Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
History and Development of Great Lakes Water Craft
Sailing craft on the Great Lakes date to the first ships constructed on Lake Ontario in the 17th century. The first ships on the Lakes were built at Lake Ontario due to the natural barriers posed by the St. Lawrence River rapids and the falls at Niagara. Robert Sieur de La Salle built the 70-foot "galliot" Griffin above Niagara Falls in 1679, inaugurating navigation on the upper Great Lakes. Louis Denis, Sieur de la Ronde, French commandant at Chequamegon, built a sailing craft on Lake Superior around 1734 to exploit the copper of Keweenaw Point and Isle Royale. By the 1740s, the French had four ships on Lake Ontario. The British had begun shipbuilding there as well, in order to assert their influence over the lucrative and growing fur trade.
All the earliest Great Lakes' craft were brigs, schooners, or sloops of traditional European design. The ships were probably designed in either France and England by naval personnel. Between 1756 and 1763, the British and French were involved in the Seven Years' War. Shipbuilding during that period followed Admiralty designs. Even so, the fore-and-aft schooner rig had begun to demonstrate its suitability for the confined waters and shallow rivers of the Great Lakes. Fore-and-aft rig vessels were lighter and more easily managed than square-rig ships. Ease of maneuverability was also an important consideration in the Lakes, where frequent course changes were necessary to navigate the twisting rivers and in the relatively limited sea-room.
Not long after the French surrendered Canada in 1763, the British built two small schooners at Navy Island on the Niagara River. The Huron and Michegon, each of 80 tons, were the first British craft of any description on the upper Great Lakes. The British built two more schooners in 1766. For the next 19 years, Lakes navigation was restricted to British naval craft. Private enterprise was officially throttled. Merchants and traders were required to ship all their cargoes on government ships manned by the Royal Navy under the title of "Provincial Marine." The British licensed a limited number of privately-owned ships, including a barge and a 40-ton sloop that had been built on Lake Superior in 1772 for an English copper-mining syndicate. In the early 1770s, there were only 16 vessels on all of the Great Lakes, including five operating on Lake Ontario and nine on Lake Erie. Others would soon follow despite the policies of the British government. By 1778, fur trader John Askins of Michilimackinac was operating the schooners Mackinac and DePeyster on Lake Superior between Grand Portage and the Sault Ste. Marie. With the fur trade flourishing in the West and settlement spreading around Lake Ontario, British merchants protested the prohibition against merchant shipping.
In 1785, the Governor General of Canada granted permission for the private construction and operation of commercial vessels on the Lakes. Several ships were begun at once, principally for the various fur companies. In the summer of 1786, the 40-ton Athabasca was built for the North West Company at Point aux Pins above Sault Ste. Marie. The 75-ton sloop Otter was completed in 1793. Unlike the earlier ships built by the French and British, these were designed and built independent of the Navy. Nevertheless, many of the Lakes' shipwrights had come from naval services. The influence of that training persisted for many decades. In 1788, Canada passed the Inland Marine Act fully opening commerce on the Lakes for the first time. Between 1788 and the War of 1812, dozens of vessels were built on the Lakes for trading with the Native Americans and the fur trade, for supplying military posts and the western settlements, and for transporting fish, salt, and lumber for the New York, Pittsburgh, and Quebec markets. Several small ships were built at Point aux Pins on Lake Superior during this era for the North West Company. Between 1802 and 1812 the North West Company built the schooners Invincible, Mink, Perseverance, Fur Trader, Discovery, and Recovery (I) at Kaministiquia. The vessels varied from 40 tons to 90 tons.
The American and British Navies fought the War of 1812 on the lower Lakes and on the coast. The conflict on the Lakes centered on the massive shipbuilding programs by both belligerents. Though square-rigged ships tended to be faster under the right conditions, they proved to be a disadvantage on the Lakes. Experience also demonstrated that shallow-draft vessels were as safe and efficient as the traditional deep-draft ships.
After the War of 1812, schooners became the predominant vessels on the Lakes. Most of the merchant ships between 1800 and 1830 were two-masted schooners of about 70 feet in length and 100 tons register. They carried approximately 150 tons, or 1,500 barrels of cargo with a crew of three or four men. Brigantines combined the best features of both square and fore-and-aft rigs, and became popular in the 1830s and 1840s. They required crews of eight to ten men and were not as maneuverable as schooners. As a result, few brigs or brigantines were built after 1850 because they were too expensive to outfit and operate when compared with the simpler schooners. The most practical and profitable rig was the topsail schooner, designed for fast trips with heavy payloads (characteristic of square rig) and maneuverability with limited crew. Topsail schooners had the ability to sail close to windward that was characteristic of fore-and-aft rigged ships. Topsails in one form or another were a carryover from the days of the Baltimore Clippers. They added speed to otherwise sluggish Lakes schooners, especially when running before prevailing westerly winds.
