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Freighter Oberstar gives special salute in honor of namesake

Rondi Watson of Duluth watches as the freighter Hon. James L. Oberstar passes under the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth on Thursday morning; the ship gave a special, formal Interlake fleet salute - two long and three short blasts - in honor of its namesake, former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who died Saturday at age 79. (Bob King /

On a calm but cool morning, with ice floes moving in the Duluth ship canal, avid ship watcher Georgianna Henry typically would have watched a ship enter the harbor from atop the hillside.

But not Thursday.

She and JC Curtis, both from Duluth, braved the elements to come to Canal Park to honor the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar as the ship named after him passed under the Aerial Lift Bridge just after 9:30 a.m.

“We wouldn’t have been here” otherwise, Henry said, but honoring the congressman was important.

“It was emotional,” Curtis said. Both were wiping tears as the taconite hauler Hon. James L. Oberstar sounded two short, then three long blasts from its horn to pay respect to its namesake, who died Saturday at age 79. It was the formal salute of the Interlake Steamship Co., owners of the freighter.

The lift bridge operator responded with the same pattern, and it in turn was echoed by the Great Lakes Towing tug North Dakota in the inner harbor. Less than 30 minutes later, Oberstar’s funeral began in Maryland.

Cecelia Leon and Tim Carle were in town for the Duluth Lions Club’s annual pancake breakfast and then came to the piers. They, too, wiped tears as the horns sounded.

“It’s a little of both,” Leon said of her reason for coming down. They were there to honor Oberstar but are also serious about their ship watching, checking for them every time they are in the city from their home in Cloquet.

At 9:23 a.m., the warning that the lift bridge was about to rise sounded out. In all directions, the horizon was blue-black after a stormy night that saw two other ships struggle to get into the canal. From time to time, a halo of brightness fell over Canal Park. Ice floes poured into the canal from an overnight change in the wind.

The tug Helen H. came out of the harbor and under the bridge as the Oberstar neared. The tug’s draft reversed the flow of ice in the canal. It was now going out into Lake Superior.

The Oberstar arrived right on time at 9:30, sloshing through the ice and slicing between the piers. Its horn sounded two minutes later, followed by the bridge at 9:33. By 9:37, the Oberstar was curving a path into the harbor, set to load taconite pellets.

That the ship hauls iron ore proved to be humbling for Oberstar when the ship was named in his honor in 2011. His family had close ties to the industry as he grew up on the Iron Range.

“I never imagined having my name on a vessel of this significance,” Oberstar said at the christening of the ship bearing his name. “My heart, my family’s tradition, is on that ship.”

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