Every day, they glide into the Port of Cleveland: giant freighters that bow-to-stern stand as tall as the Terminal Tower.

There’s no schedule for most of these ships, called lakers because they’re too big to leave the Great Lakes. The salties, so named for ocean saltwater, are thinner and arrive about 10 times a month.

All are eye-catching, mesmerizing, romantic vestiges of industrial glory days. And we can’t get over their size, whether they’re powering through Lake Erie or pivoting around the hair-pin curves of the Cuyahoga River.

“The fascination,” said port CEO Will Friedman. “They’re like the biggest moving objects on the planet.”

Chimed Port Vice President Jade Davis: “It’s very much this frontier, this neat and cool thing to explore.”

The port is focused on business. A port-sponsored study found that Cleveland’s maritime industry produces more than $3.5 billion of annual economic value and support more than 20,000 jobs in Northeast Ohio.

But the ships are cool in their own right. Web sites are devoted to the hobby of watching ships, with Boatnerd.com tracking their progress through the Great Lakes, with little icons that move in real time. And Clevelanders love to get a glimpse of them in person, both lakers and salties. (And even cruise ships that make Cleveland a port of call about 10 times a year.)


Lakers – which make up about 95 percent of freighter traffic on the Great Lakes — move about 4 million tons of iron ore in the nine months the lakes are clear of ice.

Much of it is unloaded onto the port’s bulkhead terminal west of Whiskey Island, then transferred to slightly smaller, river-class ships that can navigate the river up to the ArcellorMittal steel mill, including the Buffalo and the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder. (None of the boats are owned by the steel companies or the port.)

Ships make about 450 round trips on the Cuyahoga each year, Friedman said.

The ships also haul stone, cement, asphalt, and salt, among other commodities.

“It’s like a floating conveyor belt,” Friedman said. “They’re going up and down all the time.”

Many of the ships are loaded with iron ore from Duluth, Minnesota. The route? They travel from Lake Superior,

through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie,

through Lake Huron,

under the Bluewater Bridge at the St. Clair River

through Lake St. Clair

into the Detroit River and

finally into Lake Erie.

The journey takes about 57 hours. (The lakers can travel a top speed of 17 mph.)

So it makes sense that we can spot the lakers so often on the horizon.

See a time-lapse video of the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder navigating the Cuyahoga.


The port’s Cleveland-Europe Express is the only direct, scheduled vessel service moving cargo between the Great Lakes and Europe, through Antwerp, Belgium.

Salties must be small enough to fit through the St. Lawrence Seaway, so they top out at about 700 feet long, versus 1,000 for the lakers, Friedman said. But they bring all sorts of cool stuff, including parts of wind turbines or natural gas facilities, which way hundreds of tons.

There’s even a Dutch company that ships sailboats and motoryachts, which get dropped into the Cleveland harbor and driven away.

Take a look what’s coming to the port in the next month:

Sept. 30: Fuldaborg, steel, Sweden

Oct. 2: COE Leni, containers/yacht, Belgium

Oct. 5: Erik, coils/skids, Belgium

Oct. 5: Iryda, steel, Netherlands

Oct. 10: Federal Kivalina, steel, Belgium

Oct. 11: Floragracht, containers, Antwerp

Oct. 13: Flevoborg, steel, Sweden

Oct. 22: Federal Oshima, coils/skids, Netherlands

Oct. 22: Vikingbank, coils/plates, Sweden

Oct. 22: Federal Barents, steel

Oct. 31: Federal Churchill, steel, Belgium