As the rigs of Lakes craft became somewhat standardized in the 1830s and 1840s, a similar trend developed with the hulls. Hull form was determined by geographical conditions and by the configuration and dimension of navigation locks in places like the Welland Ship Canal. Sturdy ships were built with full shapes and flat bottoms to squeeze through the shallow spots and the locks with as much cargo as possible. They were invariably fitted with "centerboards" to improve their sailing qualities. With straight sides and box-like forms, they resembled canal boats and earlier coastal packets. The ships were the models for the early 20th century bulk freighters. The distinctive "canallers" were characterized by their shapes and their dimensions, which conformed to those of the locks themselves. The first Welland Canal, completed in 1832, had locks 100 feet long and 16 feet wide. The "Second Welland," opened in 1845, had 150-foot by 26-foot locks. Canallers built for the second Welland were probably the first distinctly "Lakes" vessel type. In the early 1860s there were reportedly more than 750 canal schooners on the Lakes out of a total of nearly 1,300 sailing craft. The canallers were the backbone of the Great Lakes fleet.
The 1840s and 1850s were prosperous times for the country and for the Midwest. Unfortunately, the great boom ended in the Panic of 1857, which prostrated the nation's economy for the next several years and ruined most of its financial institutions. The Civil War years marked the slow steady recovery from the terrible effects of the depression. With the 1860s, commerce shifted in the Great Lakes. Railroads had penetrated the West and cut into the profitable freight businesses. There were still enormous quantities of foodstuffs and raw materials to be transported by ships, but the lucrative package cargo had decreased. At the same time, bulk cargoes such as salt, grain, coal, and lumber were increasing. The most dramatic and far-reaching consequence of the lean years of the late 1850s and early 1860s was the introduction of the "consort system," and the development of specialized bulk freight carriers.
One type of sailing vessel which became popular on the Lakes was the scow schooner. Scows were introduced around 1830. They were shallow craft with flat bottoms and hard chines (square bilges), although they varied in bow and stern configurations. Scows were simply designed and cheaply built. They were popular for the shallowest, poorest ports in the lumber, cordwood, tanbark, sand, or hay trades. A handful of scows were used on Lake Superior, but they were most common on Lake St. Clair, Lake Michigan, and on the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. Some scows survived as late as 1920.
Before and after the Civil War, strong markets for grain and lumber resulted in a shipbuilding boom that began in the mid-1850s and lasted until the late 1860s. Several hundred schooners were built during this period. Many of these ships were 150 feet to 160 feet in length, with almost double the capacity of the canallers. These vessels were permanently three-masted. Though they varied widely in design and rig, they were usually referred to as "upper Lakers" to distinguish them from the canallers and the much smaller "mosquito fleet." Some of the larger craft built in the Civil War era were fitted out as barkentines, with square sails forward and schooner-rigged main and mizzen masts. These speedy ships were well suited to the competitive Buffalo and Lake Michigan grain trade, where several set records for fast passages. According to contemporary newspaper articles, they could make up to 15 miles an hour for short periods, though they generally averaged less than half that speed. A 15 day round trip from Buffalo to Milwaukee or Chicago and back was considered good time.
Conventional sailing craft on the Lakes were built with a single deck. Their "backbone" was formed by a centerline keel assembly, usually built up of several longitudinal timbers running the entire length of the ship. In large schooners (more than 160 feet in length), the keel may have been composed of as many as five or six great oak timbers, each measuring approximately 12 inches by 16 inches in cross-section. The transverse frames were also made of white oak, spaced at intervals of 21 inches or 22 inches, and measuring about 10 inches in molded depth and 12 inches in sided dimension. The frames tapered up the sides of the ship and were much lighter (smaller in cross-section) near the tops of the vessel. Planking was also usually of oak. It varied from 1 1/2 inches to 5 inches in thickness. Some vessels were planked in pine, cypress, or maple. All but the smallest commercial sailing craft were planked on both the interior and exterior. All planking was caulked to make it watertight.
The largest sailing craft were reinforced. Some had large tamarack brackets or "knees" where the deck beams met the sides of the ship. Many had heavy vertical stanchions along the centerline to support the deck down the middle. Still others had transverse "hold beams" across the hull at mid-depth to stiffen the sides. These were particularly common in vessels built for the iron ore trade. After 1880, many builders incorporated iron and steel into the fabric of wooden ships in the form of reinforcing rods and straps, brackets, or plates at critical locations in the hull.
In general, ships grew larger as shipbuilding technology improved through the 19th century. The dimensions of Lakes vessels were always limited, however, by the shallow connecting channels and harbors. When the infamous shoals were dredged at the St. Clair Flats in the late 1860s, a whole fleet of large schooners was built for the grain and iron ore trades, including 200 big three-masters and a few four-masters. The new schooners, 200 feet in length and drawing 16 feet, were constructed between 1870 and 1874, until a financial panic ended the temporary boom. Only for a little while longer would the large capacities of the new schooners enable them to compete with the growing fleets of steam-powered freighters.
