Saturday, December 15, 2018

A History of the Coal Docks

Two centuries ago, Sandusky’s founders assumed that Sandusky’s protected harbor destined the city to become the leading port on Lake Erie. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The problem was simply that the entrance to the bay was blocked by shifting sand bars, and the bay itself was shallow and difficult to dredge because of the underlying limestone. The original channel into the bay followed the convoluted course of the Sandusky River bed in the direction of Johnson’s Island and then turned south to the city’s waterfront. The channel and the waterfront docks were shallow and poorly marked. Ships often ran aground or hit submerged rocks, and Sandusky soon earned a reputation as a port to be avoided. Cleveland, Lorain and Toledo thrived. Sandusky languished.

Recognizing the situation, improvements were continually made during the course of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. In 1889, the “Straight” channel 17 ft. deep was dug from the foot of Warren St. to the tip of Cedar Point and the channel was marked, but the “Dock Channel” along the waterfront remained unmarked and quite shallow. In 1895, construction was begun on a Jetty at the tip of Cedar Point in an ongoing effort to prevent sand from blocking the entrance to the bay. 

Iron ore, lumber, coal, and grain were shipped in large quantities from the B & O docks at the foot of Warren St. but as ships got bigger and bigger, these improvements proved to be  too little and too late. The mouths of the Maumee, Black and Cuyahoga Rivers were easy to dredge. Sandusky Bay was not. Sandusky prospered, but it was unable to attract heavy industries such as steel manufacturing that depended on deep water ports. One by one companies began to close their shipping operations in Sandusky in the early years of the 20th Century with one notable exception – the Coal Docks.

In 1891, the Sandusky & Columbus Short Line Railroad Company opened a straight track from Sandusky to Columbus and constructed the original Coal Dock later known as Pier #1 at the foot of King St. The City of Sandusky helped fund construction of the pier and the cost of dredging to allow lake freighters access to the pier. The small freighters of the day were initially loaded by hand using wheelbarrows, but in 1893, Pier #1 was equipped with a steam driven loading apparatus known as the “Whirly.” Workmen loaded coal in buckets that were then whirled over the side of the freighter where they were dumped and then whirled back in a continuous circle. In 1898, the “Whirly” was replaced by a new ship loader that could lift a coal car to a level above a ship’s deck from where its contents could be dumped into the cargo hold. It could unload fifteen coal cars per hour which meant that a four and a half ton cargo could be loaded in just under six hours.

In 1902, the Sandusky & Columbus Short Line Railroad was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the coal dumper on Pier #1 was replaced with one that could handle up to 25 cars per hour. Coal demand was high, and in 1914, a second dumper was installed on Pier #2 located just to the west of Pier #1. The coal shipped from the docks was originally destined primarily for power production, but the docks were beginning to supply more and more coal for steel production.  In 1937, with Piers #1 and #2 operating around the clock and larger and larger freighters being constructed, the Pennsylvania Railroad announced a mammoth project that was destined to transform the Sandusky harbor and finally resolve the issues associated with the harbor’s channels.

A new Pier, designated #3, was to be constructed west of Pier #2 that would be almost a mile long and 600 ft. wide. A new dock channel with a wider turning basin, and a “Bay Channel” that would permit ships to return to the lake to the north of the “Dock Channel” were part of the project.   Eleven million tons of steel sheeting and pilings and the 2.5 million cubic yards of silt and debris that were dredged from the bay were used in the construction of the pier. The crowning achievement was the construction of a giant new Coal Dumper which Sanduskians have enjoyed watching operate to this day as it lifts coal cars high in the air and dumps their contents into the holds of today’s huge lake freighters. The new dumper stands 172’ above water level and could dump 30-35 50 ton rail cars per hour.  In 1944 when the demand for coal peaked, a record 14.3 million tons of coal were shipped from Piers #1, #2 and #3.

People enjoy watching freighters enter and leave the bay and sometimes wonder why we don’t see as many freighters these days. The answer is simple. In 1955 Sandusky loaded 1123 lake freighters with 8.1 million tons of coal. It would only take 270 of today’s much larger freighters to haul the same amount.  Piers #1 and #2 could not accommodate the larger freighters which resulted in Pier #2 being closed in 1957, and Pier #1 being closed in 1969.

When the docks were sold to the Norfolk and Western Railway Company in 1964, plans were soon underway to add a coal stockpiling and reclaiming facility to Pier #3. It was designed to provide space for one million tons of stockpiled coal and incorporated nearly 2.56 miles of interconnected conveyer belts. Three silos were installed 40 ft. in diameter and 194 ft. tall each with a capacity of 3,500 tons. Two large pieces of equipment were constructed to move stockpiled coal of different grades to the silos or directly to a waiting freighter. The “Bucket Reclaimer” which stands 45 ft. tall and weighs over 320 tons can move 3,000 tons of coal per hour. The “Bandwagon” which stands over 90 ft. tall and weighs 310 tons can stack coal into storage piles and work in conjunction with the “Reclaimer” to transport coal from storage piles directly to vessels. These two pieces of equipment increased vessel loading capacity from 3000 to 7,000 tons per hour and on September 3, 1988, Pier #3 loaded a 989’ long freighter with 59,058 tons of coal, a record for the Great Lakes.

Now owned and serviced by Norfolk Southern and operated by Sandusky Dock Corporation, the Pier #3 coal dumper has been in operation for 79 years. Remarkably, it is able to efficiently handle today’s 100 ton rail cars that are 50 tons heavier than those of the 1930’s.  Today 95% of the coal shipped from Sandusky is used in the manufacture of steel.

Sandusky, like most cities in along the Great Lakes has lost much of its industry during the past forty years, but the Sandusky Dock Corporation continues to evolve and prosper utilizing ever more advanced equipment and technology. Orders for different grades of coal can be filled promptly and efficiently thanks in large part to the foresight of the men who designed Pier #3 many years ago. The Sandusky Docks are a tremendous asset for our community. The Pier #3 coal dumper ranks with the Top Thrill Dragster as one of Sandusky’s premier attractions.  Sandusky would not be the same without it.

1 comment:

Ed Daniel said...

Congratulations to the author of the Coal Docks history article!! Excellent presentation of the factors that affected the existence and growth of one of Sandusky's most steady visible presences (other than Cedar Point), and statistics that flesh out the role that the Coal Docks have made to infrastructure that supported (and still supports) industry in the Great Lakes region. As a young boy growing up in Sandusky's East End in the 1940's and 50's, my only recollections of the coal docks were that it was responsible for coal dust drifting into our house through loose window frames in windy days, that lengthy freight trains feeding the docks tied up the Venice Road crossing for what seemed to be 15 to 30 minutes every hour or so, and our dad's comments that Sandusky would not be as important town as it was, were it not for the operation of the coal docks.