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Cleveland's historic Huletts are headed for the scrap heap. Is there still time to save them?

A Great Lakes freighter is pulled up against a bulkhead near four massive mechanical iron ore unloaders that look like giant metal elephants or praying mantises.
Cleveland Public Library / Photograph Collection
Cleveland's Huletts unload taconite from an iron ore freighter. The Huletts operated on Whiskey Island from 1912 to 1992. They were taken down in 2000.

Cleveland's last two historic Hulett iron ore unloaders appear headed for the scrap pile. The Port of Cleveland says it cannot continue storing the disassembled mechanical monsters at its bulk terminal on Whiskey Island. They've been there since 2000, as part of an agreement with preservationists who were hoping to find a place to display them. Canalway Partners, a nonprofit cultural heritage organization, is a part of that effort to save the Huletts. Ideastream Public Media's Amy Eddings spoke with Mera Cardenas, Canalway's executive director, on whether parts of the Huletts can still be preserved before they're scrapped. Cardenas is also co-executive director of the Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area.

Mera, I covered the fight to save the Huletts in the late 1990s when there was talk of taking them down. There used to be four of them on Whiskey Island. You could see them from the Shoreway up close. They were scary, like metal praying mantises. I was really sad to see them go.

I love your description because it brings them alive. So I think there is a sadness when you potentially lose the last of anything.

What makes the Huletts worth saving?

The Huletts are a uniquely Cleveland story. They were conceived by a Clevelander, George Hulett, to benefit Cleveland industry. They were constructed in Cleveland. And the Hulett iron ore unloaders speak to a time when Cleveland built the world. And we are the people who should care most about what happens to what is left of the Huletts. And you mentioned what hulking machines they were. I like to tell people they're taller than a Cleveland Guardian with a larger footprint than a space shuttle, and they weigh more than the freighters they unloaded. And I think that helps people understand what a massive task this is.

They were made obsolete in the early 90s by self-unloading freighters. When the port sought to tear them down in the late 90s, preservationists successfully sued. And as a result, the port was allowed to take down all four Huletts and sell two for scraps, but it had to save the other two for preservationists. Here's what Port President and CEO Will Friedman tells me about that deal:

"We agreed to store the two that are still on the bulk terminal for a period of time. That time frame elapsed in 2021, and we've actually been keeping them there for almost three more years now."

Did your group ask for that extension? Were you seeking more time?

Yes, it was part of a of a conversation. Will and his team have been incredibly supportive.

And what were your options? Where did you look for a place to put some or all of these Hulett pieces?

Yeah. So I'll say there are, you know, things that compound finding an answer. You need to have a site and you need to have site control. You might be familiar with the plan in 2019 to have a bucket leg near the (Steamship William G.) Mather. But that was because of a private development agreement when that land reverted to city control. We couldn't discuss that option any further under the previous administration. Second, you need funds.

How much money do you need to raise?

How much is needed has varied depending on on what the plan has been over the years. We've done some research into moving portions and reconstructing portions, and we're probably looking at about $3 million right now.

So is there any chance of something being done between now and when the port ships these pieces off for scrap?

The short answer is, yes. The port has given a timeline. You know, they are proceeding with their process to identify a contractor who can further break down the material and move it to scrap. So this is not a fire alarm. We have to put out the fire.

Ideastream reached out to Port President Will Friedman, who said the port has not granted Canalway Partners more time. However, he said theoretically, they could remove select pieces before a yet-to-be hired contractor takes them away if they have the funds, do the engineering work and had a place to take them.

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