Very few full-rigged sailing vessels were built on the Lakes after 1880. The last large schooner was launched in 1889. Sailing craft built after that date were all rigged with short masts, and were intended as tow-barges. Some of those built after 1890 measured up to 300 feet in length. Some of the old schooners continued under sail into the 20th century, but few made any money. There were only a handful left after 1920. The schooners Our Son and Lyman M. Davis lasted into the 1930s. They were the last working survivors of nearly 25,000 of their type.
The introduction of the "consort system" and the advent of larger ships in the 1870s, led to significant reductions in freight rates, increased competition, and reduced profits for vessel owners. Many sailing craft were reduced to barges during the 1880s. By the middle of that decade, the decline of schooners became absolutely precipitous. The Marquette Daily Mining Journal of August 12, 1887, reported:
There are upon the Lakes 300 barges, which in earlier times were fine fully-rigged barkentines, brigs, or schooners, ranging from 20 to 40 years of age. Their former semblance has entirely disappeared.
Passenger and Package Freight Steamers
Steam navigation began on the Lakes with the construction of the side-wheelers Ontario and Frontenac in 1817. At 170 feet in length, both were very large for their day. The Ontario was built at Sacketts Harbor, New York, and Frontenac at Ernettstown, near Kingston, Ontario. Both steamers proved successful, although they were slow and required design changes to suit them to the open waters of Lake Ontario. The first steamboat on the upper Lakes was the 338-ton Walk in the Water. It was built at Black Rock (Tonawanda), New York, for the Lake Erie Steamboat Company. Its machinery, like that of the Ontario and Frontenac, was designed by Robert Fulton.
Acceptance of steamboats was slow among Lakes vessel owners. Trade in the 1820s was not yet large enough to justify the large investment required to build steamers, so most vessel owners built and operated sailing craft. After completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, however, the commerce of the region grew. The burgeoning passenger traffic offered sufficient returns to justify the more costly steamboats. In the 13 years previous to the opening of the Canal, 25 steamboats had been constructed. In the four years after completion of the canal, 60 new steamboats were built, primarily at Lake Erie ports which connected directly with the Erie Canal.
By 1840, there were more than 100 steamers in service on the Lakes. Most were less than eight years old. About 40 of these craft operated as ferries or on short local routes out of the larger ports. The remainder, principally the larger boats, ran from Buffalo to upper Lakes ports or from Niagara and Toronto to lower Lakes or St. Lawrence River destinations. By the 1840s, the Erie Canal brought tens of thousands of settlers to Buffalo each year in search of passage to the West. Population in cities bordering the upper Lakes reportedly quadrupled in the eight years previous to 1840 as a result of that influx. The passenger and merchandise businesses were booming.
Steamboat technology developed quickly in the 1830s and 1840s. The steamers Illinois (1837) and Great Western (1838) were the largest and finest of their day. The 185-foot Great Western was the first steamer on the Lakes to be fitted with a spacious upper cabin. The entire hull was occupied by the boilers, with holds for freight and wood. On the main deck aft was the ladies' cabin and staterooms, while on the hurricane deck the main cabin extended almost the entire length of the boat. On this deck there were also a ladies' saloon aft, the dining room next, and the saloon or bar-room forward. Staterooms, 60 in number, were arranged on either side of these cabins, the whole length, with three berths in each, making in all about 300 berths.
Improvements in steamboat machinery resulted in increased speed, efficiency, and safety. Some vessels had crosshead or "square" engines, easily identified by the towering gallows which stood high over the superstructure, with a crosshead moving up and down in a slide. Other ships had horizontal engines, with the machinery entirely contained below decks. The most common arrangement on the Lakes was the vertical or "walking beam" engine. It had a tall A-frame with a crosshead on top which rocked back and forth, attached to the cylinder on one end and the crankshaft on the other. The steamers all burned cordwood for fuel until coal was adopted after the Civil War. Most paddle-wheelers carried one, two, or even three masts until about 1850. These were often fitted with sails and jibs. The later screw steamers, or "propellers," continued to use sails until after 1870. Some screw freighters carried sails until almost 1900.
Steamboats offered fast, efficient, and predictable delivery for passengers and freight. The cost was considerable, however, as steamers were more expensive to build and operate than contemporary sailing craft. The steamer Cleveland was built in 1837 for $22,500, but its machinery cost an additional $50,000. A large contemporary schooner cost between $6,000 and $10,000. Because boilers and engines were so costly, they were often re-used, sometimes serving in three or more different hulls before they were worn out and useless. Steamers also required fuel, which cost $80 to $125 per day. They required larger crews than sailing craft, as well. A large steamer carried a crew of up to 40 men, while sailing vessels, even square-rigged, seldom needed more than ten or twelve. The differing operating costs resulted in varying freight rates. Therefore, steamboats carried passengers and selected high-value cargoes, while the less valuable commodities were hauled in the more numerous sailing craft.
