Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them

Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them

by Frank Boles


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Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them by Frank Boles

The Great Lakes create a vast transportation network that supports a massive shipping industry. In this volume, seamanship, cargo, competition, cooperation, technology, engineering, business, unions, government decisions, and international agreements all come together to create a story of unrivaled interest about the Great Lakes ships and the crews that sailed them in the twentieth century. This complex and multifaceted tale begins in iron and coal mines, with the movement of the raw ingredients of industrial America across docks into ever larger ships using increasingly complicated tools and technology. The shipping industry was an expensive challenge, as it required huge investments of capital, caused bitter labor disputes, and needed direct government intervention to literally remake the lakes to accommodate the ships. It also demanded one of the most integrated international systems of regulation and navigation in the world to sail a ship from Duluth to upstate New York. Sailing into History describes the fascinating history of a century of achievements and setbacks, unimagined change mixed with surprising stability.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611862232
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 234
Sales rank: 508,863
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Frank Boles has served as the director of Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library since 1991. He has also worked as an archivist at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library and at the Chicago Historical Museum

Read an Excerpt

Sailing into History

Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews who Sailed them

By Frank Boles

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2017 Frank Boles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-280-3



There is no ore in the world as beautiful as Lake Superior specular hematite.

— Chase Osborn, The Long Ships Passing: The Story of the Great Lakes

Each year as the ice begins to melt on the Great Lakes, work begins on the bulk carriers anchored at their winter berths. During the darkest days of winter, the ships were entrusted to a few watchmen — or shipkeepers, as they are known in the trade — placed on board largely for insurance reasons. The shipkeepers made their rounds, checking ballast tanks and bilges, making sure the mooring lines were secure, and guarding against unauthorized persons coming aboard. But as spring approaches, the shipkeepers are joined by new faces, sailors who are often old friends. The galley crew comes first, to prepare the kitchen in order to feed everyone who follows. Next comes the engine crew to inspect the engines, make any needed adjustments, and ensure that the ship is ready to make way. About ten days after the engine crew begins work, the deck crew is called back to prepare the rest of the ship. If all goes well, about a week later the vessel is ready to sail.

At ports throughout the lakes, cargo is waiting. The reason for all the preparation and all the work is to move cargo. To do it, huge ships have been built and sailed; even large engineering projects have been undertaken to remake the lakes in ways that have both benefited and defined those ships.

The Great Lakes are an inland sea, creating a vast waterway that stretches from deep within North America to the Atlantic Ocean. But unlike the deep ocean, capable of accepting any ship that could be imagined and constructed, the lakes as they were left by nature imposed clear limitations on vessels. Three geographic features defined the size of ships in the Upper Lakes — the St. Marys River Rapids and other navigational impediments in the lower St. Marys River, the St. Clair Flats between Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair, and Lime Kiln Crossing in the Detroit River near the city of Amherstburg, Ontario. These established natural limits on Great Lakes shipping.

The most spectacular barrier to navigation on the Upper Lakes was the falls at the St. Marys River. The mouth of the St. Marys River is seven miles wide at the point where the waters of Lake Superior first pour into it. But the river quickly narrows, and at Sault Ste. Marie the river drops 22 feet in less than one-half mile. A brave person in a canoe could shoot the rapids in three to five minutes, but doing the same with a ship of any size was virtually impossible. Without locks, a ship could not be sailed through the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The only way to move cargo was to unload it and carry the cargo around the rapids.

South of the falls, the Lower St. Marys River again limited shipping. Two miles below the rapids, the river divided into two streams, the "old" channel that passed through Lake George, and a second passage through Lake Hay. The Lake George passage was longer, winding, and shallow. The maximum draft of a ship using the passage could be no more than 9 to 12 feet, depending on water conditions and weather. Despite this, the Lake George passage was preferred to the Lake Hay passage. The Lake Hay passage was similarly shallow, but with the added danger of jagged rocks on the bottom and the sides, especially near the "Little Rapids" at the north end of the river. Although both passages were difficult to navigate, the Lake George passage was more forgiving of mistakes.

The St. Clair Flats, located at the mouth of the St. Clair River where the river flows into Lake St. Clair, is the largest freshwater delta in the United States. Covering approximately forty square miles, the delta creates both an ecological paradise and a huge obstacle to shipping. Channels in the Flats are winding and shallow, often being less than 10 feet deep. Storms or heavy spring runoffs frequently caused the channels to change. Each transit of the Flats required a captain's full attention in order to avoid running aground. The only saving grace to the Flats was that the delta was almost devoid of large rocks. A ship aground in the Flats, while inconvenienced and often in need of assistance, was rarely damaged.

