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Cleveland isn't any old port. OH Really?

Port Cleveland2.jpg
Kabir Bhatia
Cargo numbers at the Port of Cleveland were down during the coronavirus pandemic, but officials estimate that this year, they've rebounded to the highs of 2018-19.

If those gifts you ordered for the holidays still haven’t arrived, the delay might be traced to back-ups at America’s East and West Coast shipping ports. A listener asked our “OH Really?” team: “What about the Port of Cleveland?’”

Back in the 1950s, the Great Lakes were bustling with shipping activity for steel mills, tire factories, and other industries. And a young man named John Baker was just beginning his career unloading ships at the Port of Cleveland.

“We had different types of ships. You took the first hatch cover off and there was our cargo: either whiskey or there was rubber. We used to get raw rubber for Akron back in the 1960s [in] big 250-pound bundles of rubber. You could bounce them like a ball, but they were square.”

These days, Baker is president of Local 1317 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. I reached out to Baker not so much to talk history, but to follow up on a question submitted by an anonymous listener in Richfield, who wanted to know whether the congestion at ports on the east and west coasts was also impacting the Port of Cleveland.

“Our season ends sometime in the first week of January, but this year has been extra busy with cargo coming in for Cleveland and the surrounding areas. The East Coast is probably up anywhere from 25 to 30 percent each port. The West Coast, you've seen it on TV where there's so many ships delayed, it's one of those things where they don't have the room and they can't get rid of the containers fast enough. So, they sit out there. Some of them left and went to the east coast ports. Maybe that's why we're so busy? But I hope it continues.”

John Baker.JPG
Kabir Bhatia
John Baker began his career unloading cargo at the Port of Cleveland in 1959. Today, he's president of the International Longshoreman's Union Local 1317.

Jade Davis, Vice-President of External Affairs for the Port of Cleveland, agrees: instead of waiting in New York or Baltimore, he says some ships have started venturing to Cleveland – if they can get here.

“The Saint Lawrence seaway is a system of locks. There’s about 13 locks on the Saint Lawrence River -- two on the American side and 11 on the Canadian side. And then it's an additional two locks at the Welland Canal that bypasses Niagara Falls in the connection of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Carriers that do have ships that are small enough -- and I'm still not talking about very small ships; I'm talking about football-field-sized ships -- some of them are deciding to come down the Seaway.”

Despite the extra two days it takes to get to Cleveland, Davis says once they arrive, they actually save time by bypassing the East Coast ports.

“You may spend way more time, days more on the docks getting your products dropped off to get onto the ship, and then vice-versa if it's being imported and they take days to a week or so in order to get cleared and onto a rail car or the back of a truck. Here, at the Port of Cleveland, we’re looking at a 24-to-72-hour maximum sort of transaction.”

The time advantage seems to be making a difference: Davis says the Cleveland Europe Express container service – to Rotterdam and Antwerp -- has expanded from two runs a month to three due to the increased demand. That’s good news for John Baker and his membership at Local 1317.

“Going back a couple of years, nobody knew what the port is about. And essential workers that we are, we should them that we were unloading ships last year under the pandemic. So, I hope everybody doesn’t forget us. This is the engine for the city. Because most of the cargo that comes here, stays here. Or it goes within 100 miles from here. There’s a lot of manufacturing companies in this city which depend on the port. We’re an engine.”

“OH Really?” is WKSU’s podcast makes you part of the reporting process. Got your own question? Ask it here:

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Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.