With the advances in shipbuilding technology during the 1840s came dramatic changes to the steamboat fleet. The first 1,000-ton steamer in the nation, the 260-foot Empire, was built on the Lakes in 1844. The lavish vessel ushered in the era of "Palace Steamers," which was to last until 1855. Construction of such large craft was possible with the development of new fastenings for wooden hulls, the expanded use of ironwork for strengthening, and the introduction of "hogging-frames" and trusses. The magnificent Palace Steamers of the later 1840s and early 1850s were the most beautifully-appointed craft ever built on the Lakes. In all, there were 25 of them. Most were between 1,000 and 1,600 tons. The City of Buffalo, built in 1857, was the last and largest of them. It measured 350 feet in length and was 2,026 tons burthen. A contemporary journalist writing for the Buffalo Morning Express, July 25, 1857, described it as follows:
The grand cabin [is] lighted by skylights and a splendid stained-glass dome. On either hand the doors open into the staterooms. The cabin has an arched ceiling, which together with the panels, are ornamented by gilt mouldings, the white and gold making a very rich appearance. Splendid chandeliers light it by night, the center one being double. The furniture is of the richest rose-wood, with damask and plush upholstering; the carpets are costly brussels, and the whole scene magnificent. The fairy palaces of the imagination were never so gorgeously furnished, nor could the famous barge of Cleopatra, with its silken sails, rival this noblest of steamers.
Most of the Palace Steamers ran from Buffalo to Detroit or Chicago. Only the smallest could fit through the Sault Locks when they were opened in 1855. The Panic of 1857 ruined the passenger business on the Lakes. The entire fleet of Palace Steamers was withdrawn from service. Few ever operated again. When the country recovered from the depression in 1861 and 1862, most of the ships were no longer worth repairing, and they were too expensive to compete with newer, more efficient craft. The passenger business revived after the Civil War, but it was never again able to sustain ships as luxurious as the Palace Steamers. The steamers built for the post-war passenger trade were more modest in size and furnishings.
Though steamboats offered many advantages over their sailing contemporaries, they also had disadvantages. The side-wheelers had enormous engines which took up too much space in the holds to make them efficient cargo-carriers. They had particular difficulty in carrying bulky cargoes inexpensively. Side-wheelers were also so beamy that in order to build them narrow enough to pass through some of the canals, valuable cargo space was sacrificed. The 26-foot wide Welland Canal could not admit even the smallest class of side-wheelers. All of the freight bound for Oswego, Toronto, Kingston, and Montreal was necessarily carried in schooners. In 1840 and 1841, several Lake Ontario vessel owners began to experiment with steamboat technology to enable them to compete more effectively with Buffalo and the Erie Canal for the trade of the West. They built the first "steam schooners," adopting the efficient new engines with screw propellers developed by Swedish inventor John Ericson.
The development of side-wheel steamers was stemmed by the rapid ascendancy of screw steamers in the various trades. Though side-wheel steamers remained popular in the passenger trade for many decades, they would never again achieve the numbers of the 1830s and 1840s. Side-wheelers reached their zenith between 1845 and 1857 with the 300-foot Palace Steamers. A few paddle-wheel giants were built on the Lakes after 1900, including the 520-foot twins Greater Detroit and Greater Buffalo of 1924, which were the largest side-wheelers ever built. When they entered service, only 37 others were left. After 1950, they were all gone.
The first screw-driven commercial craft in the United States was the 63-foot towboat Robert F. Stockton, which was built in England in 1838 and sailed across the Atlantic in 1839 to serve on the Delaware & Raritan Canal. In 1840, the 126-ton screw steamer Ericson was built at Brockville, Ontario. Two similar craft were built at Brockville and Niagara, Ontario, in 1841. The 138-ton Vandalia, built at Oswego, New York, in 1841, is credited as the Great Lakes' first propeller steamship. Unlike the pioneer screw-steamers in England, which appear to have been without exception, towing vessels, the Vandalia and its contemporaries on the Lakes were all built to carry passengers and freight through the canals. The Vandalia, designed to trade through the Welland Ship Canal, was intended to divert some of the lucrative Lake Michigan trade from Buffalo to Lake Ontario ports for its Oswego owners. It demonstrated that propellers could pass easily through the narrow locks where side-wheelers could not. The maritime industry was guardedly optimistic, but the ship's owners and investors expressed boundless confidence. The Oswego Palladium, Dec. 1, 1841, said: "We are firmly persuaded that this enterprise [construction of Vandalia] marks an epoch in the progress of the Western trade." The Kingston Gazette & Chronicle of June 16, 1842, expressed the same euphoric optimism: "These vessels fitted with the Ericsson propellers...will form a new era in the history of navigation."
Propellers were soon found to be economical ships. They were cheaper to build and operate than side-wheelers. Their machinery was simpler, cheaper, and more compact, so that it left more space for cargo. Screw steam engines burned about one-fourth the fuel of paddle-wheel steamers, and required only half the engine-room crews. All these factors enabled propellers to offer freight rates somewhere between those of sailing craft and side-wheelers. This meant that they could compete for much of the low-value cargoes that had previously been carried in schooners. Not long after their introduction, propellers were gathering contracts for larger and larger proportions of the flour, grain, and provisions shipped down the Lakes.
