14 Fun Facts About the Port of Milwaukee
Everything you wanted to know about the city’s most entrepreneurial department.
Milwaukee’s often overlooked position as an international port was dramatized this summer by appearance of the “Lugano” – the mysterious bulk carrier ship from Basel, Switzerland that lingered in the lake just outside the port for many days, drawing attention from the media. The port itself remains something of a mystery, a part of Milwaukee’s city government that gets little discussion. What does it do? How does it function? We’ve boiled down the answer to 14 things you probably don’t know about the port:
1. It handles 2.4 million tons of cargo
To be precise, in 2014 the Port of Milwaukee handled 2,402,622 metric tons of cargo. It’s a lot either way.
2. It’s an international port serving ocean-going vessels
Of approximately 200 ships that visited the port in 2014, one quarter were ocean-going vessels from foreign countries that made the trek through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Milwaukee. The remaining 155 or so were American and Canadian “lakers” – freight ships that travel solely on the Great Lakes.
3. It’s the last stop for Mississippi River barges
The Port of Milwaukee is the northernmost point on the Great Lakes to which Mississippi River barges are allowed to travel, and hosted 23 barges in 2014. “If you want to go down through Chicago, and ultimately go down the Mississippi and to the Gulf (of Mexico), either Alabama, or Houston, or New Orleans, the U.S. Coast Guard has to approve barge traffic,” says Port of Milwaukee Director Paul Vornholt, “You have to have what’s called safe harbor… There has to be a pathway that a barge – in inclement weather, or big waves – needs to be able to pull in and harbor between destinations. And Milwaukee is the last point – there’s nothing north of us that gives safe harbor. You can’t barge to Green Bay; you can’t barge to Manitowoc.” So anyone in eastern Wisconsin wanting to run a barge down the Mississippi must use the Port of Milwaukee.
4. It’s a money maker for the city
The port was a favorite city department of former Mayor John Norquist, because it returned money to the taxpayers. Its net revenue has risen steadily in recent years, from about $350,000 in 2008 to more than $1.4 million in 2013.
5. It’s a magnet for salt
More then 2 million tons of salt are shipped into the port each year. Much of that has traditionally come from the Great Lakes region, which is rich in salt mines, most notably in Goderich, Ontario and in Cleveland, Ohio. But in the wake of the polar vortex, the salt mines were unable to keep up with the winter demand, and local salt users banded together to organize shipments of international salt to Milwaukee. In a rather surreal scene, three ships arrived at the Port of Milwaukee in December 2014 carrying salt from Egypt, Morocco, and Venezuela.
6. It’s a magnet for steel.
“Last year, we brought in 180,00 tons of steel,” says Vornholt. “Our steel comes in bulk, uncut, in various forms… grades, and coils, and different types of products. Then it goes out to warehouses. Then it’s customized and shipped directly by order to companies that are making things.” That ultimately supplies many of the manufacturers in southeastern Wisconsin.
7. It handles huge piles of other cargo.
Besides salt, bulk cargo transported to and from the Port of Milwaukee includes piles of coal, wheat and other grains, limestone, and cement.
8. It helps supply mines across the world.
One of the main cargoes routinely shipped out of the Port of Milwaukee are components of massive mining shovels built locally by Caterpillar (formerly Bucyrus) and Joy Global (P&H). These companies supply much of the mining equipment used across the globe.
9. It handles liquid cargo
The Port of Milwaukee has a designated liquid cargo pier on the outer harbor. Liquid cargo can be transported to and from Milwaukee by boat, and stored on port property if needs be. In a new wrinkle, U.S. Oil, headquartered in Appleton, is building a new pipeline connection to that pier in anticipation of a potential upsurge in transportation of oil by ship. Says Vornholt: “U.S. Oil operates out of the port of Green Bay, which was at capacity, and was looking for another port. They looked at Chicago, they looked at Detroit, and ultimately chose Milwaukee. They chose this location to be strategically located in case Bakken crude ever wanted to go to the East Coast. So they could rail it in, put it on a vessel, and go out.”
10. It can offer far cheaper transit than transport by land.
Vornholt estimates it would cost $2 million more to transport the salt it annually receives if the salt arrived by truck or rail. Most of that salt goes to the City of Milwaukee, other municipalities and the State of Wisconsin, so all that savings is passed on to taxpayers.
11. It’s a foreign trade zone.
The Port of Milwaukee is a federal Foreign Trade Zone, a status granted by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This means raw materials and equipment can be shipped into the port from anywhere abroad, assembled at factories in 12 counties in southeastern Wisconsin, and shipped out for sale on foreign markets without any of the normal import/export duties and customs charges. “It’s meant to reward American factories and businesses to do the assembly and keep the jobs here, without penalizing them on the customs borders,” Vornholt notes.
12. It has minimal competition with other Great Lakes ports.
“We compete minimally with the Port of Chicago, but because of Chicago traffic, we typically win if it’s (being shipped from) O’Hare or north, and they typically win if it’s O’Hare or south,” Vornholt explains. “Our real competition is the other modes of transit: rail, and truck.” But the Port also loses out to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports because the St. Lawrence Seaway has size limitations, “meaning you can’t take ocean container-type vessels,” Vornholt adds. “If it’s larger, they might want to use an East Coast or a Gulf port.”
13. It lowers costs for all area businesses.
Even a business that’s never used the Port of Milwaukee saves money on transportation because of the Port’s impact. “If the Port of Milwaukee wasn’t here, and shipping and barging wasn’t an option, rail and highway would adjust accordingly,” Vornholt notes. The added traffic would mean increased demand for rail and truck transport and they would raise their prices. “From a competitive standpoint, we help businesses, even if they don’t ship.”
14. It is a landlord with 21 different tenants.
The Port of Milwaukee owns two sections of land. On the northern tract sit the Summerfest grounds, Discovery World, and the pier for the Dennis Sullivan sailing ship. The southern tract includes Milwaukee’s port, the Coast Guard station – which is in charge of maritime security for all of Lake Michigan, and the Lake Express ferry terminal, which shuttles passengers between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan several times each day. The Port of Milwaukee’s 21 tenants include:
- Cargill Salt, Inc.
- Compass Minerals
- Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin
- Federal Marine Terminals, Inc.
- Great Lakes Towing
- Harbor House Restaurant
- LaFarge Corporation
- Kinder Morgan Bulk Terminals
- Kinder Morgan Transload
- Lake Express High-Speed Ferry
- Michels Corporation
- Milwaukee Art Museum
- Milwaukee World Festival (Summerfest)
- Portland Trucking
- South Harbor Terminals
- St. Mary’s Cement
- U.S. Coast Guard
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Oil
- Walsh Construction
- Ward’s Welding