Long ago, 35 years, to be exact, Sheriff William Johnson worked on the A&B Dock.
Johnson, who has been Ashtabula County Sheriff for 26 years, was a Hulett operator. Chances are, if you were born before 1970 or never lived in a Lake Erie port town, you have no idea what a Hulett is.
The Hulett was a massive machine designed specifically to unload iron ore from the freighters that carried the ore from the Upper Great Lakes to ports like Ashtabula and Conneaut. The immense magnesium jaws of these machines could grab 15 to 20 tons of ore in one bite, move along a rail track, deposit the bite into a “Larry car” and return to the hold for more, in one minute or less. The men who operated these machines were in control of tremendous power and corporate resources. A Hulett cost about $1 million each, and worked in the tight quarters of a multi-million dollar lake freighters.
Being a Hulett operator brought both great responsibility and respect. They were responsible for quickly unloading the cargo so the vessel could return to making money. The worked as part of a team: Larry car operator, shovelers, front-end loader operator, grippers, oilers and bridge operators.
Huletts played a major role in building port towns like Cleveland, Toledo, Conneaut and Ashtabula. Whereas gangs of 49 men shoveling ore from a boat would take days to complete their task, a vessel carrying a load 10 times greater could be unloaded and on its way back to Superior in a matter of a few hours, thanks to the Hulett.
Sadly, there is no place on the Great Lakes where you can see a Hulett unloader operating today. The self-unloading freighters, combined with the steep decline in America’s steel industry, sent most of these monsters to the scrapyard.
A&B Dock closed in 1982, which sent Johnson and several dozen other men looking for employment elsewhere. At Point Park in Ashtabula, you can see the lower arm and jaws of a Hulett, which once operated at A&B Dock. Johnson recently climbed into the cab of that arm for the making of a documentary about the Hulett unloader and a “Boat Book” that chronicled the arrivals and departures at that dock during its final seven years.
The log was maintained by Elmer Backlund, who was machine foreman of the Huletts. The “Boat Book,” as he called it,” was maintained for his personal reference. Mr. Backlund this spring donated it the Marine Museum. But now through July, it will be on display at the Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva-on-the-Lake.
The book is in the lobby showcase, which hosts several historical exhibits every year. Included in this exhibit are samples of the various kinds of iron ores that flowed through Ashtabula Harbor since 1873, when the first ore boat, the Emma Mayes, was unloaded on the Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula dock by a gang of Irish stevedores. The ore samples, along with other dock-related items, come from the Ashtabula Marine Museum on Walnut Boulevard.
Developing the exhibits and producing a video to tell the story is one of the duties that Ashtabula County Lodging Tax Adminstrator Carl E. Feather performs in his cultural heritage tourism development role. The county owns The Lodge and Conference Center and uses the lobby displays to tell Ashtabula County’s story.
Feather interviewed Mr. Backlund, as well as Johnson and two retired A&B operators for the documentary, which plays on a television screen next to the display case. The video also is available online at YouTube.
The exhibit will be in the lobby of The Lodge through the end of July.