The 105-foot propeller Independence was brought to Lake Superior in 1845. It was the first steamer of any kind to sail that body of water. The Independence had been built two years earlier at Chicago, and like several other vessels, it was hauled around the falls at Sault Ste. Marie on rollers and launched into Lake Superior many years before the Sault Locks were built. Although it made little more than four miles an hour, the Independence operated successfully until its career was ended by a November, 1853, boiler explosion at Sault Ste. Marie.
The number of propellers on the Lakes grew rapidly and revolutionized the carrying trades. Several companies organized around 1850 to build fleets of screw steamers to carry freight in connection with the Erie Canal, or with the various railroads running to the seaboard from the eastern end of the Lakes. Between 1840 and 1849, 81 propellers were built at Great Lake shipyards. During the next ten years, 133 more were added and during the 1860s another 88 were built, not including screw tugs.
The first screw steamers resembled the side-wheelers of the 1840s, with passenger cabins above deck and cargo holds below. The propellers had their machinery mounted aft, in the stern, while the paddle-steamers carried their engines and boilers amidships, occupying most of the hold space. The propellers carried both passengers and freight. A few specialized ships, built without cabins, were called "package freighters." At first there were few package freighters. They became more common after 1870. Fifty package boats were built between 1870 and 1910. Another specialized type of screw steamer was the towboat or "tug." The first screw-powered ships in Europe and the United States were tugs. They were not adopted on the Great Lakes and tributary canals until 1850. Two screw tugs were built on the Lakes before 1850. More than 100 were built during the 1850s, and nearly 400 in the 1860s. Package freighters were frequent callers at Duluth's docks between 1880 and 1930. They were operated principally by eastern railroads. Rafting tugs and harbor tugs were also used in considerable numbers around Duluth.
Screw steamers, including passenger propellers and package freighters, grew in size during the 19th century, along with deepening channels and improvements in shipbuilding technology. The average size of propellers grew from 141 feet (337 tons) in 1845, to 182 feet (641 tons) in 1862 and 220 feet (1,300 tons) in 1877. Wooden screw steamers, like side-wheelers, required extraordinary means of strengthening their hulls once they grew beyond l50 feet in length. Most large propellers had a series of parallel fore and aft "floor keelsons" and arch-trusses, or "Bishop arches," to give longitudinal strength and rigidity to their hulls. A long wooden chord, or arch, was tied into the vertical frames at the sides of the ship and supported by a series of vertical stanchions. These powerful structural elements towered above the cabins in most propellers and package boats were the hallmark of Lakes craft for many years. The few wooden propellers built after 1880 employed internal reinforcing of iron or steel, dispensing with the clumsy external arches.
Many of the largest steamers on the Lakes had been built just before the great Panic. They had lain idle for years after 1857. When a practical method was sought for hauling large quantities of cheap cargo, one Buffalo vessel owner seized upon the idea of buying up the old steamboats and converting them into barges. He purchased the vessels for a fraction of their original value and used them to haul immense cargoes by towing them down the Lakes. Between 1861 and 1870, dozens of superannuated passenger ships were converted into lumber barges. The new system was so practical that new ships were built from the keel up as barges. Although the first barges were towed by regular tugs, a new class of specialized steamers evolved in the mid-1860s to accommodate the new consort system. These "steambarges" were small screw steamers with single decks, powerful engines and small cabins at the stern. They were built for tows of two, three, or more barges laden with cargo, while at the same time hauling a modest cargo of their own. The basic pattern for these efficient craft was reportedly developed in 1848 with a little screw steamer called the Petrel, built to haul lumber. Steambarges were introduced again in 1865 with the construction of the 115-foot Trader at Marine City on the St. Clair River. They were an immediate success due to the adoption of the consort system and the insatiable demand for lumber products.
Typical steambarges measured 135 feet in length and had a capacity for about 300,000 feet of lumber, though ships of that class could range from 65 feet to 200 feet in length and some could carry more than a million board feet. Steambarges were single-decked like their schooner forebears. Most had raised poop decks. The earliest steambarges had their pilothouses aft. After 1880, most carried them on a raised forecastle, with a well-deck between bow and stern. Most steambarges were fitted with a tall mast near the bow where they spread a single gaff-rigged sail and a jib. The larger boats, built after 1880, often had two or even three masts. Because they carried working sails, most had center-boards. A prominent feature of the earliest steambarges was the hogging arch, like the bridge-like truss used in larger Lakes propellers. It towered above the rails on either side of the vessel. Some builders substituted hogging-chains or iron rods with a single sampson-post near the after end. It was not until internal bracing was perfected around 1880 that steambarges could dispense with the very visible external reinforcing. In the older steambarges, the arches so complicated the loading and unloading of lumber that dock gangs were paid a premium to work aboard them.
