Historians Fight to Save Cleveland’s Ore Unloaders

CLEVELAND, OH—It may seem hard to imagine now, but Cleveland’s four Hulett automatic ore unloaders used to mount a mesmerizing show on the lake front, west of downtown. From 1912 until 1992, these 96-foot behemoths lumbered along the shore, leaning forward and sinking their jaws into the bellies of Great Lakes ships, taking 17-ton bites of iron ore and spitting them into nearby rail cars. They looked like a family of grazing dinosaurs as they dipped forward, reared back again, and rumbled their odd, metallic song.

But the Huletts are now rusting quietly at the edge of the Cleveland Bulk Terminal, rendered obsolete by a new generation of ships equipped with unloading systems that discharge 10,000 tons of ore an hour. Less quiet is the debate between the Hulett’s owners and preservationists, who have been wrangling to save the machines from demolition.

The battle might end on Thursday, when the Cleveland Landmarks Commission is to decide whether to allow the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority to raze three of the Huletts and dismantle a fourth for storage, or to grant a second—and final—six month delay to allow time for the development of alternative proposals.

“These are nationally significant historic monuments,” said Carol Poh Miller, a local historical consultant. “Given the intimate relationship of the Huletts to Cleveland’s industrial history, it is unbelievable that we would sweep them away.”

Ms. Miller is a member of the Committee to Save Cleveland’s Huletts, a group of preservationists, urban planners, industrial archeologists, and others. The group has already scored some victories. In 1993, Cleveland’s City Council gave the Huletts local landmark status. The unloaders are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, have been named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and are semifinalists for the National Trust for Historical Preservation’s list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places, to be announced June 14. None of those designations, though, would prevent the port from proceeding with its plans.

The National Park Service has offered to underwrite a study to help gain National Historic Landmark status for the machines, and preservationists across the country have rallied to the Huletts’ side.

“We are realists and understand the position of those in commerce, but there is only so much historic material out there,” said Robert Vogel, past president of the Society for Industrial Archeology and curator emeritus of mechanical and civil engineering at the Smithsonian Institution. “Commerce can spring up anywhere, but there is only one group of the Huletts left in Cleveland. When they’re gone, they’ll be gone forever.”

The Huletts were invented by a Clevelander, George H. Hulett, in 1898, and they revolutionized the handling of iron ore on the Great Lakes. Before the Hulett, gangs of men shoveled ore from the holds of ships. After the Hulett automated this work, the cost of unloading ore dropped to 6 cents a tone, from 19 cents. More than 80 of the machines were built and most were installed around the Great Lakes. Cleveland itself, once the largest iron ore terminus in the world, serving the big Midwestern steel centers, had 15 Huletts. Today, there are only 6 of these machines left: Cleveland’s 4 and 2 later models in Chicago.

The Port Authority and the Oglebay Norton Company, which operate the Cleveland Bulk Terminal, say they must remove the Huletts so they can modernize the dock for higher volume and a greater diversity of bulk materials. Oglebay Norton commissioned a study showing that volume could rise to 6 million tons a year from the current 1.8 million, and the company says there is plenty of demand for this extra capacity. Port officials say that other area docks cannot handle this demand.

“Our other deep-water docks are operating at 130 percent capacity,” said Gary Failor, the Port Authority’s executive director. “It’s like we are packing 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack there.”

In the face of the determination of Oglebay Norton and the port, many preservationists have despaired of achieving the original goal of preserving the Huletts in their original location. Some support a plan for dismantling one or two and moving them to a proposed industrial heritage park. The port and Oglebay Norton have offered to dismantle a single Hulett, at an estimated cost of $500,000, and provide $100,000 more to hire a professional who will raise the money needed to rebuild it. However, this offer is contingent upon the Landmark Commission’s approval of their demolition plan on Thursday.

Other preservationists will have none of this, and Ms. Miller is among them. “History is where you find it, where it happened, and this is where the Huletts operated for 80 years,” she said. “But nobody ever said I wasn’t a purist.”

Reprinted with permission from The New York Times