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Ashland Sees Historic Oredock Redevelopment As Bridge To The Future

Ben Meyer/WXPR

A walk to the end of the Ashland Oredock feels like a walk out onto Lake Superior for Ed Monroe.

“We’re out amongst the buoys and the shipping lane,” he said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Ed Monroe, an Ashland native and former mayor.

What’s left of the Oredock--a slender tongue of concrete--juts 1,800 feet out from the city of Ashland.

Not long ago, the superstructure, a hulking mass of metal, would have risen 80 feet over his head.

During the Oredock’s operation, and after it was out of use, kids used to play out here, fishing and even jumping off the top.

But even though Monroe was a kid growing up in Ashland 70 years ago, it wasn’t his scene. He was a west end kid, and the Ore Dock was on the east end.

Credit Ashland Oredock Redevelopment Facebook
The Ashland Oredock was in use for shipping iron ore for nearly 50 years.

“I wouldn’t dare get caught out here because, literally, they would have thrown me in the water,” Monroe said, laughing. “Or worse.”

As an adult, though, Monroe has been out here plenty, learning more about its history, some of which he witnessed firsthand.

“This particular dock went into service in 1918 and it shipped ore until 1965,” Monroe said.

Train cars would pull iron ore from regional mines to the dock, where it was unloaded for transport on huge ships to steel mills. Monroe said the dock could handle more than 100,000 tons of ore at once.

Credit Ashland Oredock Redevelopment Facebook
The Oredock began service in 1918.

But as mining faded, the Oredock became obsolete.

It sat idle for decades. Then, in 2012, its owner, Canadian National railroad, started tearing down the superstructure.

What’s left now is just the concrete base.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Only the concrete base remains from what was once the 80-foot-tall Oredock.

“When the superstructure came down eight years ago, there was a real sense of loss,” said Betsey Harries.

Harries grew up in Ashland, sometimes sneaking out onto the Oredock, breaking her mother’s rules. It’s where she caught her first fish.

“This our history,” said Harries, looking out over the Oredock. “This is Ashland.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Betsey Harries, an Ashland native and current executive director of the Ashland Area Development Corporation.

Over the years, the Oredock became part of the city’s identity. The high school’s sports teams are even called the Oredockers.

The remaining concrete base rises a few feet above the water level of Lake Superior.

Of course, it’s not a true bridge, said Harries. It doesn’t connect to anything.

But she sees it as a bridge of a different kind.          

“It really provides that connection for people with the lake. Coming out to the end of it is the bridge to the lake to that people are just immediately able to embrace,” she said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Sara Hudson, director of the city of Ashland's parks and recreation department.

Unlike Monroe and Harries, Sara Hudson didn’t grow up in Ashland.

But she fully understands the importance of this structure.

“The Oredock is a symbolism of the hardiness and the resiliency of the people that have lived up here,” she said.

With Monroe, Harries, and countless others, Hudson is helping lead the development of the new vision for the Oredock. She’s the city’s parks and recreation director.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A popular walking trail passes by the entrance of the Oredock.

Instead of casting it off as a relic of a dead industrial past, it’s an opportunity to honor history and look to the future.

The enthusiasm is there, like for the kickoff to simply lay down some gravel to make the Oredock more accessible for all.

“We had a party. We thought that, like, 100 people would come. We had 600 people,” Hudson said. “We ran out of brats in 45 minutes. It was awesome.”

A long list of partners, including the city, an ad-hoc committee, and a charitable trust, has come together to form the future plan for the Oredock.

Surprisingly, that diverse group found consensus.

“Everybody wanted to get to the end. That was the big consensus, that the public should have access to the entirety of the dock,” Hudson said.

Credit Ashland Oredock Redevelopment Facebook
A rendering of plans for the far end of the reimagined Ashland Oredock.

Right now, only about the first 900 feet of the Oredock half the length of the dock is technically open--that is, unless the barriers are ignored.

The vision for the path all the way to the end is attractive and elaborate.

Renderings of the Oredock redevelopment plan show historical displays, zigzagging walkways, fishing spots, and a warming house along the way.

Credit Ashland Oredock Concept Design Report
A rendering of the proposed end of the Oredock.

“You’re 1,800 [feet], a quarter of a mile out in the middle of Lake Superior and you’re still on solid ground. If there is [another place like this], I don’t know about it. I don’t know where you can walk that far out into the middle of the lake,” said Monroe, the Ashland native and former mayor.

Hudson knows the vision of a new Oredock is years away and millions of dollars away.

Credit Ashland Oredock Concept Design Report
A rendering of the reimagined Ashland Oredock.

But she’s confident.

She can’t wait to finish it, although even getting simple access to the end will likely take until at least 2022.

She can’t wait to finish it for people like Ed Monroe and Betsey Harries, who grew up in the shadow of the Ashland Oredock.

“It’s going to be amazing, and people have been waiting,” Hudson said. “They’ve been waiting their entire lives to see it. Not the beauty that it was when it was built, but the new beauty and the new future of what the Oredock holds to Ashland.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A boy fishes near the Oredock.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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