The site of the Port Huron Terminal Company has been a part of commerce along the St. Clair River for more than 180 years. It is located at 2336 Military Street in Port Huron, Michigan. Military Street was originally known as Military Road and was one of the first five roads built in Michigan. It was included in the 1830 U.S. Congressional budget and went from Detroit to Fort Gratiot. The cost was $7,000.
The 19th century of development for Michigan was basically dependent on water transportation. Port Huron, and the port site even in its undeveloped and early years, played an instrumental role in the growth of Michigan and surrounding states. Over the years, the site has had various owners and types of business. They include Wolverine Dry Dock, Tunnel Fuel Dock, Port Huron Coal Dock Co. and Port Huron Terminal Company.
The Wolverine Dry Dock was built in 1875 and manufactured life-saving boats that could bail themselves in a few seconds. Part of that dock still is visible underwater at the port site. The name Wolverine came from the fact that the first hull used as a dry dock was a former Grand Trunk Rail Road car ferry named Wolverine. The Wolverine and another ferry operated between Point Edward, Ontario and Fort Gratiot by means of a chain in those early days. A huge chain was laid across the St. Clair River bottom and the ferries would put a turn around a windless at their bows and then pull themselves along the chain to the other side. The Wolverine Dry Dock was part of the passing scene of the 19th and 20th centuries at the port site.
J.E. Miller & Sons ran the Tunnel Fuel Dock from 1897 until 1926. They were dealers in hard and soft coal of all kinds and all sizes. This was the start of using the Terminal site as a coal dock. Where the clean terminal buildings are now, coal piles once stood as high as a two-story house. The Tunnel Fuel Dock also boasted of having the only woman operating a fuel dock on the Great Lakes, Mrs. J.E. Fellow. The Miller Coal Company was sold to the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company in 1927. It was operated as the Port Huron Coal and Dock Company until 1954. The Island Creek Coal Company operated the business from 1954 until 1956.
During this period the loading and unloading of coal was considered an event. Some said it was a dirty business, the coal business, and did not belong in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The dust entered the cracks of a thousand neighborhood windows. Some homeowners even painted their garages and the sides of their homes black. Regardless of the coal dust, this industry thrived for more than a half century at the port site fueling the ships of the Great Lakes. Conversion to diesel fuel closed out the coal bunkering service. On March 12, 1956, the then City commission in Port Huron granted City Manager Jay F. Gibbs permission to buy the land fronting on the St. Clair River known as the Port Huron Coal and Dock Company for $27,500. This purchase gave the city 445 feet of industrial waterfront.
During this time, work was being done on the St. Lawrence Seaway. After 62 years of debate Congress finally reached an agreement with Canada to build the ´big ditch´.
The Seaway eventually unlocked the Great Lakes to world trade. It has been called an American Legend, and some say it compares to the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. It took 15,000 workers five years to build and cost about $1 billion. Work started in the summer of 1954. The project involved building miles of canals, seven locks, five Canadian and two American, and a power project capable of generating energy equivalent to 2.2 million horsepower.
Opportunity was knocking on the doors of Port Huron when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. No one on the Great Lakes had a better location than this city. Port Huron had a prime and available docking area. It moved quickly to share in the economic opportunities created by the St. Lawrence Seaway when it opened the Great Lakes to ocean freighters. On June 10, 1959, construction of a warehouse and dock for the Port Huron Terminal Company began.
In the summer of 1959, with construction scheduled for completion later in the year, the city prepared a proposed operating contract based on contracts used at other publicly owned ports of the Great Lakes. Operators for the port were sought by advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, Journal of Commerce and similar publications. The city fully expected a brisk competition among existing Great Lakes and East Coast port operators for the opportunity to operate in Port Huron. Not one single application was received by the city. The city had to face a reality. The port operation and development involved risks that had to be assumed locally.
