The Noonday Club - and the Nation

THE MOST exclusive lunch club in the world met at 1200 hours sharp daily at the mouth of the Cuyahoga.

The food was good, but very plain, and the men were neither rich nor especially sociable (how would you like to eat with the same fellows five days a week for decades?). But it was highly exclusive in membership: A man must know the shipping business backwards and forward, and his word must be his company’s bond - because at the lunch table he may buy $300,000 worth of coal just with the spoken word; and his company must pay the invoice when it comes, or this lunch club could not work.

In 1985, we watched them function just as they had since World War I days and World War II and the Korean War. These men were the Ore and Coal Exchange. They carryied out the Cuyahoga’s role as schedule boss of the Great Lakes fleet from Duluth to Buffalo. Despite the fact that the Ore and Coal Exchange held their final noonday meeting earlier this decade, we include their story here. These men helped shape the history of Cleveland industry and this river.

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The men who ran the vessel-coal-and-iron-ore complex long ago developed a cold stony eye for laymen who wanted to hear about “the romance of the business,” because while they’re talking romance they could lose their shirts. And anyway, the interviewer was not likely to understand the split-second tension in a business where ships moved 18 miles per hour.

Besides, the chessboard they played on like the back of their hands was so big nobody really believed it, and the names they named, nobody recognized. I went to this lunch club only because for years I had been scrivening around the Great Lakes marine world, including editing Inland Seas® for the Great Lakes Historical Society.

Though the lunch club was exclusive, the intricate and crucial chess game these men played affected the lives and income and well-being of thousands of people in a seven-state belt from Minnesota to Pennsylvania and south to West Virginia and Kentucky.

You see, the most ticklish rendezvous in this geographic iron-coal world was the moment when a train was scheduled to meet a ship at the mouth of the Cuyahoga or anywhere along the south shore of the Great Lakes. If either was late, the cost was gigantic. If early, same problem.

Then when a ship started downlakes from Duluth, Minnesota, to discharge iron ore at the month of the Cuyahoga and meet a train that was rolling north with a hundred cars of coal from Beckley, West Virginia, you had a precision high wire act that kept 50 men on nervous alert for 72 hours.

They planned this meeting precisely, because if the train reached the dock and sat idle, somebody paid. Likewise, if the ship sat empty, or waited for dockage, it was eating raw money.

Despite this planning, though, the ship captain could not control a storm on Lake Superior, a delay at the Soo Locks, a strike on the dock unloading equipment, or an eight-hour fog in the Cuyahoga. The railroader could not control a bridge out or a burnt-out journal. And one of these things or something like it was bound to happen.

But the train and the vessel continued relentlessly toward the original meeting place, even after it was impossible for them to connect.

With telephone and radio, obviously traffic management could get on the phones and re-coordinate this rendezvous with the dock, the shipper, the customer, the vessel, and the train. But if eight docks, seven railroads, four vessel fleets and 90 shippers tried to do this in a 190-million-ton year, it would jam every switchboard in the Great Lakes trade.

They needed a man sitting up so high he could get an eagle’s-eye view of the railroads from West Virginia, and all the vessels from Lake Superior to Ontario. He should also be able to see the stevedores and docks to know if they’re ready, and which kinds of empty cars they have. In the case of iron ore, some mills accepted ore from hoppers, others from flat-bottoms. This perch sitter had to be able to scan the whole south shore of the Great Lakes to see from where the right kinds of cars came.

Well, there was such an eagle’s nest on the 11th floor of the Terminal Tower at the mouth of the Cuyahoga. “Room 1101" was all it said on the door. It was known as The Ore and Coal Exchange, Gordon Walker, Manager, in the early days.

Here we return to 1984, the last time I visited.

Three dispatchers behind a glass window are locked to their desks by telephone and ship-shore radio. They each have a complex ledger in front of them. The way these three dispatchers keep the midwest economy coordinated is this: each shipment of coal gets a consignment name (i.e., “Holiday,” “Red Dog,” “Blue Sky,” etc.). The coal is usually to be transferred from a train from West Virginia to a vessel upbound for the electric power stations on the upper lakes. Coal from West Virginia powers electric motors in Minnesota.

