up the river: navigating the narrow, twisting river to fuel the economy

Several times each week, giant freighters the length of two football fields travel up the Cuyahoga River to deliver iron ore pellets to ArcelorMittal Cleveland’s steel complex, a journey that is both critical to the economy and a navigational feat.

On a recent September morning, the American Courage -- an American Steamship Co. freighter -- began a trip upriver at the Port Authority’s Cleveland Bulk Terminal, where it picked up roughly 15,000 tons of iron ore. This was the 635-foot freighter’s second trip that day up the 5.5-mile ship channel to ArcelorMittal, where workers would later turn the iron ore into steel used to produce cars, construct buildings, and make household appliances.

American Courage Captain John Chidester is a veteran of 400-plus such trips, and appeared unfazed by the daunting task of maneuvering the massive freighter up the famously crooked river. Asked about the toughest part of the journey, he said “the beginning and the end.” From a perch atop a pilothouse six stories high, Chidester eased the ship away from the lakefront dock, using a control that resembles a video game joystick.

Even for a veteran, the narrow, sharply curving river is difficult to navigate, especially on summer days when the river is teeming with commercial and recreational boats of all sizes. That’s a big reason why the freighter -- whose top speed on the river is 1.9 miles an hour -- will take three hours to make its way up the ship channel through tight turns and other logistical challenges. And it will pass what The Coast Pilot navigation publication lists as 34 structures across the river, including viaducts, overhead power cables, a conveyer, a pipeline, and 21 bridges, some operable, others not.

Captain Chidester directs 20 crewmen, with the first and second mates and watchman strategically placed on deck and calling out distances so that Chidester knows just how close the freighter is to the river’s edge. The chatter between them is constant, but the sound ratchets up as the ship nears Irishtown Bend, Collision Bend, Marathon Bend, and areas where concrete vestiges of railroad bridges obstruct parts of the channel.

“Thirty-four feet, twenty-feet, twelve feet, ten-feet, six feet,” one or another crew member calls in tightly coordinated signals that allow the captain to squeeze through tight turns and successfully complete a trip without schedule delays or damaging contact with the bulkheads that line the edge of the ship channel. Chidester registers the distances as they are shouted out, making a series of turns that leave no room for error. His tools are hand controls that adjust the rudder and engage the bow thrusters to propel the freighter, causing the surrounding water to bubble and wave. (Rowers beware: the strong currents generated by these turns can sweep someone into the water and possibly onto the shoreline.)

Coordination is also critical between the captain and the bridge tenders, who in some cases must raise a bridge for a freighter and then quickly lower it for a train that will zoom along the bridge’s track just minutes later. The trip is like a lesson in bridge architecture and mechanics, as the freighter passes by ones that lift vertical, rise up from one end, or swing open. The Center Street Bridge, which swings to allow boats to pass, is the only one of its type remaining in the area.

During its three-hour trip, American Courage passes by industrial facilities that underscore the importance of Cleveland’s lake-and-river system for companies that depend on waterborne transportation to move the raw materials that help drive our economy. Those companies range from Cereal Food Processors, Inc., which processes grain into flour used in bakeries, to Marathon Petroleum Co., which supplies fuel to gas stations.

About 5.5 miles upstream from the mouth of the river is the head of the federal navigation channel. It’s also home to the 800-acre ArcelorMittal Cleveland complex. There, the American Courage docks and the iron ore is removed from the freighter’s hold via a conveyor belt and then transferred to shore on a 250-foot boom.

Three hours later, with the freighter now empty, the American Courage begins its return down river, through three Great Lakes, and back to Silver Bay, Minnesota where that September voyage first began, and where another pile of iron ore awaits.

To read other Port-related stories click here.

Photos by Bob Perkoski, courtesy of  The Port of Cleveland

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