Steambarges, some of which were called "lumber hookers," or "rabbits," carried their lumber cargoes in the hold and stacked high on deck. Some carried square timber or logs, as well as "deals" (cut lumber), shingles, cedar posts, or railroad ties. The cargo was usually piled on deck to heights of 12 feet or 14 feet. The consort barges carried similar loads. Most tows consisted of three or four barges. Some of the more powerful steambarges were known to tow up to eight or nine at a time, from Saginaw Valley ports all the way to Buffalo or Tonawanda, New York. The huge lumber cargoes were loaded and unloaded entirely by hand.
Forty-five steambarges were built before 1870. A number of passenger and freight propellers were also converted for the same use; their cabins were removed and their spar decks cut away to accommodate lumber. More than 20 propellers were rebuilt in this way by 1870. Dozens more were converted into lumber steamers in the next decades. Nearly 600 steambarges were built between 1870 and 1900.
While bulk freighters became more numerous in the 1880s and 1890s, other vessel types dwindled and eventually disappeared. Sailing craft were entirely displaced by steamers, except in the lumber trade, where they found a niche in later years as tow barges, though their rigging was cut away and their graceful bowsprits cut short. Steambarges lasted only as long as the lumber trade on the Lakes. When the lumber business moved to the Pacific coast around 1910, the use of steambarges on the Lakes declined sharply after that, although they became widespread along the California, Washington, and Oregon coasts. Most of the steambarges were simply abandoned and dismantled. Some steambarges were used to carry salt, coal, sand, and lumber products on the Lakes, but few survived past the 1920s.
After 1880, relatively few large propellers were built. Many of those were exclusively passenger ships, with limited cargo space or no freight capacity at all. Most of the last propellers were "day boats," excursion steamers with neither overnight accommodations nor cargo space. A dozen passenger propellers survived the opening of America's highway networks in the 1930s, but the last of them succumbed to economic pressures and regulatory requirements and were laid up in the mid-1960s. The Georgian Bay Line steamer South American was the last active representative of its type. It retired at the end of the 1967 season.
Passenger and freight propellers, like package freighters, were most successful when they were operated with the railroad systems stretching east and west from the Lakes. Package freighters numbered 116 in 1890, which was probably their peak. The tonnage of package cargo was reduced as the nation's railroads were extended and the number of package boats and propellers shrunk in direct proportion. In 1900, there were 90 package freighters. In 1915, anti-trust legislation forced the disposal of most of the package freighters by the railroads which operated them. Many of them never saw service on the Lakes again. Most of the package freighters that were left were requisitioned for coastal service during World War II. Virtually no U.S. package freighters remained on the Lakes after 1940. A couple of Canadian fleets ran package boats until 1980 in specialty trades such as rolled newsprint or barreled chemicals. In the highly competitive atmosphere that has prevailed since the 1950s, only the bulk freighters have survived.
Bulk Freight Steamers
Iron was used experimentally to build ships' hulls in Scotland and England before 1800, but it was not readily adopted. The U.S. Navy and the Revenue Service ordered iron vessels in the early 1840s. Some farsighted Canadian ship owners built iron steamers in the United Kingdom during the 1850s and 1860s. Despite the advantages of iron hulls, however, Great Lakes shipbuilders did not begin iron shipbuilding until after 1860. The practice was not widely accepted until 1880. The first large commercial vessel built of iron on the Lakes was the propeller Merchant, a 200-footer launched in July, 1862 at Buffalo, New York. Other iron steamers came after 1868, when two firms ordered twelve large iron propellers and package freighters within a few years. By 1885, several respected fleets owned iron ships and there were four fully-equipped iron shipbuilding firms in operation.
Iron proved to be a very practical medium for the construction of ship's hulls. It was far stronger pound-for-pound than the traditional white oak. A structural member made of iron reportedly had only three-eighths the weight and one-eighteenth the volume of its wooden counterpart. Iron hulls were more expensive to build, but they lasted longer than wood, were easier to repair, and were virtually maintenance-free. Mild steel was introduced in the mid-1880s. Though costlier than iron, it was tougher and more resilient. Steel became the standard for shipbuilding after 1885, though some builders continued to use wood until the turn-of-the-century. The last large wooden passenger and package freight steamers were built in 1892.
In Great Lakes shipbuilding, iron and steel came into general use after the popularity of sailing craft had begun to decline. As a result, there were no schooners built of those materials. During the mid-1890s, however, approximately 30 steel tow-barges were built for various fleets as consorts to modern steel freighters. Most of these barges were unpowered versions of the contemporary steam bulk freighters. Some were eventually given engines and converted into typical steamers. The use of tow-barges declined after 1920, though some of these direct descendants of the old schooners survived as late as the 1960s.
The practicality of the consort system extended beyond the lumber trade. Some of the first steambarges occasionally hauled grain and iron ore cargoes when the rates were right. The little steamers and their barges were not entirely suited for those cargoes, however. They were designed to carry much of their lumber cargo on deck, and ore or grain cargoes had to be carried below decks where it could be kept dry. The small deck hatches in steambarges also made unloading difficult.