Lime Kiln Crossing across from Amherstburg, Ontario, near the point where the Detroit River enters Lake Erie, imposed a final challenge for sailors. A narrow channel with a rocky bottom and a typical depth of 14 feet, the Crossing was always traversed carefully. A ship that hit bottom here usually experienced damage. However, what earned Lime Kiln Crossing the name "Hell-Gate of the West" was not so much the narrow channel or rocky bottom, but rather the extreme variability in the water's depth.

This variability was the result of Lake Erie's susceptibility to extreme seiches. Seiches are phenomena observed in all bodies of water in which persistent wind can "pile up" water at one side of a lake while causing the water level to drop on the lake's other side. Seiches occur on all of the Great Lakes. For example on June 22, 1954, a seiche struck Chicago beaches, raising water levels from 5 to 25 feet and drowning thirteen. However, the rectangular west-to-east shape of Lake Erie, the lake's relatively shallow average depth of only 70 feet, and the predominant west-to-east winds in North America make Lake Erie susceptible to extreme seiches.

Stories about Lake Erie seiches are legion. According to legend, in 1904 a recently purchased ship docked in Buffalo was found by its new owner sitting on the shore. Apparently a seiche had lifted the ship over the dock and deposited it on the land. The new owner was furious and sought out the ship's seller for restitution. Fortunately for everyone, the next morning the ship was found back in the water. A second seiche had again raised the water level and refloated the ship, but this time the vessel was conveniently placed in the lake. Although this story may be apocryphal, the extreme variance in depth at each end of Lake Erie has often been recorded. On January 31, 1914, Buffalo experienced a 9-foot seiche, and on January 2, 1942, the water in Buffalo measured 13 feet higher than the water in Toledo. At the western end of the lake on January 14, 1950, a seiche caused a 5-foot drop in water level at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, and an estimated 6-foot drop at Toledo. For a ship's captain, the real concern was not ending up on a dock in Buffalo, but rather striking the rocks in Lime Kiln Crossing as the water drew rapidly away from the western end of Lake Erie. A seiche could bring the Crossing's rocky bottom unexpectedly close to the ship's hull.

The combined effect of the St. Marys River, the St. Clair Flats, and the water level at Lime Kiln Crossing created natural limits on the size of ships sailing the Great Lakes. No matter what size was technologically possible for naval engineers to build, any ship that drew more than about 11 feet of water would likely run aground in the Flats, and if a seiche developed in Lake Erie, stood a good chance of striking rock in Lime Kiln Crossing. In the same way, if the lake passages were left in their natural state, it would be unthinkable to routinely sail a vessel of any size in the St. Marys River between Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, all this information was merely the stuff of an evening's conversation. An eighteenth-century French voyageur's Native American–designed canoe was at best 40 feet long and 5 feet wide, and drew only a few inches of water. Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European-designed vessels were also sized to make passage possible through the St. Clair Flats or Lime Kiln Crossing. Indeed, in the 1850s a uniquely designed and widely copied lakes sailing vessel with a hinged centerboard allowed a significantly larger vessel to obtain stability in open water but draw only about 6 feet of water when passing through shallow areas.

But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the amount of waterborne commerce sailing on the lakes called for more than clever modifications of old ship designs. The desire for larger vessels made the lakes' natural limits the topic of vital economic discussion. Businessmen wanted to bring the lakes to "maximum service," and to do so, Great Lakes shipping interests began lobbying the federal government to modify the natural characteristics of the lakes, or in the word still used today, make "improvements" that would allow larger vessels with a deeper draft to sail unimpeded by nature's limitations.

America's pre–Civil War federal government, although it would invest in port improvements and aids to navigation,was generally unwilling to fund improvements to the lakes' waterways. In part the objection was based on principle. The Democratic Party, which usually held sway in one way or another, understood the federal Constitution in a very literal way. Because the Constitution did not specifically enumerate "internal improvements" as being among the powers of the Congress, many Democrats argued that the federal government lacked authority to undertake such projects. In the words of Democratic president Franklin Pierce, "The springs of industry rest securely upon the general reserved powers of the people of the several states." As far as Pierce and many other Democrats were concerned, if roads, canals, and navigable waterways were to be improved, the responsibility for the work rested upon the individual states, not the federal government.

A second, less-principled motive limiting pre–Civil War improvements on the Great Lakes was regional politics. With federal money for internal improvements hard to come by, congressional representatives from the more populous states facing the Atlantic Ocean did all that was in their power to see that whatever money was available was spent on the East Coast. Regional politics led projects in the Great Lakes to be ignored or underfunded, something that Midwestern members of Congress regularly complained about by the 1850s.

And there was a great deal of work the Midwestern members of Congress would have liked to have the federal government undertake. The first federal proposal to improve navigation in the upper Great Lakes (in contrast to proposals to improve ports or build lighthouses and other aids to navigation) was made in 1842. The Army Corps of Engineers recommended dredging a 500-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the St. Clair Flats. The rationale was straightforward — the Flats represented the major navigational obstacle in the increasingly important trade between the western shore of Lake Michigan and the eastern ports of Lake Erie — particularly Buffalo, where cargo could be placed on barges and travel through the Erie Canal to eventually reach New York City. The proposal made business sense, but was not successful politically. It failed in Congress.

