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The Great Lakes, often referred to as the "fourth seacoast," are home to the U.S.-Flag fleet and the Canadian-Flag fleet. In addition, dozens of international vessels regularly travel through the Great Lakes, visiting port communities along the way. These vessels, known as "salties" because of their saltwater origin, come from all over the world and have sailors from many different lands.
The U.S.-Flag fleet includes more than 60 carriers and tankers, as well as dozens of smaller tug and barge units. These vessels team up to haul upwards of 125 million tons of cargo during a typical 10-month shipping season. That's almost half a ton for every person living in the United States! Iron ore, coal and limestone are the primary commodities carried; other cargoes include cement, salt, sand, grain and liquid-bulk products.An efficient and safe alternative to rail, road or air
Several Great Lakes ports are closer to European markets than East Coast or Gulf ports, which saves shippers time and money. For example, to travel from Baltimore, Maryland, to Liverpool, England, is 3,936 miles (6,334 km). Via the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, ships can reach Detroit, Mich., by covering only 3,673 miles (5,911 km).
Ship travel saves energy, too, in comparison to trains, trucks and airplanes. A ship can move a ton of freight up to 500 miles on one gallon of fuel. A single 1,000-foot laker can carry as much cargo as six 100-car unit trains, which makes ships a very economical way to haul bulk quantities.
Fuel efficiency also translates into fewer air emissions than produced by trucks or trains. Ship transport is safer, too; serious accidents involving large cargo vessels are rare. Occasionally vessels become grounded but these incidents are usually much less serious than comparable railroad or truck accidents.
Shipping on the Great Lakes also provides many jobs for the region. In fact, more than 60,000 U.S. and Canadian jobs are directly dependent on cargo movements. In addition, hundreds of thousands of other jobs, many in the manufacturing sector, are tied to the maritime system. An abundance of steel mills were built along the shores of the Great Lakes and connecting channels because of the convenient, low-cost delivery of the industry's raw materials: iron ore, coal and limestone. Other manufacturing enterprises that use steel, such as automobile assembly in Detroit, Mich., also became popular and remain a hallmark of the region's economy.
Read on to learn more about the ships that travel the Great Lakes, what they carry and their ports of call.
Collage photos courtesy Great Lakes Commission; stack insignia courtesy Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping; base map courtesy St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation