Great Lakes Steamships

views updated


GREAT LAKES STEAMSHIPS date from 1816, when the first such ship, the Canadian Frontenac, entered service, followed by the American Walk-in-the-Water in 1818. During most of the nineteenth century, sailing ships continued to haul most of the bulk cargoes (iron ore, coal, stone), whereas steamships took over most of the package freight and passenger business. Most of the wooden vessels on the Lakes served a dual role as package freight and passenger carriers.

To avoid paying track usage fees to competing railroads, many East Coast railroad companies used these boats as connector lines between where their rail lines ended along Lakes Ontario and Erie and debarkation points at Milwaukee, Chicago, and other western Lakes ports, where they either had arrangements with subsidiary lines or business partnerships with other carriers. These early vessels were first side-wheel-powered like river vessels (including the Frontenac and the Walk-in-the-Water), but by the 1850s, John Ericsson's invention of a submerged propeller became increasingly popular. Passenger quarters were located along the upper decks, and cargo was carried below the main deck, with large gangway doors in the sides to facilitate ease of movement. Fire remained an ever-present danger, as were storms, which frequently occurred with little warning on the Lakes.

As the lumber regions of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota became active in the 1870s, a new type of vessel was used to haul this type of awkward cargo. At the same time, this design also served in the iron ore, the stone, and the coal trade and quickly became the dominant vessel arrangement for these routes. The first of these vessels, the R. J. Hackett (1869), conceived of by Cleveland ship owner E. M. Peck, placed the navigating cabins at the bow and the engines and crew's quarters at the back of the hull, leaving a long, open deck broken by hatches to provide access to the vessel's holds. The high bow and stern cabins protected lumber cargos stored on deck from the wind and waves, and provided ready access to the holds for other bulk cargos. While the R. J. Hackett and many other vessels of this type were still built of wood, iron and steel would follow in time.

A landmark use of iron occurred in 1843 with the construction of the gunboat USS Michigan, a vessel that served until the 1920s. The Michigan skirted the limits of the Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817), which declared the Great Lakes a nonmilitary zone. The iron Onoko (1882) and the steel Spokane (1886) served on the Lakes for over thirty years, far exceeding the average life of wooden vessels. By the twentieth century, iron was replaced with cheaper and stronger steel vessels, which continued to grow in size from the 1880s to the present day.

By 1927 the number of vessels had grown to 765 and their gross registered tonnage to 2,887,427 tons, according to a report of the Lake Carriers' Association. The members of this group included major U.S. flag carriers. Together with its Canadian counterpart, the Dominion Marine Association, it formed an important lobbying group. The number of vessels cited above includes those in the bulk, package, and automobile trade of the United States and Canada, but excludes passenger steamers and railroad car ferries. About thirty passenger lines operated on the upper Great Lakes, although after the 1920s their number dropped precipitously, and passenger traffic ended by the late 1960s. Bulk cargoes consisted primarily of iron ore, coal, limestone, and wheat. Vessels reached a length in excess of 600 feet with a carrying capacity of 10,000 tons. Package freight carriers lost their ties to railroads through a court case in 1916 and had to survive on their own.

The standard bulk carrier was a long, narrow, and deep vessel with machinery in the stern, navigating bridge forward, and crew quarters both forward and aft. Cargo was handled through large hatches extending nearly the full width of the deck. Though the vessels were almost identical in profile to the R. J. Hackett, a number of innovations had taken place to provide either an alternative or to improve the basic design. One alternative, called a whaleback, was created by a Scottish immigrant, Alexander McDougall, in 1888. The design featured a rounded upper deck, flat sides, and a bottom that tapered to points or "snouts" at the ends. McDougall envisioned a vessel sitting low in the water that waves would simply wash over, limiting the resistance offered by a conventional hull. Fewer than fifty of these vessels were built, as they proved economically unsuccessful, and only one remains, the Meteor, as a museum in Superior, Wisconsin.

The disastrous storm of November 1913 that sank over a dozen vessels and cost 250 sailors' lives prompted other changes, such as improved lifeboats, stronger one-piece hatch covers (pioneered by McDougall's whale-backs), and the slow adoption of radio communication. Continued sinkings, highly sensationalized, indicated the glacial nature of change in the vessel industry.

The heyday of the Great Lakes steamship took place between 1890 and 1929 as hundreds of new vessels steamed out of shipyards, most to serve in the rapidly expanding iron ore routes for lower Lake steel mills. The steel industry grew into a vertically integrated business with owners controlling mines, vessels, and mills during the 1890s. Fierce competition eventually resulted in the formation of the United States Steel Corporation, the largest steel producer, in 1901. From that point on, independent vessel owners declined for the next several decades as major steel companies built their own fleets and consolidated their hold on the shipment of ore. World War I and the boom of the 1920s stimulated the growth of the industry and made many owners feel that continual expansion was possible. The Great Depression erased that vision and nearly two-thirds of the ore-carrying fleet became inactive along with the passenger vessels and package freight carriers throughout the 1930s.

The demand for vessels to serve in the Atlantic brought an end to package freight carriers, which were already losing business to the speedier and year-round operations of railroads and trucks. Bulk freighters were more successful, although they were affected by the decline in the output of Mesabi Range high-grade iron ore and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Before its opening, Great Lakes steamships remained con-fined to the lakes above Lake Erie since vessels built especially for the iron ore and coal trades were too large to pass through the Welland Canal at Niagara Falls. The projected earnings of the Seaway never fully materialized, and with the growth of container shipping and cargo airlines, the Seaway will continue to experience declining revenues.

High construction and labor costs, intensified railroad competition, and the midwinter icing conditions made owners prefer to convert to diesel fuel and install automatic boiler controls and bow thrusters for older vessels rather than place new building orders. That changed with a new vessel, the Stewart J. Cort, put into operation in 1972, which was the forerunner of the 1,000-foot, self-loading vessels of capacity 58,000 gross tons, three times that of the older bulk carriers, but operated by crews of the same size. This shipbuilding spurt was triggered by the Merchant Marine Act of 1970, which extended ocean-going tax and subsidy benefits to lakers, demand for which subsequently increased for transporting low-sulfur Rocky Mountain coal for Midwest utilities and iron to meet a projected shortage of steel.

The collapse of the American steel industry in the early 1980s shattered these hopes for the ship owners and put many venerable companies out of business. Consolidation and dismantling of many vessels, even those of recent vintage, reduced the U.S. and Canadian fleets to fewer than one hundred vessels, with only half to two-thirds of those operating in any given year. The drive for economy prompted a new innovation with integrated tug and barge units operating instead of traditional ships and their large crews. Self-unloading vessels have also become the rule on the Great Lakes since they offer the flexibility of delivery to suitable locations. Great Lakes steamships have operated for nearly two hundred years, but their future has never been more uncertain.


LesStrang, Jacques. Cargo Carriers of the Great Lakes. New York: Crown, 1982.

———. Great Lakes/St. Lawrence System. Boyne City, Mich.: Harbor House, 1985.

Matthew L.Daley

See alsoCanadian-American Waterways ; Shipbuilding ; Trade, Domestic ; Transportation and Travel .