Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Ports and Waterways

Commercial waterways

The Mississippi River System

The Mississippi River System stretches over 195 miles in Minnesota and supports four port areas whose combined 2019 tonnage was 11 million net tons. The River accounts for over 50 percent of Minnesota’s agricultural exports.

Minnesota’s largest river tonnage commodities are agricultural products such as corn, soybeans and wheat. In 2019, Minnesota shipped 3.6 million tons of grain down the river. River ports also handle other dry commodities such as fertilizer, cement, sand and gravel, salt, coal, steel and scrap metals for recycling. Liquid products include petroleum, caustic soda, vegetable oils, molasses and anhydrous ammonia.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers maintains the Mississippi River System. They dredge the width and depth of the channel to accommodate 9-foot deep barges, and they operate the 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. Recreational boaters also use the locks at no cost. The commercial barge operators on the River pay a user fee of 29 cents per gallon of fuel purchased. These dollars are used to pay for half of major federal lock structure improvements.

Minnesota Annual River Port Tonnage (Net Tons)

Port 2019 2018 2017
Twin Cities 7,300,722 7,586,571 8,203,679
Savage 1,631,519 3,459,680      3,331,936
Red Wing 609,543 1,018,887 1,019,341
Winona 1,541,831 2,269,364 2,416,502
Totals 11,083,614 14,334,502 14,971,458

•Annual tonnages will vary due to seasonal flooding, freight rates and foreign grain demand

Lake Superior / Great Lakes / St. Lawrence Seaway

Minnesota has three active ports on Lake Superior: Silver Bay, Two Harbors and Duluth/Superior. Their combined waterway tonnage for 2019 was 56.1 million tons. World steel production continues to drive taconite demand on the Great Lakes. Great Lakes taconite shipped from Minnesota amounted to 42.2 million tons in 2019. Taconite amounted to 75% of Minnesota’s Great Lakes tonnage in 2019. Taconite is mined in northeast Minnesota and shipped via the Great Lakes to steel mills in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Western coal is the second leading commodity shipped from Duluth/Superior in 2019 at 7.9 million tons.
Other commodities handled by the Port of Duluth/Superior include grain, cement, salt, steel, limestone, and wind generator components.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers operates three of the 16 locks on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway and maintains a 29-foot deep channel throughout this system. The Canadian government operates and maintains the other 13 locks.

Ships that operate only on the Great Lakes are called “Lakers”. Some of the Lakers range to over 1,000 feet long, 105 feet wide and have a capacity of 65,000-70,000 net tons at 26’6” draft – the maximum draft allowed. Since 1999, lake levels on the Great Lakes System have been low, primarily due to drought, which has restricted ship tonnage by as much as 6,000 tons per trip. Less tonnage per trip results in higher freight costs per ton, both to the carrier and to the shipper.

Minnesota Annual Great Lakes Tonnage (Net Tons)

Port 2019 2018 2017
Duluth/Superior 33,535,349    35,916,790 35,251,773
Two Harbors 16,942,617 16,839,494 17,898,849
Silver Bay 5,632,842 6,415,696 5,974,645
Totals 56,110,808 59,171,980 59,125,267

•Annual tonnages will vary due to low water, ice conditions and commodity demand