E.W. "Cap" Kiefer, a local licensed master of steam vessels and renowned sailor was someone who believed that Port Huron could become a world port. Cap Kiefer was chairman of the Port Huron City Planning Commission and chairman of the Port Huron Maritime Commission. In September of 1959 Kiefer sought some men of vision like himself - men who believed in the future of Port Huron. It was at this time, five local businessmen made a proposal to the City Maritime Commission to lease and operate Port Huron´s Seaway Terminal. These five men were: Robert J. "Jack" McIntosh, a local attorney and former 7th District Congressman; William G. McAfee, a custom´s broker and freight forwarder; Carlton Prichard, owner and operator of Earl C. Smith Trucking; William R. Neal, also a custom´s broker and associate of Mr. McAfee; and Allen Stevens, owner of Allen Stevens Trucking. Before Cap Kiefer gave the okay to the Port Huron Terminal Company, he knew them inside and out. He believed they would become the oars for the port in Port Huron. Today at the Terminal there is a bronze plaque with an inscription, which reads: "His (Kiefer´s) vision and effort made this Seaway Terminal a reality".
The founders began making their plans for the Port Huron Terminal Company. As a group they had the ability to provide the necessary professional skills to enable the stockholders to provide management on a part-time basis and avoid the financial risks of a full time professional management group. The winter of 1959-1960 was a hectic period. Financing had to be arranged for the purchases of cranes, lift trucks, pallets and other stevedoring equipment. Cargo was stored off the port site since the warehouse was still under construction. At the same time, the gentlemen had to solicit business.
On May 2, 1960 the first ship, the Elise Schulte from Germany was loaded with 1,625 tons of beans destined for London, England. The Port of Port Huron was officially in business. The years from 1960 to 1970 were marked by tough competitive efforts, but they were with reasonable success. The Port handled bagged beans, Volkswagens, military cargo, steel, and general merchandise. It later became apparent that the basic cargoes, in volume, were navy beans for export to England from the Thumb, wood pulp from Europe for the local paper plants, and newsprint from Canada for The Times Herald, the local newspaper.
By 1970 Port Huron was known to the shipping industry as the "Bean Port" because of the export volume of navy beans. In those days the port serviced as many as 50 ships in a season and in the fall rush the port had as many as 200 people on the payroll who were loading out bagged beans. Progress continued and the 70´s saw a trend to larger ships that were handling 16 to 20 thousand tons of cargo instead of 3,000 to 4,000 tons. Container service from East Coast ports was putting major economic pressures on the Great Lakes ports.
By 1975 the port was handling minimum cargo. The beans had been shifted to containers, price fluctuations had made European pulp non-competitive, and water movement of newsprint from Canada was marginal. It was obvious that a port such as Port Huron was not viable if operated as a general cargo port exclusively. Faced with the choice of closing or re-structuring the port to handle bulk agricultural exports, the Port opted to convert to a bulk cargo facility.
This required the purchase of the storage ship the Kinsman Enterprise from the family business of New York Yankees´ owner George Steinbrenner. The 600-foot ship was docked in front of the port site and doubled the terminal storage capacity. The acquisition of five front-end loaders was made and an extensive conveyor system was installed. From 1979-1983 the port handled an average of about 40,000 tons a year of sugar beet pellets and cull beans. At that time it was one of the only ports on the Great Lakes fully equipped to handle general cargo as well as bulk cargo. By this time the port rental fees to the City of Port Huron were more than equivalent to taxes for this waterfront property. Through the years, the city had increased its ownership of industrial waterfront to 2,000 feet. The Terminal never reached the expectations of its owners. In 1999 the upper level of its storage area was consumed by fire. It was at this time Jim Acheson, local philanthropist seized the opportunity to purchase the Terminal Co. and began negotiations with the City of Port Huron to purchase the waterfront property the City leased to the Terminal Co. Here´s the reprint of an editorial in the Times Herald written by Dr. Acheson, describing his attachment to the Terminal. (This file requires the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can get here: )
Once the citizens of Port Huron gave their overwhelming support to the sale, by a 92.7% ´Yes´ vote, Acheson Ventures began the process of renovating the facility. 1000´ of cement deck was placed on new steel under-structure.
Shoreline power was placed at strategic locations along the river´s edge and stainless steel railing was used to complete the look of the new dock. Both warehouses were remodeled and an elevator placed at the roof top parking to make the dock area accessible for everyone. The freighters that pass by still pay homage to the fondly remembered ´bean dock´ by a blast of their horns.
Much of this history and photos are from the 25th Anniversary Book published by the Port Huron Terminal Company. The material and research for the Anniversary Book was compiled and written by Times Herald Reporter John F. Brown with photos by Ralph W. Polovich..