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When she launched from the American Ship Building Company’s Lorain, Ohio, shipyard in May 1981, the William J. De Lancey became the largest vessel operating on the Great Lakes.

While her 1,013-foot length still gives her the title of “Queen of the Lakes,” the freighter, now known as the MV Paul R. Tregurtha, is a time capsule from a mostly bygone era.

Along the eastern shore of the Black River, the former site of American Ship Building — the largest yard in the Great Lakes prior to World War II — is now home to the Harborwalk condominium complex.

An over-two-hours drive west and north is River Rouge, birthplace of the infamous SS Edmund Fitzgerald. For roughly the first 60 years of the 20th century, the Great Lakes Engineering Works there was an innovative builder of ore freighters.

Today, the shipyard is no more and the site is home to the Great Lakes Steel Corp.

Despite a history of groundbreaking design and production, large-scale shipbuilding in the Great Lakes is another of those things that have undergone change. Depending on definition, there are about four major shipyards operating in the Great Lakes that can still produce the massive vessels that have become synonymous with shipping in the region.

David Knight, a private consultant and the former editor of the Great Lakes Seaway Review magazine, said the region previously had four other major shipyards in action: the Lorain and Ecorse sites in the U.S., as well as yards in Thunder Bay and Collingwood, Ontario.

But it’s not the number of yards in operation, but the number of new large-scale vessels they are building that represents the biggest change.

In the 1970s, U.S. and Canadian yards on the Great Lakes were busy making the next generation of massive ships for the region. Now the few new vessels made for this region are constructed overseas — the result of economics, geography and politics.

In Wisconsin, Fincantieri Marinette Marine is producing new combat ships for the U.S. Navy under a contract that will add to the yard’s nearly 75 years of production history. That includes its current product, Freedom-class littoral combat ships that include the new USS Detroit.

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But Marinette’s growth — which includes $100 million in recent upgrades — is a rare bright spot for a Great Lakes industry that is far from what it used to be.

Evidence around the region is not hard to find.

In Lorain, local historian Matt Weisman sees it in the housing complex that now occupies the former site of a shipyard that was the region’s largest just 60 years ago.

“It’s sad,” said the 73-year-old, who has lived in the town that was home to American Ship Building his entire life. “The yard was always there, with 1,000-footers coming in and out. As a kid, you were impressed by it.

“It was big stuff.”

Working across border

On a recent Tuesday last month, the “big stuff” was hard to miss at Fincantieri’s Marinette shipyard. A trio of new Freedom class ships, each longer than a football field, were moored at the facility along the Menominee River — an imposing sight from both sides of the waterway.

The river here is essentially the state line, with Menominee, Michigan, a thousand feet away. And roughly 40 percent of Marinette Marine’s 1,500 full-time workers are Michigan residents.

It’s a solid arrangement these days as the shipyard appears situated to thrive with both the Navy contract to produce these new ships, as well as Italy-based parent company Fincantieri’s investment in the facility. The shipyard normally has seven ships under construction at any time, with two being delivered per year.

“They took out (almost) all of the old buildings, leaving just two,” said Bethany Skorik, public affairs manager at Marinette Marine, of Fincantieri’s $100 million upgrades. “We have an entirely new shipyard that was built with lean process and lean manufacturing in mind. So we can easily change all of our stations and grow with whatever product we need to build next.”

Fincantieri’s investments have provided an economic boost to the region, according local officials. It has spurred new restaurant and hotel upgrades, as well as plans for a business incubator that will focus on the maritime industry.

“We’re a community of 20,000, and they employ (full-time, part-time and contractors) over 2,000,” said Jacque Boudreau, executive director and CEO of the Marinette-Menominee Chamber of Commerce. “That has an impact on everything from your grocery stores to your gas stations to your housing markets.”

Fincantieri’s acquired the Marinette operation in 2008, but its investments in Great Lakes shipbuilding does not stop there. The company also acquired Wisconsin operations Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay and ACE Marine in Green Bay.

As such, it appears the company is betting on growth in the region that starts with the littoral combat ship program. While the Marinette shipyard and contractor Lockheed Martin crank out the Freedom-class vessels in the littoral combat ship vein, General Dynamics is currently building a different version of littoral combat ships — the Independence class — at an Alabama shipyard.

U.S. Navy officials are expected to choose just one of the classes — or down-select — for further production. Lockheed and Marinette officials say no official decision has been made, but they exude confidence they will be building LCS vessels in Wisconsin for some time.

“The Navy is very happy with our product,” Skorik said. “So we feel very confident that we can grow with the Navy.”

USS Detroit Cmdr. Michael Desmond had high praise for Fincantieri’s work.

“That fact that we can operate so agilely in any maritime environment is fantastic,” he said. “Taking nothing away from cruisers, destroyers or air craft carriers — each of those have their own unique features and mission capabilities.

“But the LCS, being the fastest ship in the Navy, the most agile ship in the Navy, one of the most capable ships in the Navy, there’s really nothing else like it.”

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How big can it get?

There are limits, however, to what large-scale shipbuilding on the Great Lakes can be. And those start with the geography of the lakes and their connection to the ocean. The St. Lawrence Seaways’ system of locks limits the size of ships that can pass through.

The largest vessel that can navigate the Seaway would be 740 feet long by 78 feet wide, with a 35-foot draft and a maximum 166-foot height above water. So if the Navy wants to build a new 1,000-plus-foot aircraft carrier, it won’t be here.

In the early 2000s, there was serious discussion of expanding the Seaway to allow larger ocean-going vessels to reach the Great Lakes. But that proposal is essentially dead.

“I think it’s off the table for essentially two reasons — cost and policy,” Knight said. “The cost to expand all the Seaway locks is prohibitive. And then there are the environmental restrictions. When we look at the building of the Seaway back in the 1950s, with today’s restrictions, it would never had been built in the first place.”

Economics come into play as well. The biggest cargo ships are currently being made in Japan, China and South Korea. Many U.S. shipyards are outdated by comparison.

“In the 1960s, they began developing new types of shipyards,” said David Singer, an assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan. “And one of the problems that we have with U.S. shipbuilding is that we won World War II, so our facilities weren’t destroyed.

“In Europe and Japan, there shipyards were destroyed, so they had to start over and get more advanced. ...

“The Korean yards are the biggest in the world — they’re massive.”

Recurring patterns

In one sense, the Great Lakes are like a bathtub where there’s only enough room for a certain number of toys. Without greater access to the Atlantic Ocean, the number of large-scale ships needed for transport here is limited. And ships like the massive ore carriers Michigan residents are used to seeing don’t often need to be replaced.

Singer said ships on the Great Lakes, free from the effects of saltwater, can have lifespans of 100 years or more. Ocean-going vessels typically last 20 to 30 years.

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As such, shipping industry officials see construction in this region as cyclical.

“The shipbuilding industry here on the Great Lakes has restructured, and we had big building cycles,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association. “In the 1970s, we built 31 ships and modernized a bunch of other ships. Then we had the horrible recession of the 1980s.”

Even without new construction, the remaining large-scale shipyards in the Great Lakes will likely continue to operate thanks to the ships’ need for places to layover in the offseason and undergo repairs. And as new ship technologies become standard, lakers will need a place for that work as well.

“The ones that are still active are kept alive through the cycle of winter maintenance, storage and repairs,” Knight said. “And there are still a lot of big contracts for the transition to more efficient powering.”

JLynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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