Midwest shippers expand use of Great Lakes

Market to Market | Clip
Jun 30, 2023 | 7 min

William Shakespeare said “sweet are the uses of adversity.” 

Or the more modern version of making lemonade from lemons. 

The supply chain challenge of 2020 and 2021 sparked responses from creative thinking and turned into opportunities and diversity in how goods get from one point to another. 

Much has been reported about shipping on the coasts, but the Great Lakes region is employing new and cost effective ways to move goods out of the Midwest. 

The following story was done by Detroit PBS and their Great Lakes Now program. Laura Weber Davis reports in our Cover Story.   


Since 2020, backups at ports in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have left cargo ships stacked up waiting to unload. In the U.S. rising fuel costs, congested highways and a shortage of truck drivers are also creating headaches for businesses wanting to get their goods in or out of the U.S. interior, and they're looking for other options. Will Friedman is president and CEO of the Port of Cleveland.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: The companies that need to move these goods, either as a manufacturer or as a retailer. They're pretty desperate. And so, you know, necessity is the mother of invention and they're now asking much more so than previously. Why can't we get a ship into Cleveland? and just avoid all that gridlock at those big ports.

But rerouting cargo from congested coastal ports to Cleveland isn't so simple. On the Great Lakes, freighters mainly move bulk cargoes like iron ore, grain and coal that are loaded loose into the ship's hold. But globally, most cargo is moved in containers. Great Lakes freighters and the ports they visit aren't really set up to handle large shipments and containers.

But that may be changing. In 2014, the Port of Cleveland saw an opportunity and developed the first container service on the Great Lakes to handle import and export cargo. In partnership with Dutch company Spliethoff, they created the Cleveland Europe Express with a regularly scheduled route between Cleveland and Antwerp. The Peyton Lynn C, a small container ship travels out of the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic.

The trip takes approximately 14 days, with a few days in each port to unload.

And the opportunity to move other types of cargo on the Great Lakes in containers is providing new cost effective transportation solutions for some shippers.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: It actually does help with cost for a ship to come all the way into Cleveland, because the longer you keep cargo on the water, the more economical it is. The majority of the cost to move, let's say a flat screen TV from China to Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, is the Inland Transportation the over the land transportation. Once it's on a ship, even if it's a smaller ship, it doesn't have to be a mega ship. It doesn't cost that much because you have those, you know, economies of scale and you're just pushing that ship through the water. You're not burning as much fuel. It's also more sustainable. It's also a greener form of transportation.

And according to Friedman, shipping through Cleveland avoids the delays that can happen at congested ocean ports.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: Unlike the big ports, where your container may be on a ship and it sits at anchor, you know, waiting to get to a berth for 30 days or 15 days. Our service is more reliable.

In Cleveland, the cargo in containers has been mostly industrial non-consumer goods and exports from northern Ohio and bordering states. But on more than one occasion, they have been the answer for a business outside their region.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: We just had some rubber, synthetic rubber moving up from Houston, getting trucked all the way up here to get loaded on to the Peyton and go to Europe. So those are the kinds of, you know, somewhat counterintuitive moves we're seeing here with all these supply chain problems. They could not get a ship or find space on a ship out of Port of Houston. So they moved that rubber all the way up here.

And Cleveland isn't the only Great Lakes port that's looking to expand its container shipping. The Port of Duluth Superior is the largest port on the Great Lakes by tonnage, including the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. And it's making waves in container shipping. Deb DeLuca is the executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Deb DeLuca, Executive Director, Duluth Seaway Port Authority: “From here, you can reach major markets such as the Twin Cities, Fargo, Des Moines, also Milwaukee and even down to Chicago. So it's from a, from a logistics standpoint that's very attractive.

Last fall, the Port of Duluth was granted approval by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to handle shipping containers by water. And just recently, it exported its first shipment, 200 containers of kidney beans from a company in the region.

Deb DeLuca, Executive Director, Duluth Seaway Port Authority: They were having difficulties arriving at a supply chain solution with all the snarls and back ups and supply chains over the past couple of years. They were not able to get their goods to market, so they, working with the freight forwarder, a trucking company. We were looking for an alternative solution and that ended up being sending those containers by ship through our terminal.

Great Lakes ports are also looking into new options, like a feeder service where containers are offloaded in bigger ports and transported along the Saint Lawrence Seaway in smaller vessels similar to what is done in Europe.

Along with all the opportunities. There are many challenges to container shipping on the Great Lakes, including the locks of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which restrict the size of the ship.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: If you're coming into the Great Lakes from outside the system, you're limited by the dimensions of the locks. There are 15 locks that get you from sea level up to where we are, which is roughly 650 feet above sea level. And those lock dimensions are roughly 750 feet long and about 75 feet wide. And the controlling depth of the water and all the channels on the Great Lakes is about 27 feet, 27 or 28 feet. So ships can't exceed those dimensions.

Another factor that has been challenging for container shipping is the shortened season. Both the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the SOO Locks close during the winter.

Will Friedman, President & CEO, Port of Cleveland: Many who use the system or ports on the system are likely to advocate for let's keep the system open longer. We think that's feasible from a technology point of view. We all know, unfortunately, with climate change that we're not getting as much ice cover anymore. Winters aren't as severe. Let's allow more year round shipping or closer to year round shipping.

Both the ports of Cleveland and Duluth expect to move more shipping containers in the coming year.