Great Happening:

The dock men of A&B

Gaze out toward Lake Erie from the East 6th Street bridge, across the string of idle railroad cars until the mountains of stone come into focus. The desolate area marks the spot where one of the harbor’s busiest ore receiving docks, the Ashtabula and Buffalo (A&B), once operated. For decades, strong men of Irish, Finnish and Italian stock in coveralls and steel-toed boots labored on this land that put Ashtabula Harbor on the world map as a bulk commodity dock. The ore bridge rising some 120 feet above the dock, power house and machine shop, and quartet of Hulett unloaders were Ashtabula Harbor landmarks.

In the photo above (from left) Norm Millberg, Elmer Backlund and Norman “Frenchy” Lesperance pose for a photo in Millberg’s Ashtabula Harbor home on Jan. 22, 2016. The three men, along with Ken Babcock, are believed to be the only A&B Dock employees still living.

The last freighter to call at this dock was the Canadian Hunter, on May 11, 1982. The Hulett operators unloaded 23,897 tons of taconic from the freighter, which departed the dock in the wee hours of the next morning. In the seven months that followed the Hunter’s departure, Elmer Backlund supervised the removal of the ore remaining at the dock with the help of Norman Millberg and Norman “Frenchy” Lesperance and several other “old-timers” charged with the task of idling the facility.

An aerial photo, probably from the 1940s, shows the placement of the docks at Ashtabula Harbor

An aerial photo, probably from the 1940s, shows the placement of the docks at Ashtabula Harbor

It was one of more than a dozen that once operated on Ashtabula’s lakefront and along the river. These docks helped make the city the busiest iron ore receiving port in the world. But as self-unloading ships became more commonplace on the Great Lakes, the number of docks dwindled and left only a few major players.

Moving from west to east, the Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula ore and coal dock was on the west side of the Ashtabula River, where the Norfolk Southern coal storage yard is today. On the east side of the river was the New York Central Railroad. At the next slip, the A&B Dock was on the west side; the Union Dock on the east side. And then there was the Pinney Dock, which stretched toward Lake Shore Park.

The Huletts

Huletts at work.

The A&B and the Union dock each had four Hulett unloaders, the workhorses of Lake Erie iron-ore receiving ports. The unloading equipment was the brainchild of George Hulett, a Conneaut native who first demonstrated his invention at Carnegie’s dock in Conneaut in 1899. The success of this invention was based largely upon its ability to grab huge amounts of material directly from the hold and transfer it to cars or a storage area on the dock in one continuous operation. The machinery helped reduce unloading times from days to hours and encouraged the construction of increasingly larger freighters.

The Hulett unloader was thus a marvelous invention; one writer noted that “Only God could have designed a finer piece of machinery.”  To see them operate was “like poetry in motion” according to an observer.

Millberg, Lesperance and Backlund likewise remain in awe of the Hulett’s engineering and function. Its long, walking beam, hoisting arm ended with a jawed-bucket that had a capacity of up to 15 tons of ore. Above these jaws rode the operator in a cab with small windows on each side and the front. The arm was lowered into the hold by releasing the brake; gravity took care of the descent. After taking a bite of ore from the hold, the operator engaged an electric motor that raised the arm out of the vessel.

The Hulett unloader traveled on tracks perpendicular to the railroad tracks on the dock. The unloader would travel away from the boat and align the bucket over a chute, into which the material was discharged into a larry car. The larry car operator weighed the ore in the car and then released it through a hopper at the bottom of the larry car into a rail car below. The weight of the ore had to be tracked for all entities involved — the steamship company, the dock and the railroad. The latter needed to ensure that the rail car was not overloaded. The weight limit was posted on each car and exceeding the limit could result in a safety issue. The larry car driver thus had a job of significant responsibility. But for the whole operation to work like clockwork, the larry car operator had to be ready for the next load of ore from the Hulett bucket. To hold up a Hulett operator was a cardinal sin of the dock.

The gripper ran a line of rail cars pulled into place using a 3,200-foot cable wrapped on a drum.

The gripper ran a line of rail cars pulled into place using a 3,200-foot cable wrapped on a drum.

The gripper, who spotted the rail cars under the lorry car, was the unsung hero of the dock, say the retired operators. Lesperance says a continuous length of cable of about 3,200 feet long and 1-inch thick ran parallel to the cars. A shorter cable attached to several rail cars and was used in conjunction with the larger, continuously moving cable; a grip on the main cable controlled the movement of the cars. Grippers, usually two per Hulett, had the job of making sure the rail car was aligned with the larry car’s hopper.