Captain Elihu M. Peck designed a variant of the steambarge in 1869 to meet the requirements of the iron ore and grain trades. Peck designed a double-decked vessel with plenty of space below decks for dry bulk cargo, fitted with wide deck hatches evenly spaced to match the 24-foot spacing of the loading chutes at Marquette's ore docks. His vessel had a capacity for 1,200 tons of ore and enough power to tow one or two loaded barges. The result was the 210-foot "bulk freighter," Robert J. Hackett. Bulk freighters had their pilothouses mounted forward to maximize visibility. Their machinery, like that of the steambarges, was placed in the stern. Most bulk freighters had three or four tall masts. They carried sails until around 1890.
Bulk freighters were profitable because they carried large quantities of bulk commodities economically. Few bulk freighters measured less than 200 feet in length. These long, narrow shoal-draft steamers were characterized by very heavy longitudinal framing. A huge oak keel ran down the center, flanked on either side by a series of parallel "side keelsons" laid on top of the ship's transverse frames. These side keelsons distinguish wooden bulk freighters from other vessel types because they are one of the most prominent, durable elements of the ship's construction. No other Lakes vessel used these multiple, heavy members, which measured from 12 inches to 18 inches square and ran the entire length of the ship. In addition to the heavy keelsons, the wooden bulk freighters were reinforced with iron straps that criss-crossed the frames every 6 feet to 8 feet, and a heavy band of 3/4 inch iron ran the length of the ship just under the rail.
From the time the Robert J. Hackett was launched in 1869, until shipbuilding was suspended in the Panic of 1873, 47 bulk freighters averaging just over 1,000 gross tons were constructed. The V.H. Ketchum, built in 1874, was the largest in the fleet at 12,661 gross tons. When shipbuilding resumed again in 1880, even larger bulk freighters were launched. During the 1880s alone, 170 were built. Almost without exception, each had at least one consort barge built to run with it, usually of similar dimensions and tonnage. The typical bulk freighter built in 1890 was of 2,200 gross tons and averaged 260 feet in length. The growth in vessel size was facilitated by improvements to shipping channels and locks.
The next significant event in the evolution of Lakes bulk freighters was the introduction of iron and steel into shipbuilding. The iron propeller Merchant was constructed at Buffalo in 1862. It represented the first attempt by the American Lakes shipping industry to adopt the new technology. Its success led to the construction of several more iron propellers and package freighters during the 1870s. Most had long, profitable careers.
The first bulk freighter built of iron was the "monster" steamer Onoko, a 287-foot giant, almost 30 feet longer than the largest wooden craft then afloat. The novel craft had double-bottoms with water-ballast tanks and was designed to carry 3,000 tons of ore on a 14-foot draft. It created quite a sensation. It was said that the Onoko made money when few other craft in the industry could generate profits. It averaged $25,000 to $40,000 annually. For nearly ten years, the Onoko carried the largest cargoes on the Lakes. The Spokane was built of mild steel in 1885. Soon afterward the industry adopted steel for all subsequent vessel construction.
Metal ships offered many advantages over their wooden counterparts. A 200-foot wooden ship required an oaken hull more than 18 inches thick, while a similar vessel of steel had shell-plating no more than 1/2 inch thick and only one-eighteenth as heavy. Iron (and later steel) ships had much greater longitudinal strength than wooden ones, which made it possible to build larger hulls. From 1869 to 1902, the largest wooden bulk freighters grew from 210 feet to 310 feet in length. Iron and steel freighters grew from the 287-foot Onoko in 1882, to the 400-foot Victory in 1894, the 500-foot John W. Gates in 1900, and numerous 600-footers by 1906.
After 1894, the shipbuilding industry began producing steel tow-barge consorts for the powerful new steamers. The barges were copies of the steam bulk freighters, often with the same dimensions, though not fitted with boilers or engines. Like their wooden forebears, they were towed up and down the Lakes. Thirty of these barges were constructed between 1894 and 1902, ranging from 350 to more than 500 feet in length. Some steamers towed barges in the grain trade as late as 1965. A few of the big barges were ultimately fitted with engines and converted into powered freighters.
Steel ships continued to grow after the turn-of-the-century with improvements in technology and changes in the methods of hull-framing. The earliest iron and steel ships had transverse (crosswise) framing, not unlike wooden ships, but spaced at wider intervals. The arrangement of side keelsons was also similar to that used in wooden bulk freighters. The keelsons were laid from stem to stern on top of the transverse frames. Later steel hulls had combinations of transverse and longitudinal framing. The standard since 1920 has been a system of longitudinal framing on the deck and bottom, with transverse framing in the sides. This system, with its particular emphasis on longitudinal strength, has enabled vessels to grow in size to 640 feet during the Second World War, 730 feet in 1958, and, with the construction of enormous new locks at Sault Ste. Marie, to 1,000 feet by 1973.
