Toledoans still reminisce about the city’s “golden era”—a time of bustling shops, streets and waterways downtown: the Toledo that embodied founder Jesup Scott’s prophetic proclamation  of our mid-size metropolis as “the future great city of the world” to follow London and New York. The rise of our greatest global city centers has followed shipping and trading routes since the inception of modern commerce—and Toledo is no exception. The city sits on the coast of Lake Erie and at the mouth of the Maumee River, providing jobs, revenue and opportunity as well as local, national and even international connections.

Before railroads and highways, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence cities were founded as trading posts to facilitate commerce. From the fur trade of the 17th century to the trading of resources such as ore and agricultural products, the area’s navigable terrain, waterways and ports made Toledo a hub.

“If you go back in history, the lakes and the rivers were great highways for people to move goods. What really made things explode in this area for leveraging the Great Lakes for transportation was the development of the canal system—in particular, the Erie Canal, which opened up Lake Erie to a lot of commerce coming out of the East Coast,” said local historian and author Tedd Long.

In the height of the industrial era, Toledo’s proximity to the Great Lakes contributed to the city’s success through commerce in manufactured foods, glass, automobile production and more. As late as 1959, Toledo was a crucial part of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project, opening the Great Lakes to the oceans. And flourishing trade stimulated economic and even cultural and social impact, bringing hustle and bustle to the downtown riverfront and attracting visitors from all over the world.

Image courtesy of Tony Chang.

Toledo was the entrance to an entire shipping system, hence the remnants still present in our city today, such as “Seagate” and a world-renowned sculpture near the waterfront entitled “Propylaea” (the Greek word for “gateway”), the dedication of which describes it as “a symbolic entrance to seagate and a revitalized Toledo.”

Ellen Kennedy, Education Manager of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, noted that Toledo was once called the “Gateway to the Great Lakes.” At one point, it had “more train traffic than any other port…It became a system where the railways, the shipping, everything worked together to get shipments, things and people where they needed to go,” she said. “Toledo wouldn’t be what it is today without the Great Lakes port.”

But in the post-industrial era, as with many rustbelt cities well established in industrial manufacturing and traditional trade infrastructure, Toledo faced economic hardship. Through rising debt, taxpayer burden, depopulation and unemployment, Toledo struggled to adapt in the 21st century. Over the last five years, Toledo has lost 4 percent of its businesses. But its port and strategic location at the entrance to the Midwest continues to be a rich asset—one that with innovation and adaptation in the modern age, could be the key to helping Toledo fight economic decline and find its place in the national context.

Image courtesy of Tony Chang.

While some estimates assess that the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway is currently operating significantly below its maximum capacity, they also indicate that reliance on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway for shipping will increase in future years. $7 billion spent on ports, locks and vessel infrastructure will make the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence navigation system safer, more efficient and more environmentally advanced.

Cargo shipping and trade continues to be a staple industry, even with the decline of many traditional and related industries. With the 2020 Cleveland Cliffs construction, a hot-briquetted iron (HBI) production plant, an additional two million tons of iron ore will be shipped and handled through the Port, said former Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority President and CEO Paul Toth said.

And Toth said that the Port has seen increases in shipping in nearly every sector, paving the way for continued improvements and renovations.

“Our port was built in 1956 and 1957, so it’s time to build some new facilities and renovate some of the existing sites. We are committed to investing in our future,” said Toth.

Although there are no specific details about any new projects at this point, Joe Cappel, Vice President of Business Development at the Port Authority, said there is plenty of room for new growth and that that’s good news for the entire region.

“A lot of ports are restrained by other waterfront development. We have a large industrial area and a lot of room to grow,” Cappel said.

Goods made by Ohio businesses were shipped to all parts of the globe in 2014. This is only possible because of shipping on the Great Lakes, which is oftentimes a better option than other means of transportation. Marine transportation on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence System provides $3.6 billion in annual transportation cost savings compared to the next least expensive all-land transportation alternative. This enhances the global competitiveness of North American products and industries and keeps the cost of consumer goods down.

Graphic by Joshua Repp for Midstory.

The Great Lakes continue to impact Toledo’s economy today. 7,000 jobs are tied to the Port of Toledo, and it has a nearly one-billion-dollar economic impact on the region. Captain Paul Pacholski, President of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, described Lake Erie as a crucial asset for the region and the nation, specifically for tourism and recreation.

“Lake Erie is an economic engine for Ohio, generating nearly $13 billion in tourism sales and 120,000 jobs. Ohio’s charter boat industry is the largest in North America, fueled by a $1.5 billion sport shery,” Palchowski said. “It’s vital that we protect this economic asset.”

Like Toledo, the U.S. also depends on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes provide for 1.5 million jobs and $60 billion in wages annually and more than 100 million people are supported economically in North America because of the dependence on the Great Lakes each year. More than $7 billion is currently being spent on infrastructure improvements, additions, or repairs to make the Great Lakes Seaway even more efficient than it already is. With everyday life’s heavy reliance on the shipping industry, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence region is set to remain a vital lifeblood of trade and economic growth for decades to come as well as being a huge part of Toledo’s culture.

The Great Lakes are vital both locally and on a national level—and we should begin to think about how they could be instrumental in our future. Shipping and trading on the Great Lakes remains a source of economic support, but how can we become even more relevant in the changing context of a globalizing world and shifting trends? Beyond the use of the port as a purely industrial hub, there are also innovative ways that the relationship between land and water could be reimagined. How can the citizens of the Toledo region understand, appreciate and support the maritime experience that has shaped the town? Toledo is a city in transit, and reimagining the role of water can help transport us into the next era in Toledo history. As for the innovative potential of the Great Lakes, it seems we’ve just scratched the surface.

Graphic by Joshua Repp for Midstory.

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