The former dock workers say that a typical day in the busiest time of the year would involve unloading three freighters in a row, a small one, followed by two larger boats. Lunch/dinner was usually ordered in from Perkins or another local restaurant, or carried to work from home. The food was usually eaten on the dock during breaks in unloading — while the captain of the freighter moved the vessel so the Huletts could reach the next compartment, while more empty rail cars were brought onto the dock or during a time of equipment malfunction.

Blue-collar work

Norman Millberg in the cab of a Hullet.

Norman Millberg in the cab of a Hullet.

A&B was the first to adopt Huletts, in 1909. Across the slip, the Union Dock installed Huletts in 1910. The installation marked a transition from the docks’ original location up river, beyond the swing bridge, to lakefront facilities, which could accommodate the increasingly larger vessels.

The Huletts installed at Ashtabula were of the third generation, which came in 15- and 17-ton incarnations. This generation would become the standard, and included significant improvements in the larry car.  Forty-four third-generation Huletts were built. But as the decades rolled by and the Huletts were no longer being manufactured, it fell upon the machinists and blacksmiths of the A&B and Union docks to fabricate parts. And when vessels were not being unloaded, the men worked on maintaining and repairing the massive machinery.

One of the dreaded tasks was removing and replacing a broken cable. Hoist and bucket cables were particularly troublesome to replace, because the steel wires that made up the cable would become enmeshed in the gears, creating “rat’s nests” that tested the mettle of the dock workers under dangerous and frequently difficult weather conditions. The men say that the huge gears could move without warning, crushing a finger or mangling a hand and wrist at work in the nest.

“If you had an experienced crew, you could change the bucket cable in about one and a half hours,” Millberg says.

The job of operating a Hulett was one of the best that a blue-collar worker could land in Ashtabula Harbor. The learning curve was steep, however; it typically took five years at the Hulett’s controls before an operator was considered proficient. There was no college or industrial training school that offered courses or certification. One earned the right to stand in the cab of the behemoth machine only after working through the ranks of the other positions on the dock, starting with the shoveler, whose job was to descend into the hold of the freighter with a shovel and feed material that the bucket could not reach into the center of the hold. It was dangerous work since the operator was constantly descending into the hold; both he and the workers in the hold had to make sure they followed a pattern so injury would not come to the shovelers.

As Millberg says, new hires literally worked their way up from the bottom of the hold and job classification.

That’s where Backlund got his start there back in 1961. They used a short-handled shovel made by True Temper, that, on average, grabbed about 40 pounds of ore with each jab at the pile. It was hard and boring work, but the pay was decent, around $1.50 an hour in 1950, when Lesperance and Millberg first went to work there, on the same day.

When a vessel was not in the harbor, the shoveler was assigned to other, usually maintenance, tasks. “You didn’t have just one job; you did a lot of different jobs,” Millberg says.

The work was dirty; iron ore gave off a red dust, and all the cables and gears on the Huletts and dock required liberal applications of grease.

“You couldn’t mind getting dirty,” Millberg says, summing up working conditions. “You sure as hell got dirty from the grease.”

And cold. Maintenance, cable replacement and other tasks for which there was no time during the shipping season were performed under the bitter cold conditions of the lakefront in January and February. Working on the ore bridge, which was right on the lakefront and about 120 feet in height, was a particularly dangerous and miserable assignment. Backlund, who became a supervisor, went up there only once. Lespearance, who welded when he wasn’t working as a shoveler or gripper, spent a fair amount of time on the bridge.

“It was cold up there even in July,” he says.

“He was the only guy who would go up there,” Millberg says. “That was his job.”

Speed and safety

This image shows the ore bridge in the background and the two parallel docks, A&B (left) and Union.

This image shows the ore bridge in the background and the two parallel docks, A&B (left) and Union.

The ore that arrived aboard the freighters was from the Upper Great Lakes and destined for Youngstown Sheet and Tube or a Pittsburgh mill. In 1950 the vessels were still carrying red or raw ore, which often was mixed with wood, mud, ice and other impurities. The size was inconsistent and handling the ore, whether by shovel or clamshell, was challenging, especially in freezing weather.

Taconite pellets eventually replaced the raw ore. Taconite was a processed product that was fairly consistent in size, about that of a marble, and content, and much easier to handle. And any innovation that made moving material easier and faster was welcomed by the mills and transporters alike.

An experienced Hulett operator working with an equally competent larry car operator could make the trip from hold to larry car and back to the hold in one minute.  The men took pride in their speedy work and were likewise frustrated by the delays that were outside their control. For example, the New York Central Railroad, which hauled the ore from the dock, might not have enough cars in the yard to receive the ore. A mechanical or electrical problem on the dock or vessel also could bring about a delay in unloading.Union Dock 2

A Hulett bucket got caught on a ship's hold, idling the dock and requiring repairs to both the Hulett and vessel.

