The River’s Genial Monster

IF YOU CAN imagine riding on a dinosaur’s head while he’s feeding, you can imagine how it feels to operate a Hulett. In repose, this monster is the ugliest, ungainliest machine ever made. In action, it is sheer poetry.

A small Hulett chomps ten tons in a mouthful. The adult of the species can slurp up 17 tons of ore from the hold of a ship in a single bite. An occasional Hulett with the right rider will often grab 20 tons in its maw. More than 2,200,000,000 tons of iron ore have come to Lake Erie ports since the first shipment in 1852 on the brigantine Columbia. Of this amount, the four Hulett unloaders at the mouth of the Cuyahoga’s old riverbed handled over 175,000,000 tons by 1985.

At one time Huletts were the dominant species of ore unloaders along the Cuyahoga. Their towering necks arched over ships whose bows and sterns came close to scraping their paint on the river bends. They looked like rows of prehistoric mechanosaurs dipping their ore-reddened beaks deep into the whalelike ships. They smacked their steel lips with a clatter that shook the whole of Whiskey Island, which is the island of land between the old riverbed and the new.

A Hulett’s main action is often described as a monstrous grasshopper’s leg, which is very descriptive if you can picture a 500-ton grasshopper leg with very neat knees. But that’s only the top part of a Hulett. The knee action part rests on another 500 tons of machinery. It is a massive leviathan standing ten stories high, its legs straddling several hopper car freight trains, while its neck juts out over water and ships. At feeding time, a herd of four of them bobbing their beaks deep into the holds of a ship looked like an outsized flock of those toy birds that sit on the rim of a glass, incessantly tipping forward to drink then upright again; but they are ten stories high.

The Hulett is a mechanical impossibility surrounded by disbelief, yet it reigned supreme as the fastest, most efficient ore unloader in the trade.

Unloading iron ore used to be the bottleneck on the Cuyahoga. In the heyday of the Marquette and Mesabi, when mountains of ore piled into the mouth of the little river, the problem of getting down into that hull to get out that iron became a nightmare.

They tried shovels and buckets, hoists and cables, steam-shovels and weird contraptions. But for 50 years, the river remained a bottleneck. Once you dropped ten or 15-thousand tons of dirt into the hold of a ship, you had the devil’s own time getting it out again.

The mind that conceived the Hulett monster, which eventually dug out this bottleneck, could only have been a genius. Engineers say it must have been dreamed up by a man with nightmares. Those who knew him say that George Hulett was, well, eccentric.

One thing is certain; he was a kind of mystery, and no fame seeker. Only the barest biographical traces are recorded about this man who revolutionized ore transportation. The very few men still living who knew him personally are themselves oldtimers with memories dimmed to detail, but they all remember one thing. Hulett was a brilliant engineer with a fantastically inventive mind ... and eccentric.

The stories they tell give the impression of a man who would sit down to a high-level conference table with a Carnegie or a Rockefeller, fish a plug of tobacco from his stained waistcoat and chaw throughout the meeting like a general-store patriarch.

He looked like a bullfrog in a baggy suit, wore steel-rimmed spectacles, and talked as if he were still driving a team of draft horses back on the farm in Conneaut where he was raised. He was a practical farmboy genius whose inventiveness was born of getting the job done, and he didn’t care what his inventions or his person looked like as long as they both did the job.

Hulett came to Cleveland with his parents in 1860. On the occasional trips to the city from his boyhood farm, Hulett had become familiar with the sweat and strain of ore unloading, but Cleveland was a revelation. In those days Whiskey Island (the narrow strip of land sheared off from the Flats by the old river-bed and the new channel which cut the Cuyahoga’s new course to the lake) was nothing but a great cloud of red dust, filled with men, mules, and dirt. The infant mills on the Cuyahoga were squalling for ore like tiger cubs, while the Marquette was packing boats and piling them through the Soo like floating sausage links. They filled them to the decklines, deepened the canal, enlarged the locks and then built new ships. All this was done just to send ore into a bottleneck of aching backs and wheelbarrows.

The way they tackled a boatful of ore in those days was to put rock-muscled men with shovels into the dirt and they heaved it into wheelbarrows; then more iron-backed men wheeled it to the waiting railroad cars. And when the shovelers got too deep in the hold to throw it out, they built a platform and shoveled to that, while still more men reshoveled it to the decks.

George Hulett wasn’t the first one with an idea to unplug the bottleneck. The first was a man who rigged a block and tackle from the mast into the ship’s hold. After that, it was a short step to hitching a horse to the block and tackle.

By 1867, they had 40 horses employed with the shovelers on the south bank’s Nypano Docks, and possibly no one will ever know how many more horses contributed to the melee of Whiskey Island just across the river to the north. The Cleveland firm of Bothwell and Ferris ran the Nypano and it was J. D. Bothwell himself who first stuck the corkscrew into the bottle’s neck by replacing the horses with a steam engine.

The little donkey engines began to multiply along the wharves at Whiskey Island. The neck of the bottle began to clear. It looked as if the 50,000 tons of ore a year cramming through the Soo could at last be handled with relative ease.

