By Mark Cardwell

When he was a kid growing up in Midland, Ontario in the 1950s, Rick Leaney says the port was the economic motor of the picturesque town on southern Georgian Bay. “It was a busy place year-round back then,” recalled Leaney, the 68-year-old harbour master of the port of Midland and a descendent of a long line of Great Lakes ship captains. That list notably includes his father Dick Leaney, who retired as commodore of the CSL fleet in the early 1980s. 

According to Leaney, a mix of freighters and tugs used to flow constantly through the port during the sailing season in an era when some 300 lakers plied the waters of the Great Lakes. Some carried wheat from the Lakehead to Midland’s four grain elevators and flour mill; others came to fill fuel bunkers at the town’s coal dock.

Many also berthed in Midland during the long winter months, creating jobs with crews buying supplies in local stores. “I remember there would be two dozen ships laid up over in the winter here and in (nearby) Port McNicoll,” said Leaney. “It was something to see.”

That all changed, however, with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and advances in ship design, marine technology and environmental standards. One big difference was in the kinds and numbers of ships and crews that frequented the port. “We lost a lot of volume in numbers,” said Leaney. “A 730-foot ship built in Collingwood that used oil and had a crew of 30, could carry eight times the cargo that a 250-foot canaller with 15 men could.”

By the 1980s, when the rail line to Midland had been cut and most of the region’s grain elevators and a silica sand terminal closed, the volume of tonnage also fell. Today, the ADM-owned elevator and flour mill is the port’s only remaining terminal operator. But even that century-old facility faces some challenges.

Though Midland is renowned as having one of the deepest fresh-water bays in the world, and the port has more than the required 26 feet for Seaway depth, the ADM mill is located next to a raised shelf in the port’s harbour. Water depths there can be only 22 feet, depending on water levels and wind. “We load the ships (in Thunder Bay) with less than the maximum weight to account for the reduced draft,” ADM spokesperson Jackie Anderson wrote in an email from company headquarters in Chicago.

But Mother Nature, together with years of promotional efforts by Leaney and other municipal officials and local business leaders, have given a boost in business to the Port of Midland of late. The unexplained high water levels across Georgian Bay in the past few years, for example, have increased the amount of wheat that lakers can carry to the ADM terminal. “The greater water depth we’ve seen over the past two years has allowed us to increase our loads, which helps increase efficiency and reduce costs,” wrote Anderson. Though she refused to provide specific numbers, Anderson noted that the eight ADM-hired ships that will have visited Midland during the 2016 sailing season “can typically carry up to 25,000 tonnes of wheat.” Those ships include CSL’s Baie Comeau, Niagara and Whitefish Bay. “The high water’s been a nice bonus,” said Leaney, whose cousin Jim Leaney retired as CSL’s fleet commodore in 2014.  Jim’s brother Mark Leaney is the current captain of CSL America’s Trillium class Rt. Hon. Paul E. Martin.

Another positive development for the port of Midland has been a big upswing in the number of cruise ship visits. Once a major industry on Georgian Bay, the cruising business all but disappeared from the region in the 1970s. “Times changed,” said Leaney, who counts the 300-passenger Miss Midland, which has taken tourists out for daily tours of the 30,000 Islands for decades, among the port’s main marina clients.

In recent years, however, Leaney, Midland Chamber of Commerce manager Joyce Campbell and Town of Midland tourism representative Nicole Major have worked to rekindle interest among inland cruise ship companies to make Midland a port of call for Georgian Bay tours. “The big draw here has always been the beauty and history of the region,” said Leaney. “Passengers really enjoy our port. The only complaint we hear is that stopovers aren’t long enough.”

In addition to the 30,000 Islands, local attractions include Martyr’s Shrine, Ste-Marie Among the Hurons, the Penetanguishene Naval and Military Establishment, and more recently Keewatin, a one-time CP ship that is now a floating museum in Port McNicoll.

From a few visits over the past two decades from small ships like the Nantucket and the Yorktown, the port of Midland this year received a record 13 cruise ship visits. Nine of those visits were made by Pearl Mist. Owned and operated by New York-based Pearl Mist Cruise Lines, the 335-foot, Marshall Islands-flagged vessel carries some 200 passengers and 70 crew members on 10- and 11-day cruises through the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay. Starting in Toronto and ending in Chicago, the cruise visits four of the five Great Lakes. Georgian Bay stops and attractions include Flowerpot Rocks, Parry Sound, and Midland. Victory Cruise Lines’ 300-foot, Bahamian-flagged Victory also made three stops in Midland this year.

According to Leaney, this summer also featured the port’s second-ever cruise ship turnaround, with passengers being bused to and from Toronto to either end or begin their trip. “That’s big because its means we have to screen passengers luggage and have extra security,” said Leaney. He added that the comings and goings of cruise ships and passengers has created a new buzz in the town of 16,000.

“It’s great because the port is located right in Midland’s downtown,” said Leaney. “Ships are getting some services and work done while in port, and passengers are taking bus tours in the area or walking around to shop and to see all the murals downtown.” Leaney said the town doesn’t know how much the cruise ships and passengers pump into the local economy, but that a study will likely be done soon to determine the amount.

But according to the results of a 2013 survey-based analysis of the average spending and economic impacts of passenger, crew and cruise lines spending across Canada carried out on behalf of the North West & Canada Cruise Association, the St. Lawrence Cruise Association, Atlantic Canada Cruise Association, and Cruise BC, the 13 ships and roughly 3,000 passengers who visited the port of Midland this year was likely more than $500,000. Leaney said he hopes the port can continue to build on that amount in the coming years.

“The port will never be busy like it once was,” said Leaney. “But we’re working to get the most out of the many great assets we have left.”