So the shipper at lunch tells the Exchange the plans for each consignment. It’s a code language all its own, but in English it tells: what is in the consignment by grade; when depart mine; over what rails; to which dock; for which customer; how mix at dock when loading in ship.

The vessel company then tells the dispatcher which of its ships will pick up this coal.

When the train and the ship are 72 hours away from the rendezvous, the dispatcher receives calls from the shipper and/or railroad and vessel company as to the location of each. At 60 hours, another call. Again at 36; again at 24, 12, and three hours away from port.

The dispatcher is the one man who can see whether or not they’re going to connect.

Since it does not always work that neatly, the dispatcher also uses other sources of information. Every morning, his first calls are to Detroit, Buffalo, Port Colborne to see if any of his named-in ships cleared these points last night, and at what times. And which ships did not clear those points. He’s familiar with the speed of each vessel, loaded and light.

Vessel operators also need to minimize demurrage ... which begins on each car of coal after 120 hours on the dock. The space is needed by a relentless column of coal coming up behind from the south. The whole secret in coal is to keep it in constant motion. Never let it rest - from the mine face to the customer’s furnace blower - or it costs like gold.

By midmorning, every company vessel dispatcher on the Cuyahoga, every railroad, every dock and coal shipper may have a white hot slip of paper in his pocket - an emergency getting closer by the minute. A dispatcher in a vessel company is somebody you don’t chat with casually while he’s on duty. While you’re talking to him he is dying to see the clock over your shoulder, and watching the three buttons light up on his phone. He hopes they are three solutions to problems he just sent out; but he suspects they are three more problems.

At 1145 hours, these company dispatchers each walk out of their offices and go down to the Cuyahoga to the Noonday Club. There, among 90 others, each hopes to find a man who has an emergency which fits with his like the other half of a solution. So you’ll see men get up and circulate to other tables, working the room. They are men looking for solutions - before one o’clock. The problem they’re seeking to solve has probably been building up all morning, and they have possibly called or visited the Exchange in person previously this morning.

We will follow Mike Bonnard, bulk vessel dispatcher from Ardco Fleet.

He had been down here early this morning to see the chief dispatcher at the Ore and Coal Exchange. “Al, will the Orion have a clear dock today when she gets in?”

The chief dispatcher, here for 100 years, smiles and consults his vessel sheets. Although he sits in the ulcer chair, and he’s watching six major problems graduate into top grade emergencies, he approaches Bonnard’s problem as if it were absurd even to think that everything won’t come out all right.

Anyone not used to his job would be sweating bullets. But the three Exchange dispatchers stay calm by assuming the best laid plans will fail, and by having in their minds alternate plans for nearly every situation.

Right at this moment, the chief dispatcher has an alternate plan for Bonnard’s big vessel. But before the morning is over, his alternate may have alternates on it.

“Can’t say for sure yet, Mike. She might, if the sun comes out in Toledo.”

“When can you give us a firm answer, Al?”

“I hope by eleven a.m.”

Bonnard leaves.

The dispatcher’s phone stops ringing 30 seconds, so we ask a fast question: “What’s the sun got to do with it, Al?”

“You see, if the sun comes out,” Al explains, “it may loosen up that frozen coal so they can start dumping fifteen-twenty cars per hour instead of seven, which would mean that boat can clear the dock in about half the time.”

“But what if the sun doesn’t come out”

“Well, if we can’t straighten out by noon, then maybe he can make a deal at Noonday Club today with some other shippers or receivers.”

Not all those who come to Noonday Club bring a problem. But they come anyway. That’s part of a bargain made in 1913 when they organized the Exchange to mobilize all the iron and coal in the midwest against the Kaiser.

The Ore and Coal Exchange organized to solve World War I’s traffic jam, served the same role - accelerated - for World War II and again in the continuing wars - Korea and Viet Nam and the flooding civilian demand between wars.

It controlled traffic until 1995 including the new thousand footers like Columbia Star, direct descendant of the brig Columbia of 1852.