Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems and everything in between. Faces of Duluth provides the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.
Ship watching in Duluth is popular among tourists and locals alike. There is an air of mystery and awe when the massive vessels pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge. What are they carrying? How do the captains navigate the ships through the canal? What goes on during the shipping offseason? Who better than to answers these questions than Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. In this Faces of Duluth interview, Deb discusses her path to the shipping industry, shares some insider knowledge (including some pretty interesting cargo loads that have passed through the canal), and what she likes to do in Duluth, on and off the water.
What’s your Duluth story? (Did you grow up in Duluth? Move to the area?)
I moved to Duluth in 2006 with my husband, our two children and our dog when my husband’s work gave him the opportunity to move from their Minneapolis office to their Duluth office. I had my own company and could serve my clients, all in Minnesota, from a Duluth base. While we enjoyed our Twin Cities life, we were drawn to Duluth. We loved raising our children here and enjoy all that the area has to offer.
How did you become involved in the shipping industry?
I had a back-door route to the shipping industry, which is quite common in the world of port authorities. One of my clients while I operated my own business was the St. Paul Port Authority, working with them on the economic development side of their business to foster sustainable reuse of former industrial properties to support job and tax-base growth in St. Paul and to encourage in-fill development. When the Duluth Seaway Port Authority (DSPA) posted a job opening for the Director of Government and Environmental Affairs, I applied and was hired. I served four years in that role and have been learning more about the maritime shipping industry ever since. However, Port Authority work extends well beyond the maritime world. A hint toward that is our mission: “We bring business to the port, economic development to the region, and we advocate for maritime transportation, freight and industry.”
What is your typical day like? (Or if there isn’t one typical day, what does an example of a day look like?)
Indeed, no two days are the same. On any given day, I might be found in our office headquarters or on our marine terminal, off-site at meetings, or even (unfortunately, rarely) on a ship in our port. I have a truly amazing team of nine who enjoy working together and are energized around our mission. At any one time, we are involved in capital projects, grant applications, community engagement and local, state and national initiatives. I make sure that their work direction is clear and that they have the resources they need to get their work done. In addition, I answer to a board of seven excellent, engaged commissioners. Working closely with our terminal operating agent is one of the most interesting parts of my job; we work to increase diversity and volume of cargo through our terminal. I also serve on several boards and commissions.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The people that I encounter throughout my working days, including, of course, my staff and board. I also love the variety of the work and the complex problem-solving processes involved.
Ship watching is extremely popular among Duluth locals and tourists alike. Why do you think that is?
The ships that move in and out of our port ARE beautiful and whether they stay on the Great Lakes or are oceangoing vessels from elsewhere in the world, they carry a whiff of travel and adventure with them. Additionally, the Duluth Ship Canal provides a rare opportunity to be up close to the ships. But most of all, it’s the allure of the inland seas and the opportunity to experience something unique in the middle of North America. We’re 2,342 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but despite that distance, we’re a world port thanks to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System. The majesty of the inland seas and the ships that ply those waters is remarkable.
In your opinion, what are some of the most interesting cargo loads that have left or arrived in Duluth via ship?
I never tire of seeing the shipments of wind turbine parts arrive at our terminal, and it is exciting to see containers moving on water and arriving, which is a recent development. We’ve been moving grain through this port since the 1870s, which helps feed the whole world, so that’s a very meaningful cargo. That said, the region and Duluth should be extremely proud of the ships moving iron ore out of our port – our port is a critical link in the nation’s steel-making supply chain. In fact, 80% of the nation’s first-pour steel comes from iron ore that moves through our port and ports in Two Harbor and Silver Bay. Duluth’s shipping industry moves the raw materials of our everyday life and supports $1.4B of economic activity and 8,000 jobs in the region! In that way, all of the cargo is interesting and important.
Some of the less common loads over the years have included exotic European automobiles, many thousands of tons of coffee beans, a large hand-carved nativity set for a church in Fargo and fashion mannequins for use in retail clothing stores.
How do the ship captains navigate these huge vessels into the canal?
Very carefully! It takes years of training and experience to captain any of the ships you see in the harbor. The oceangoing ships are required to have a Great Lakes pilot on board in addition to the ship captain. These pilots have met U.S. Coast Guard-required training and have extensive working knowledge of navigating the particularly challenging stretches of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System. These people – the captains and pilots – are truly special, stars in their field, and combine with ever-improving ship technology to navigate safely. Additionally, when the Duluth Ship Canal was cut, it was done with consideration to the prevailing wave action, so it’s angled to provide the smoothest, most protected route into the harbor.
You recently welcomed the first Laker and Saltie of the year – what keeps the Port Authority busy during the shipping offseason?
Our work does not stop for the two months that ships aren’t moving on the Lake Superior. Freight moves through our terminal (and the port) year-round via road and rail. In addition, we are kept busy with everything from capital projects to improve our terminal, trade development and policy initiatives, to working with regional partners and community outreach. As I said before, no two days are the same!
Cruise ships made their return to Duluth in 2022 and will be back in a big way in 2023. What are you looking forward to this cruising season?
There’s a lot of exciting cruising news this season. Viking will have two ships traveling to Duluth this summer, including the Polaris, a new ship which will be starting and ending cruises in Duluth. That means that we’ll have people flying into and out of Duluth to access those cruises and to return home, giving those travelers more exposure to the wonders of the Twin Ports and the region. In addition, we will have two more cruise lines visiting Duluth this summer.
What do you love about Duluth?
Gosh – where to start? Duluth has everything a good community needs: a breadth of cultural resources, amazing natural resources for recreation, preservation and economic development, an engaged and caring public, a proud selection of post-secondary education options, including a state university, a great transportation system, wonderful parks, scenic beauty and a variety of landscapes. It ticks all the boxes.
What do you enjoy doing in Duluth, both outside and when it comes to enjoying food/beverages, events, arts & culture, etc.?
I love this city for its outdoor amenities. We have long winters, so it is important to embrace a winter outdoor activity. I like nothing better than to be out on the plethora of groomed Nordic ski trails available right here in town. I also like to ice-skate on Lake Superior or area lakes when possible, and to spend the odd evening or afternoon alpine skiing at Spirit Mountain. My favorite way to spend a weekend morning in the summer is running on Duluth’s hills – trail and road options abound – or out on my bike – road or gravel – with friends. There are many wonderful restaurant options for a town of our size, it’s hard to pick a favorite! In terms of events, arts and culture, we like to circulate between all of Duluth’s offerings and select the venue to match our mood and the degree of intimacy desired. There’s also a vibrant sporting scene with the UMD Bulldogs, local high school sports, the Duluth Huskies and a large collection of amateur league teams in the summertime.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel very fortunate that my family moved here in 2006. I don’t have enough time to do all the things I love to do in this town, but I plan to keep exploring!