With a load of limestone coming out of Marblehead, Capt. Jeremy Mock, master of the 711-foot Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder, scans the horizon. It’s 20 minutes past five o’clock in the morning on an early summer day. From his 72-foot eye-sight on the bridge, Mock already can see the red sliver of first light coming across the lake.
A half hour later comes the dawn, breaking bright orange across the east through gray and purple clouds. It sends light shining up through the clouds.
“There are some spectacular sunrises and sunsets on this job,” says Mock. “My wife says I can’t enjoy [their] beauty because I’ve been working on the lakes too long.”
A veteran of more than 17 years on the Great Lakes, Mock has been the permanent master of the tug/barge Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder for more than four years, and started serving in relief as its master since 2008.
A half-hour off the Cleveland breakwall, Mock gives a call to River Dock just under the two new George V. Voinovich Innerbelt bridges, where he’ll unload. A few minutes later he gives a call to NS1, a railroad vertical lift bridge at the mouth of the Cuyahoga nicknamed the Iron Curtain.
This is the beginning of Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder’s run up the Cuyahoga River, considered by many to be one of the toughest navigable stretches of water in North America, if not the world.
From its bucolic source near Hambden Township to its industrial, man-made mouth at Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River twists through terrain and neighborhoods that are as diverse as this waterway’s crooked path and split personality.
With a name that literally means crooked, the Cuyahoga starts as a well-protected watershed, supplying the City of Akron and surrounding communities with water for drinking and industrial use. It cuts deep through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, creating stunning vistas and restful valleys. But in the last six miles heading toward Lake Erie, it takes on a split personality — one recreational, the other decidedly hard working.
The river serves as a main artery of the Port of Cleveland, a major node on the Great Lakes transportation network that serves international, national and regional ports.
“The river is tremendously important to our operations,” says Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland. “A lot of cargo goes up and down that river, and it represents a large percentage of the tonnage that goes in and out of our port.”
The Port of Cleveland has a tremendous impact on our local economy. According to the most recent economic impact survey from the port, more than 20,000 jobs in Cleveland are supported by the maritime industry, including almost 4,100 directly involved with shipping.
While the four public marine lake terminals at the port handle containers as well as bulk cargo such as limestone, iron ore and cement, there are 13 private terminals on the Cuyahoga. These handle bulk commodities that include coke, coal, sand, salt, slag, cement, petroleum products and iron ore.
Loaded with limestone, the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder also shuttles iron ore from the Cleveland Bulk Terminal on Whiskey Island up the Cuyahoga to ArcelorMittal, where more than 1,900 people are employed making steel — still a very important part of our local economy.
“But the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder is not the only vessel shuttling iron ore down to the steel mill or operating on the Cuyahoga,” says Glen G. Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association.
There’s also the American Steamship Co., which includes vessels such as the Buffalo, the Sam Laud and the H. Lee White, among many others. Every day from early-March until the middle of January, there are vessels hauling natural resources for manufacturing.
“And it’s not just about iron ore for the steel mill, but limestone to a number of docks,” says Nekvasil. “And there are at least four terminals on the river that receive cement. We load salt here as well. In a strong economy, we can have four or five vessels on that river in a single day. And the largest vessels we send down the Cuyahoga are as long as the Terminal Tower is tall.”
That includes the 704-foot H. Lee White and the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder tug/barge, which is owned by the Interlake Steamship Co.
Calling the Cuyahoga “one of the most challenging waterways in the world,” Nekvasil also acknowledges its importance to our regional and national economy. The ore freighters supplying ArcelorMittal are essential to the steel mill’s operation.
“The ArcelorMittal Cleveland steel mill is completely reliant on maritime for the delivery of iron ore and limestone, both of which are essential raw materials for steel production,” says Mary Beth Holdford, division manager of external communications for ArcelorMittal USA. “In fact, the ArcelorMittal plant cannot receive adequate raw material supplies through any other means.”
Each year, ArcelorMittal Cleveland receives maritime deliveries of approximately 4 million tons, mainly iron ore (in standard taconite pellet form) from the iron range in Minnesota. During the shipping season, this averages one vessel per day traveling the winding six-mile navigation channel to deliver to ArcelorMittal’s docks.
“ArcelorMittal also receives calcite and dolomite stone from Michigan via vessel for use at our blast furnaces,” adds Holdford.
Clearing the Iron Curtain and moving onto the Cuyahoga, as the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder passes under the Main Avenue Bridge, Mock looks up at the blue steel crisscrossed trusses of the bridge’s underbelly.
“It gives you an idea of just how high up we really are,” he says.
If you have never seen a 600- or 700-foot steel freighter pass by less than 50 feet away, you’re missing one of the great Cleveland sights. The working nature of the Cuyahoga River imparts to the restaurants and entertainment venues that line its path an ambiance that is exceptional in all the world.
“There’s no question that sharing our neighborhood with industrial and commercial transportation creates a unique ambiance,” says Scott Wolstein, CEO of Starwood Retail Partners. He’s also a managing partner in the Wolstein Group, one of the developers of the Flats East Bank, a 23-acre, $750 million-plus multi-venue entertainment and living destination on.
“When you are outside dancing at Club Forward [FWD], and see a freighter coming down the river, or a train going down the tracks, or the lift bridge going up and down — it is a visual environment that is truly unparalleled,” Wolstein says. “You cannot re-create it.”
It’s one of the reasons the Flats East Bank has been so successful, Wolstein points out.
“Coming out of our Memorial Weekend ‘Taste of Summer’ [event,] we had volumes that were really eye-popping, so it’s all working,” Wolstein says. “Punch Bowl Social has opened its new roof-top deck this year and Forward has made some significant upgrades. We also have five completely new places that are opening this year.”