As time passed, the need for dredging at the Flats became ever more obvious. Before the Civil War, it was said that there was almost always at least one ship stranded in the Flats, and in November 1854 the Detroit Inquirer claimed that a severe storm had left 150 vessels stranded. Whether or not the paper exaggerated the storm's effect, in 1854 Michigan senator Lewis Cass, in advocating work on the waterway, reported that "fourteen vessels, steamboats and others are constantly employed in lightering vessels and in towing them through this difficult pass." Cass's comments made clear that whatever the exact number, there were plenty of boats in the Flats that needed help — and a small fleet ready to assist them, for a price.

Although improving the St. Clair Flats was often discussed by Congress, the first major project undertaken to improve lake shipping was the construction of a new canal at Sault Ste. Marie. Michigan had long wanted a canal at the Soo. Among the first acts of the newly established Michigan legislature was to employ a surveyor to go to the Soo and plan a canal around the rapids. A plan was created and preliminary funding was voted by the Michigan legislature in 1839, but nothing came of the state's effort. In 1839 the Michigan congressional delegation supported the state's effort with the first request for federal assistance to build a canal at the Soo. In speaking against it, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky summed up congressional sentiment when he declared that he could see no reason to spend money on a place "as remote as the moon." No federal funds were made available for the project by the Twenty-sixth Congress of the United States.

What made spending money worthwhile in such a remote place was the mining of copper and iron ore along the shores of Lake Superior. Vast quantities of material upbound for the newly opened mines and even larger quantities of downbound ore began to move past the Soo. The land-based portage system that carried cargo around the rapids was completely inadequate to deal with the volume of commerce created by the mining industry. At the end of the 1851 navigation season, 12,000 barrels of supplies remained in the Soo, unable to be shipped onward to the mines. The portage was not only hopelessly slow, it was expensive. In 1846, when the copper boom first began in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it cost $8.50 per ton to move copper ore from Lake Superior to Buffalo. Of that cost, $1.00 per ton was spent in the mile-long portage around the rapids. Although the Soo might be remote, with considerable investment being made in Lake Superior mining activity by people along America's Atlantic Seaboard, Michigan's congressional delegation gained important political support for a canal. A good rate of return on investments in Michigan mines made by New Englanders required a good canal at the Soo. In 1852 Congress gave 750,000 acres of federally owned land to the State of Michigan. The state was to sell the land and use the money received to pay for building a canal at the Soo.

In 1855 tandem "State Locks" were opened for use. The State Locks were each 350 feet long and 70 feet wide, and had a minimum depth of about 11.5 feet. The state-constructed locks were not only considerably longer than what was required by the federal government, but considerably longer than any ship that could reach them. In its natural state, the St. Marys River was unnavigable by a 350-foot ship. But the financial logic of building larger ships to achieve the greatest economy when moving cargo had taken hold. Shortly after the locks were opened, Congress authorized deepening the shallow portions of the St. Marys River near Lake George from a natural depth of from 10 to 14 feet to a uniform depth of 16 feet. Rock was also removed from the East Neebish Rapids, a much smaller rapids within the St. Marys River that was located south of the canal at the Soo, where the canal bypassed the most important rapids. This was the first channel work paid for by the federal government on the Great Lakes.

In 1852, a federal improvement project was finally authorized for the St. Clair Flats. Federal funds and additional dredging work paid for by private shippers, who were allowed to "borrow" a federally owned dredge, created a channel in the Flats with the nominal depth of 13.5 feet. The new channel, however, followed a line determined by the easiest path to dredge, not the easiest course to sail. It quickly proved a challenge to navigate. Added to this inconvenience, captains quickly learned that the work had made the Flats only marginally deeper. Under low-water conditions, the channel's actual depth could still drop to as little as 8 feet.

The 1850s was a decade of intense political turmoil and change. One small aspect of that change was in Washington's attitude toward "internal improvements." Unlike its literal-minded and often parsimonious political predecessors, the new Republican Party had an 1860 platform that promised generous federal funding for internal improvements to increase the commercial value of the nation's rivers and harbors. Although the Civil War made immediate implementation of this promise impossible, after the war's conclusion, the now politically dominant Republicans made good on their pledge. The party of Lincoln was generous in allocating funds to improve the Great Lakes.


Excerpted from Sailing into History by Frank Boles. Copyright © 2017 Frank Boles. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Remaking the Lakes to Move the Cargo 1

Chapter 2 The Crew 13

Chapter 3 The Ships 53

Chapter 4 Changes Aboard 79

Chapter 5 Loading and Unloading 105

Chapter 6 Ashore 127

Notes 161

Bibliography 201

Index 215

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