The forces are growing and a small army is forming for the fight to save at least the base of the Soo Line ore dock in Ashland.
Entering the fray with the city fathers of Ashland is a group of individuals who in recent weeks formed “Save Our Ore dock” (SOO), as well as the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy (AIHPC).
On Sept. 20, Ashland Mayor Bill Whalen announced the city has been in negotiations to acquire the base of the dock and redevelop it as a fishing pier. The city is negotiating with Paul Ladue, regional director of contracts and administration for Canadian National Railway, which owns the ore dock and the shoreline approach where it connects to the dock.
If the 1,850-foot ore dock base is saved it could be developed into the largest fishing pier in the State of Wisconsin.
By leaving the base of the ore dock for the city, Whalen said, Canadian National would save itself the huge expense of removing the 13,000 pilings that support the ore dock. So the deal would mean the city would acquire the base of the dock and a yet-to-be-determined amount of money from the railroad company.
The money coming from Canadian National, Whalen said, plus funds secured from private donors, were vital to the redevelopment of the ore dock’s base.
“If there’s enough money there, that’s the key,” Whalen said recently. “We are working on some outside people also to add to this pot of money so that we can redevelop the dock. Then we can really do something that would make that an icon.”
Whalen said he also envisioned adding structures near the ore dock base to attract cruise ships that come into Duluth.
In a release from SOO, board member John Chapple, who grew up fishing and swimming off the ore dock, was adamant the dock could still play a vital role in the future of his hometown.
“For generations our family has had a love affair with the ore dock,” said Chapple, a businessman who lives on Madeline Island near property once owned by his late grandfather, John B. Chapple, a former publisher and editor of The Daily Press in Ashland.
“My grandfather, father, siblings, cousins, and I regularly fished and swam at this historical landmark. It is a cathedral-like experience walking over the 1,800-foot monument. To see it demolished is heartbreaking, tragic, and the elimination of an American treasure.”
The SOO board supports the efforts to save the base of the ore dock, but also seeks to have a generous portion of the superstructure saved from demolition. The Wisconsin Historical Society considers the ore dock to be one of the 10 most endangered historic structures in the state.
The SOO board, in its release, said the intention to retain a portion of the superstructure is not only for the residents of the area, but for thousands of visitors each year. The thought of current and future generations being deprived of this icon built by Ashland’s forefathers is among the key factors guiding its efforts, according to the SOO board.
“People don’t want to see that whole thing gone,” said Jeff Peters, director of SOO. “I think we’d be really doing something if we saved 200 to 300 feet. Then you’d go into that cathedral and you’d enter maybe the maritime museum, then you have transient boat docking and a fishing pier and maybe some kiosks.”
Several SOO board members have been in contact with officials of Canadian National Railway.
“I feel we’ve made progress during our conversations,” Chapple said. “I am very hopeful we can reach a satisfactory agreement.”
And Peters echoed Chapple’s comments.
“When people think of Ashland, the ore dock seems to always enter their mind,” Peters said. “It was a mistake to think it would always be standing.
“There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. I’ve done a great deal of research on how other similar municipalities make use of their waterfront and I think our plans are on target to make this a true destination.”
Peters, in SOO’s release, said his group shares Mayor Whalen’s vision of creating a cruise ship terminal, maritime museum, areas dedicated to fishing, picnic areas, and transient boat docking facilities amid a park-like atmosphere that uses Lake Superior to its advantage.
“One of our group’s primary goals is to also generate the funding to build a state-of-the-art maritime museum that highlights the rich history of Ashland’s waterfront that would make it a true destination,” Peters said. “I’m really excited about building a maritime museum. The potential there is just super.
“We will also conduct public education programs about the history of the waterfront, ore dock, Lake Superior, and other significant natural and historical landmarks. It’s clear it will play an important role in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of the entire Chequamegon Bay area.
“The Port of Ashland was a hustling and bustling place during its heyday. The Port of Ashland helped build America and that history must be saved.”
In letters dated Sept. 28 to Mayor Whalen and Canadian National’s Ladue, Bob Dahl, chairman of AIHPC, supported SOO’s and the city’s positions and urged continued efforts to save the base of the ore dock as a benefit to the entire area and draw much-needed tourism dollars.
“The ore dock is one of the most significant historic icons in the State of Wisconsin,” Dahl wrote. “… The demolition of the ore dock will therefore result in the loss of an important tie to Ashland’s past and significant aspects of the region’s history… if successfully implemented, an ore dock restoration project can serve as an economic and cultural resource engine for the City of Ashland and the surrounding area.”
Dahl wrote in praise of Mayor Whalen’s efforts to negotiate with Canadian National.
“We commend you for your leadership in exploring these options, and it is very promising to see the ore dock’s current owner CN Railway expressing support for ‘save the ore dock’ actions,” Dahl wrote. “These are very positive developments and the AIHPC strongly encourages the city to pursue this course of action. We pledge our support for such a collaborative effort and hope that you will contact us if we can be of assistance.”
The AIHPC was established in 2006 and is located in Bayfield.
“Their backing does definitely add credibility,” Peters said of AIHPC.
The ore dock is being taken down by Veit Disposal Systems, a Minneapolis-based company, which owns the salvage rights. Randy Schultz, foreman of Veit’s 12-person crew, said in June the demolition work could take “a year and a half to two years.”
Made of steel and concrete, the ore dock was 1,850 feet long, 80 feet tall from the base, and 75 feet wide when it was built in 1916 by the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad.
People interested in supporting SOO and learning more about “Save Our Ore dock” may email Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to: “Save Our Ore dock,” Attn: Jeff Peters, 31374 Long Lake Road, Mellen, WI 54546.
Richard Pufall can be reached at email@example.com.