That includes Margaritaville, the rooftop LandShark Bar & Grille and 5-O’Clock Somewhere outdoor bar, Jimmy Buffet-themed entertainment venues located just across from Punch Bowl Social.
“Rascal Flatts is opening this year, and Thirsty Dog Brewing is coming up from Akron to open its second unit,” Wolstein adds.
The Flats East Bank also is expecting Dante’s Inferno, a quick-serve Italian eatery featuring fresh pizza in the former Chop Sticks location, and Backyard Bocce, a bar that focuses on bourbon, beer and bocce.
But it’s not just about entertainment. The Cuyahoga also is attracting urban settlers to the neighborhoods that line its path.
“In fact, our neighborhood has become one of the most desired residential venues in downtown Cleveland,” says Wolstein. “And we’re attracting an interesting mix of tenants that include everyone from empty-nesters to Gen-Xers and millennials. It has truly become a new urbanism that reflects a work and play environment.”
Heading up the Cuyahoga, Mock faces his first big turn. He makes a security call.
“Security. Security. Security. Tug Dorothy Ann, Barge Pathfinder up-bound on the Cuyahoga River at Nautica Stage.”
He then calls the Center Street Swing Bridge tender by the Flat Iron Café that connects the two sides of the river.
“This is the Dorothy Ann,” he says. “We’re just starting our turn.”
In the old days, freighters would signal the bridges along the Cuyahoga by flags or, more commonly, horn blasts: one long and one short to request an opening. The bridge would then respond with one long and one short blast to acknowledge and open the bridge. If for some reason the bridge could not immediately be opened, the tender would signal five short blasts in response to acknowledge receipt of the message. You can still hear these signals if you spend any time near the Cuyahoga. But these days, most freighters and commercial vessels use radio or telecommunications.
“Go ahead and proceed, Cap,” comes the response from Center Street.
“The city bridges like Center Street and the Columbus Road Bridge ahead are all very proficient in their opening times,” says Mock. “They are really good to us.”
The road gates come down, traffic is stopped and the red swing bridge swings slowly open.
“The freighters will always come when you are in a hurry to get somewhere, and you’ll get stuck,” says Jarrod McCarthy, senior manager of Enterprise Operations for Cleveland Metroparks, whose responsibilities include oversight of food and beverage operations for all the Metroparks’ restaurants and concessions, including Merwin’s Wharf on the Cuyahoga. Like the Flats East Bank, Merwin’s Wharf has been wildly successful, due in part to the industrial and commercial traffic along the Cuyahoga.
“I think we actually under-estimated how great this would be,” says McCarthy of Merwin’s, which will attract 200 to 600 people on a given day. “Sitting on our patio, you get a real appreciation for the river.”
But passing freighters, while a definite attraction, did take some getting used to, says McCarthy.
“As many times as I have seen them come down, it still stops me in my tracks every time I watch them go by,” he says. “When we first opened, everyone would leave their tables and go out to the patio to take pictures or wave — which is a great experience for our guests, but a little challenging for us. Everybody would get up and leave their table to watch the freighter go by, but some of those boats can take up to a half an hour to pass. So, we would end up having to re-do their food.”
But Merwin’s did combat the problem.
“All of our managers now have an app on their phone that lets them know when a freighter is coming,” says McCarthy.
While the freighters offer a special experience for Merwin’s guests, McCarthy also recognizes that the restaurant’s close proximity to Irishtown Bend, local parks, new hiking trails and the Cleveland Rowing Foundation all have contributed
to its success.
“They hold a lot of regattas, which makes us a natural destination for all the people who come down here,” says McCarthy.
The rowing foundation’s boathouse at Rivergate Park has become a home to thriving adult rowing programs, with 700 participants, four college club teams and three scholastic teams. There are also kayakers on the river as well as a host of pleasure boaters, all of whom share the river with its industrial and commercial traffic. That also includes large cruise vessels like the Nautica Queen and the Goodtime III.
“What recreational boaters have to realize is that these large freighters cannot stop on a dime,” says Nekvasil. “According to Inland Navigation rules, the law is that the larger vessel has the right away simply because they are the least maneuverable.
“While we love the fact that people on the shore and on boats enjoy watching us pass by, they have to recognize that these are working freighters with a job to do. It’s very important that recreational boaters do not impede commercial navigation. These vessels can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 just to keep warm, so delays are something we try our darnedest to avoid.”
There also are safety factors to consider.
“Our boats do not have a lot of wiggle room in the river,” says Nekvasil. “It’s also very important for boaters to stay away from the bow and stern of these vessels.”
Freighters often have bow thrusters to help ships maneuver, and while they all don’t have stern thrusters, “they do have very large propellers aft that can pose a hazard for smaller vessels,” adds Nekvasil.
So if you’re on the Cuyahoga this summer, be prepared for a treat, but bone up on all the rules of the “road,” be cognizant of safety regulations, and be sure to avoid designated safety areas that restrict your mooring along the river.
After clearing the Center Street Swing Bridge, the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder negotiates Irishtown Bend by Merwin’s Wharf, its customers running out to the patio with eyes wide open in amazement.
Mock will deliver his load of limestone to River Dock, clean out the Pathfinder’s hold to prevent any cross-contamination of cargo and go back up the river to the Cleveland Bulk Terminal on Whiskey Island. His crew will pick up 15,000 tons of taconite for ArcelorMittal. Once loaded, the Dorothy Ann-Pathfinder will return on another trip up our crooked — and a little crowded — river.