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PROGRESS 2019: The wonder of water

Built on shipping, continued on fun, Lake Huron boon to region’s economy

News Photo by Julie Riddle Carrying a late-summer shipment of salt to dump on Alpena’s shore, a freighter fills the mouth of Thunder Bay River. Since the city’s beginning, shipping vessels have been a vital part of the economy of the region.

ALPENA — Rimmed by the ever-changing blues of Lake Huron, Northeast Michigan’s history is intimately connected with the waters that bestow it with beauty, offer up riches from their depths, and provide economic stability that defies the passage of time.

Positioned as a major hub of commerce on the Great Lakes, Alpena and the surrounding areas have a rich history of using commercial shipping to offer the bounty of the land to the world.

In the mid-1800s boom days of Alpena, when Michigan’s population was exploding, “traffic and trade coming and going on the waters surrounding Michigan was so intense that, for a time, the town of Alpena became one of the busiest port cities in the country,” according to a report by the Michigan Economic Center.

Fishing and timber industries, combined with mineral-rich ground underfoot, enabled the export of the natural resources of northern Michigan to provide for the needs for the rest of the country.

The history of Northeast Michigan’s commercial shipping industry is tied to the entire Great Lakes story, according to Tom Rayburn, director of environmental and regulatory affairs at the Lake Carriers Association.

From the early days of French fur trappers transporting their wares along the coasts and waterways of Michigan, the Great Lakes were the highways of their time, Rayburn said. What is now done by rail and road was, in the past, done by water.

Today, with the world’s largest reserve of limestone dolomite found in Alpena and Presque Isle counties, the region supports the construction industry through the stone itself and the production of cement, Rayburn said.

The limestone also serves as flux stone, cleaning the impurities out of iron ore mined from other Great Lakes shores and feeding the U.S. steel industry, its mineral offerings used to create cars, washing machines, surgical tools, and kitchen appliances the world over.

“It’s not like we can get that stone from Detroit,” Rayburn said. “It comes from you guys.”

STONE AGE

Begun as the Huron Portland Cement Co. in the late 1800s, as the logging era was on the decline, the Alpena quarry now owned and operated by LafargeHolcim, one of the largest and longest-operating cement facilities in the U.S., has become a cornerstone of the city’s economy.

Relying on Great Lakes vessels for transport, the company grew in wealth as it supplied an increasing flow of processed stone and cement demanded by the building trades that accompanied a new century, soon becoming the largest cement producer in the world.

Lafarge Corp. purchased Huron Portland Cement in 1986 and continues to operate in Alpena.

Shipping on the Great Lakes provides a cost-effective means of transporting millions of tons of Portland Cement manufactured at the Lafarge Alpena Plant, according to Travis Weide, environmental and public affairs manager for the company.

Waterways provide access to large metropolitan areas, including, but not limited to, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. Having a cost-effective means of transporting manufactured goods to those demand centers has allowed water-dependant companies such as the Lafarge quarry to flourish.

As vessels have modernized, increasing in size and capacity and adding self-unloading capabilities, efficiency at Lafarge has increased, allowing the company that employs about 230 people to continue to improve its operations and subsequent contributions to the region’s economy.

Many small towns in Northeast Michigan have, historically, profited from the shipping industry, Weide said.

Up the coast from Alpena, Carmeuse Lime and Stone in Rogers City loads 8 million tons of limestone onto freighters each year, the cargo destined for ports all over the Great Lakes. Since 1912, the company has provided the raw stone for building materials, glass, paper, steel, and even food products used the world over.

The big boats that grace the horizon of the big lakes make that possible, according to William DeChangy, plant manager at Carmeuse, billed as the largest limestone quarry in the world, where up to four freighters a day are filled with the commodity.

The quarry has historically been one of the area’s largest employers, with 140 employees from around the region working there currently. Freighters themselves have been a notable part of the lives of families from the Sunrise Side, as well, fathers and grandfathers returning home with tales of their lives and work aboard the boats.

FIN AND FUN

Today, the water of Northeast Michigan continues to be an economic boon for the region. Fishing businesses and charter boats skim the surface and dive deep for its aquatic riches. Scuba divers and scientists gather to explore shipwrecks, sinkholes, and other mysteries of the deep, and curiosity seekers peer into the depths as they ride on glass-bottomed boats.

Boat races in summer and ice-fishing tournaments in winter draw residents out of their homes, into the fresh air and the front doors of local businesses. Visitors and residents using local marinas to launch an outing cap off their day by dining and shopping at downtown establishments, circulating dollars into the community.

In 2017, water-based tourism and recreation in Alpena contributed $45.5 million to the state. When commercial activity is included in that number, the total economic impact of Alpena’s water-based culture during 2017 was an estimated $173.8 million, supporting over 1,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, according to a study by the Michigan Port Collaborative.

“They come to see it, to walk along it, to swim in it,” Alpena Harbormaster Don Gilmet said, ticking off the myriad ways the deep blue waters of Lake Huron continue to serve our economy today.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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