Now although the neck of the bottle had been unplugged, the inevitable happened. The bottle got bigger. Youngstown and Pittsburgh added their demand for ore and the 50,000-ton torrent soon swelled to an 831,000-ton deluge. The bottleneck was right back where it started, only tighter.

Captain Thew of the steamer William P. Thew was next to design an ore unloader. The device that he outlined was a long-armed steam shovel. The cab of the shovel where the operator controlled the beast, swiveled around like a big giraffe on a turntable. Instead of a block and tackle attached to the mast of the ship, Captain Thew designed a self-contained shovel that took the ore directly from the hold to the dock. This was the day of the whirleys.

As steam was replacing horsepower along the unloading docks, George Hulett embarked upon a career as proprietor of a general store. Later, he went into the commission business where he began to apply his ingenuity to unloading shiploads of grain.

Another young man, however, was applying his talents directly to the ore industry. Alexander Brown’s father, Fayette Brown, was one of the original financial backers who tapped the Marquette iron ore range. So the boy, Alex, had a good education as an ivy-league engineer plus firsthand knowledge of the drama that was taking place along the Cuyahoga’s docks.

Brown’s nimble mind eliminated the whirleys by envisioning a fantastic skeleton of steel girders that straddled the entire railroad yard on one side and jutted out over the ships at the other. The bucket could now be lowered from the “hoist,” into the vessel’s hold, filled, raised, carried along the skeleton to any one of several tracks and dumped directly into the selected car.

For the next 20 years, the Brownhoist was the marvel of the Cuyahoga. Ore boats grew still bigger, the Soo got bigger, and the demand for more ore never stopped getting bigger. Self-closing buckets were added to the rigs so they could bite out their own ore rather than needing shovelmen to fill their buckets.

The Hoover-Mason bucket came out with an ingenious set of blades that could scrape ships’ holds clean. But it wasn’t enough to calm the clamor for more ore.

All this while George H. Hulett was the manager of the Cleveland Steam Cooked Food Company.

That was 1886. Two years later, Hulett switched from food to manufacturing derricks. As the skeleton-like Brown-hoists were breeding all along the waterfront, Hulett was playing with coal, literally playing. One of his first inventions was a gargantuan machine that clamped an entire railroad car in a viselike hand, lifted it like a toy and upended it to spill 120 tons of coal into a mammoth funnel. Hulett was always pretty direct in his approach. His methods usually followed suit.

To Hulett, unloading an ore boat would be a simple matter of building a thousand-ton posthole digger - and then putting a man in the shovel.

No one really knows whether or not Hulett was influenced by the posthole digger of his farm days, but there is a certain similarity in the way the giant leg jams the clamshell shovel down into the ore, clamps it shut and lifts it out, opens its jaws to release the ore.

With the designs under his arm, Hulett began the rounds of engineering companies and financiers. He was asking them to gamble on an unproved nightmare, and no one was buying. Hulett was well into his second and third calls when he approached Sam Wellman of the Wellman Seaver Company. Hulett hiked a chair up to the machinery tycoon’s desk and fished out his lint-encrusted tobacco plug.

“Sam, you build this machine, it’ll make you.” Hulett usually dispensed with the time-consuming preliminaries.

A smile tickled the mouth of prosperous Sam Wellman.

“I’ve seen the plans, George. It looks like a monstrosity.”

“But it works.”

“How do you know?”

“The coal unloader worked, didn’t it?”

“How much would it take to build one?”

“Forty-six thousand dollars.”

“All right, George. If it works, we’ll buy all you can build. If it doesn’t, you get nothing.”

“Fine, Sam.”

It took two years to put the monstrosity together. If boat captains profaned the horses, steam engines, and Brownhoists at their introduction, they were speechless at the sight of this incredible beast that reared its head along the docks.

In 1898, it devoured its first boat of ore.

By 1900 it was king of the Cuyahoga.

The first Huletts were steam operated. In a cab the size of a phone booth there were pipes over the operator’s head, dripping constantly, making a steambox in the wintertime and an impossible torrid zone in summer. It was like a Turkish bath with a leaky faucet.

By 1912 the Huletts had been converted to electricity. Since then, the basic design of the monsters has remained unchanged.

In 1985, we walked out on the Cleveland docks at the western tip of Whiskey Island to watch the agile monsters feeding on one of the modern 20,000-ton ore boats. They were all that history and the veterans of the docks claimed. But a siren sounded across the railroad yard - one blast, then two short ones. A clattery little pig skimmed over the tracks to number two Hulett, its massive beak frozen in the hold of the ship. An electrician was already clammering up the ricketty old ladder to the control house.

“The Hulett’s are getting old,” he commented later. “There’s nothing to do the job as fast or as well. But they’re getting old and stiff in the joints.” The original $46,000 price rocketed to $2,000,000. There were no new Huletts on the river.

The old monsters were growing extinct. The ones that remained would reign supreme until the cost of their maintenance outweighed their ability to create time.

A new breed of ships was coming, with holds built as hoppers; to unload, they open the bottoms and let the ore flow onto built-in conveyor belts swung ashore.

Now, in 1998, the towering hulks of the Huletts sit silently, arms and legs frozen against the darkening sky.

Every man and woman should go down to the Cuyahoga and see the monsters before the species disappears.

When the Huletts go, there’ll be an empty place against the Cuyahoga sky.