I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.
Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.
Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).
One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.
Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.
These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.
Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.
Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.
The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new documentary.
Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.
Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”