offer extreme fuel efficiency. With 1 gallon of fuel, a laker can move one ton of cargo 607 miles. The next most efficient transportation method is a freight train that can move 1 ton of freight a paltry 492 miles with 1 gallon of fuel. Not too bad considering they have an average open water speed of 15 MPH.
Freighter using its boom to self-unload in the great lakes
A longer-term cost savings comes from the ships themselves. The majority of fresh water cargo ships never see salt water from the oceans which means less deterioration of metal components on the vessels. This means their 40-50 serviceable life is double that of their salt-water, “salties” counterparts. Another point for the Great Lakes! However, what’s stopping freshwater lakers from going into the Atlantic and vice-versa? The St. Lawrence Seaway.
Ships in locks
The St. Lawrence Seaway is a series of locks, canals, and channels that permits ocean-going vessels to enter the Great Lakes and freshwater-going vessels to enter the Atlantic. The seaway uses locks which are only 80 feet wide, meaning that the width (or beam) of a ship passing through them can’t exceed 78 feet. Cutting it close! Because of this narrow width most ocean-going ships can’t make it through. However, our lakers can make it to the atlantic, but usually don’t venture too far as their narrow beam and the larger waves of the ocean make it perilous.
If you want to dive in even deeper, check out the Know Your Boats publication which can be had here:
The publication covers essential data and statistics of hundreds of freights, tugs, barges, and other vessels on our Great Lakes and even offers a chart of each flag and stack for the freighters you may catch while you’re on the water!


  • Out of curiosity…would anyone know what ships might have traveled between Erie, PA…, Cleveland, OH and Buffalo, NY…probably during the late 60’s to early 70’s…??
    I ask because my uncle Larry Weilacher was an engineer on a couple of the ships during that time frame.
    I remember him taking me one time when I was fairly young, to Buffalo to the ship he was on at the time. He had to go there for something and asked me if I wanted to tag along.
    Of course, I was super happy to go. I was in sheer amazement at how huge the ship was. Looking down into the hold of the ship and seeing bulldozers down there, that looked the size of matchbox cars.
    I am just trying to dig up some of my uncle’s old history for genealogical reasons and the rest of that side of my family are all dead now.

    Kevin D Weilacher
  • I sailed aboard the SS Cliffs Victory following graduation from high school in June 0f 1957 and laid her up at the end of the season. She was one of 16 vessels in a fleet operated by the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company. The Victory was 719 feet in length and made 22 knots running in ballast only back up to the head of the lakes in Duluth/Superior. Our usual round trip was from Superior to Ashtabula, Ohio and back to Superior in 5 and a half days, down-bound with 14,500 tons of taconite, and returning up-bound empty. i understood at the time Cleveland-Cliffs felt there was real economy by making the return trip north empty rather than hauling coal or aggregate back up to the upper lake ports. When you considered time to load and then unload this cargo, this made sense.

    Wayne North
  • My father was a captain on ore freighters. It was a good life. I was lucky to go on many trips.

    Elizabeth Gentry
  • Very interesting. I don’t live in Michigan anymore, but always enjoyed watching the freighters anytime I was near one of the Great Lakes. I live in a Port City (Wilmington, NC) and mostly see tankers and container ships heading up or down the river to get to the port or get back out to the ICW to service other port cities.

    sandy pentecost
  • Very nice article. Thank you.

    Vee Lucas

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