Photo: Courtesy of the Port of Cleveland.
The main purpose behind the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway was to allow ocean-going ships access to the Great Lakes. However, fundamental changes in the maritime shipping industry that took place from the 1960s undermined this proposition. Economies of scale rendered most commercial ships too large for the locks and containerization enabled easier access to the hinterland by rail and trucks for commercial cargoes. By the 1980s, scheduled ocean-going ships calling the Great Lakes ports have virtually ceased. Chartered services remained to handle specific trades and project cargoes on international markets. Regular services on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes focused on Lakers, ships named as such since they can only navigate through this system and which mainly transport bulk products. As such, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes were never used for container services. Great Lakes ports could be serviced by container feeder services, mostly through Montreal, but the additional costs and delays would not make these services competitive with truck or rail.
On occasion, considerations were given to start scheduled ocean-going services to some Great Lakes ports, but the situation became reflective of a vicious circle as shippers would not commit cargo unless regular services were offered and carriers would not offer regular services if shippers did not commit cargoes. To break this vicious circle, the Port Authority of Cleveland decided to assume the risk and charter a monthly service between Cleveland and Antwerp that began in April 2014. Connectivity to Antwerp is key since the port is one of the most active in Europe and from Antwerp a wide array of other destinations can be reached. This service has a longer all-water segment than calling a northeastern seaboard port (12 days compared to about 8 days), but has faster door-to-door service, particularly for the Midwest since it would take 4 to 6 days to reach the region from a northeastern seaboard port.
However, a monthly port call may not be suitable to several supply chains and winter forces the closing of the St. Lawrence Seaway between December and March. During this period, arrangements are made to use rail services to the East Coast. The ship depicted on the above photo is the Fortunagracht (operated by the shipping line Spliethoff Group), built in 2012, with about 12,500 deadweight tons. It is a multipurpose self loading ship able to carry containers, break bulk and even bulk cargo. The frequency was increased to two monthly services in 2015, doubling the frequency and making the usage of the Port of Cleveland a more attractive proposition for importers and exporters. The service also calls the port of Valleyfield as it enters or exits the Seaway. During the winter when the Seaway is closed, the service calls to Baltimore instead and a rail service is used between Baltimore and Cleveland.