A Hulett bucket got caught on a ship’s hold, idling the dock and requiring repairs to both the Hulett and vessel.

Mishaps involving the vessel being unloaded and the Huletts working inside it were rare, but when they happened they were expensive in both lost time and repairs. The Hulett operator generally had a system for unloading so the boat would ride level in the water. He kept an eye on all four sides of the beam that descended into the hold and made sure there was proper clearance. The men still recall the day a Hulett operator on the Union Dock, which was across the slip from A&B, misjudged his distance and lodged his bucket against the hold’s framework as he was pulling out.

“We were working on the other side, and we heard it, saw it,” Backlund says. “It made a hell of a noise.”

Danger was all around and the jobs on the docks were not suited for daydreamers.

“You had to know where the bulldozer was (in the hold) at all times, and you had to watch for bucket drift. you had to be on your toes all the time,” Millberg says. “You worked out of a window on either side of the cab.”

Some of the dangers were beyond the control of the Hulett operator. The men recall a supply ship that came in between a vessel being unloaded and the dock. When Millberg went into the hold with the bucket, the little boat was there; when he came out, it was gone, sunk.

“I was running (Hulett) No. 4 and a boat from Miller Anderson pulled up between the vessel and the dock,” Millberg recalls. “I went down (into the hold with the bucket) and when I came out, the boat was gone. All of a sudden, Steve Frye (who was on the supply boat), popped out of the water like a cork. That was memorable.”

A dock worker got buried under a pile of taconite released from a larry car when the worker, rather than a rail car, was under the shoot. The men used their hands to dig the man, who survived and received a settlement for injuries and the resulting disabilities.

Another time a drunk sailor fell off a ladder on the dock and had to be pulled from the water by the dock workers.

“I asked him ‘Are you hurt? And he said, “No, but don’t put me back in the water,”‘” Lesperance says.

The log book


AB Guys Ashtabula County -1-6

Elmer Backlund immigrated to America from Finland when he was 20 years old. His connection to the city was a half-brother who had come here earlier. He arrived in the harbor in 1949 knowing only “a few swear words” of English, but managed to become the superintendent at A&B Dock. He learned a word of English a day. His first job was in a greenhouse, followed by the New York Central car shop.


Elmer Vaukland maintained a private log of all the ships unloaded at A&B Dock.

Elmer Backlund maintained a private log of all the ships unloaded at A&B Dock.

The men rarely experienced layoffs, therefore, but they did see the workforce dwindle in size as the years went by. When Millberg and Lesperance signed on in 1950, there were about 98 persons employed by A&B at Ashtabula. On Christmas Eve, 1982, the employment level was 33 people.

The log book kept by Backlund shows that A&B had a banner year, 3,950,330 tons, in 1977. But just four years later, the dock was closed.

There were several factors at work, the most significant being that vessels were increasingly become self-unloaders that could discharge their cargo directly onto the dock via long boom and conveyor belt. The slow-down in the American steel industry in the early 1980s as a result of foreign steel being dumped on U.S. markets reduced demand.

An entry in Elmer Vauckland's log book documents its final visit to Ashtabula's Harbor, Nov. 5, 1975.

An entry in Elmer Backlund’s log book documents its final visit to Ashtabula’s Harbor, Nov. 5, 1975. The note “RR 235 mins” indicates that there was a substantial delay in getting cars to the dock. One has to wonder if, that delay had not occurred, if the Fitzgerald would have made its next loading destination earlier, and, as the Gordon Lightfoot song asks, “made (the safety of) Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind her.”

The retired dock workers still get together to swap and rehash their favorite stories about the docks and the characters who worked there. Of all the stories they share, none is more sharply etched in their mind than that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was lost on Lake Superior with all hands, Nov. 10, 1975.

Just a week before she went down, Backlund had along conversation with the first mate while his crew unloaded the Fitzgerald, a frequent visitor to the A&B Dock. She delivered 26,698 tons of Reserve ore on its last visit, Nov. 5, 1975.

“I talked to (the first mate) all night,” Backlund says. “He kept telling me that ‘one of these days, we’re not coming back. The boat is in bad shape.'”



About Carl (329 Articles)
Carl Feather is lodging tax administrator for Ashtabula County and the founder of The Wave newsletter. He is 25-year newspaper industry veteran and frequent contributor to West Virginia's Goldenseal Magazine. He enjoys photography and videography, which he shares at his blog,, and his Feather Cottage You Tube channel.
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