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Davis Helberg retires as Duluth port director
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The international port of Duluth-Superior is 2,342 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, a week away on a large ship. (Photo/courtesy Duluth Seaway Port Authority)
Duluth's port director is retiring. Davis Helberg has been in charge of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority for 24 years. That makes him the longest serving port director in the Great Lakes, and second in seniority among all the nation's ports. As he leaves, he's concerned about the future of the Duluth port.

Duluth, Minn. — The first thing you notice in Davis Helberg's office is the round porthole in the door.

It's a tangible reminder that Helberg has spent most of his life on and around ships. When he was 17, he got a job as a deckhand on the LaBelle, a steamboat that carried grain, coal, and ore.

Later he was a ship runner, carrying mail and other necessities to ships in the harbor.

Then he worked for a pilots association, and later for a warehousing firm.

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Image Davis Helberg

Without realizing it, Helberg was learning about the key businesses that make the port work. It turned out to be an effective preparation for running it. He says the port is a complex web of enterprises, each with its own personality.

"If a person is in the tugboat industry, they see the port from a certain perspective," he says. "If you're in the coal business or the iron ore business or working in a warehouse or on a dock or as a vessel agent, freight forwarder, banker, everybody's got a little different piece of the action."

Helberg says each of these worlds has its own culture. "There's almost different languages, different jargons, different ways of doing business," he says. "It's fascinating."

Helberg says most of that vital activity is hidden from locals and tourists who see the port as a tranquil place.

"It's a paradise for artists, boatwatchers, and tourists. And ships are graceful, they move slowly through the water," he says. "But people don't see that great heartbeat that's thrumming throughout the industry. It's an exciting place to be."

The port has changed a lot since Helberg started on the LaBelle in 1958. That was the year before the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, connecting Duluth to the Atlantic Ocean, 2300 miles away.

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Duluth ships more cargo tonnage than any other port in the Great Lakes. The Port Authority says the value of that cargo is about $2 billion a year. Two thousand people depend on the port for their jobs.

Ships have gotten bigger. They carry a lot more cargo with fewer crew members. They're faster to load and unload than they used to be. But Helberg says it's not enough to keep the port competitive. A major study is planned to determine whether the Seaway should be enlarged to accommodate bigger ships.

"A huge percentage of the ships of the world can no longer get into the Seaway," he says. "It's simply too small."

Helberg says the study raises big issues.

"The tourists come to see ships, the ships don't come to see the tourists."
- Davis Helberg

"Environmental issues, engineering issues, certainly; and above everything else, economic issues. I worry about the Seaway's ability to continue to be competitive. All one has to do is look at the Erie Canal."

The Erie Canal was an important commercial artery for 75 years, but now it's just a tourist attraction.

Helberg worries that could happen to the Duluth port. The city has rebuilt big sections of its waterfront to attract tourists.

"People have rediscovered water, and they're embracing it," Helberg says. "I've seen many other ports -- port cities -- where the port facilities have had to move. There's a great cost associated with that. And yet at the same time, what makes us the tourist attraction that we are? The tourists come to see ships, the ships don't come to see the tourists."

Davis Helberg is working on a history of the Duluth-Superior port, scheduled for publication this fall. He's also agreed to serve as a consultant for the Port Authority for a couple of years.

The new executive director will be Adolph Ojard. He's a native of Knife River who worked for shipping and railroad subsidiaries of United States Steel for many years.

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