Iron and steel also enabled shipbuilders to make safer, more efficient, and more easily maintained vessels. Metal construction also enabled designers and builders to adopt innovative concepts, such as the famous "whalebacks," which were designed by Duluth's Captain Alexander McDougall. McDougall conceived the idea of building steel ships which were round in cross-section like a length of pipe. They were strong, stable, and simply and cheaply built. With their pointed ends, they were hydrodynamically efficient. McDougall's American Steel Barge Company built 41 whalebacks between 1888 and 1898. Thirty-nine of them were built in the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior. There were 15 steamships (including one passenger whaleback), and 24 barges in all. The whalebacks were an interesting and widely-publicized vessel type, but they were not the prototypes for modern bulk freighters, as some recent authors have claimed. Though successful for a time, they were outmoded for the iron ore trade not long after their introduction because newly-perfected unloading machinery required very large deck hatches and such large openings in the whaleback hulls created serious structural problems. Many of the whalebacks operated successfully in the grain and petroleum trades until the 1950s.
The introduction of small craft into Minnesota's North Shore was concurrent with the earliest settlement. Virtually all of the pioneer settlers came to the North Shore in water craft. Canoes and Mackinaw boats carried settlers from Superior City and Duluth. Others arrived in the large steamboats plying Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie. After 1880, when coasting steamers ran up the shore from Duluth, fewer travelers used small craft for long-distance trips. Small boats were employed locally and in commercial fishing. Some birch canoes were used until the 19th century on the inland lakes and the boundary waters. Most people preferred the more sturdy canvas canoes popular in New England since the 1840s or the traditional strip-built rowing skiffs.
The term "Mackinaw boat" is loosely applied to a variety of small sailing craft ranging from sloops to schooners and catketches of 12 feet to more than 40 feet in length, including both lug and gaff rigs. The hull designs of Mackinaws include clinker built and carvel-built craft, both double-enders and square-transom varieties. Mackinaw boats have long been identified with the Great Lakes. A series of similar sailing craft were used on the East Coast as far back as 1800. In those waters they were called "New England boats," or "No Man's Land Boats". Though assumed to be products of early French tradition there is little to substantiate that theory. They may have derived from the New England boats mentioned above. Regardless of their origins, builders at Toronto, Detroit, Mackinac, and Georgian Bay ports produced Mackinaw boats for Lake Superior from the 1830s until at least 1880 or 1890. Though some were Frenchmen, most were English or Scotch craftsmen.
There is no precise definition of a "true" Mackinaw. Variation in Mackinaws is regional, suggesting that the various designs evolved from a common prototype and were adapted to the conditions of specific localities. Most Mackinaws were built of local cedar and pine. The Mackinaws of Lake Erie were 12-foot to 18-foot carvel-built catketches, usually rigged with lug sails. Those on Lake Huron were primarily square-transom boats of 28 feet or 30 feet, carvel-built, with gaff schooner rig. The Mackinaws of Lake Michigan and the Straits of Mackinac were most often carvel-built double-ended schooners or catketches of 18 feet to 24 feet. On Georgian Bay and on Lake Superior, the common variety was a clinker built double-ended craft of about 30 feet with gaff schooner rig. These boats were used throughout the 19th century. The style used around the Straits, a small carvel-built hull with a simple, cedar-pole, catketch gaff rig is thought to be an example of the original form.
Small, 12-foot to 16-foot skiffs were locally built at Duluth and North Shore settlements after 1870. Boat-builders are mentioned at Grand Portage and Grand Marais in the 1880s, and at Hovland, Cross River, Tofte, and Grand Marais in the 1890s. Although there are few descriptions of these boats, surviving photographs show plank-built, flat-bottomed rowing skiffs with Scandinavian characteristics and clinker built, round-bottomed boats in the more protected waters. The earliest builders were Frenchmen. After the 1880s, however, most builders were Norwegian immigrants.
A few yachts, principally sailing boats, are mentioned in Duluth newspapers in the 1880s. Occasional steam yachts were also noted. Most ranged from 20 feet to 30 feet, though one or two of the more luxurious craft ranged up to 70 feet in length. Some of the larger yachts made occasional trips to the Apostle Islands, Isle Royale, or Port Arthur, but most sailed on Superior Bay or around Minnesota Point. Some were hired out or advertised for excursions.
The growth of boat clubs in the 1880s and 1890s fostered the development of pleasure boating, particularly in the Twin Ports. Extensive clubhouses, warehouses, docks, and bleachers were constructed to accommodate Club members. Frequent regattas and competitions were scheduled. A sizable flotilla of small craft began to accumulate around Duluth, including rowboats, canoes, sailing boats of various descriptions, and rowing shells. One Duluth man bought rowboats and skiffs by the carload in the 1920s and sold them locally for $65.00 each. Ice-boats were also introduced during this time. None of these craft ventured far from the safety of Superior Bay or the lower St. Louis River.
Standardized "one design" sailboats appeared soon after the turn-of-the-century. Intended for amateur racing, they included a broad range of designs. Many were very modest boats. The one-design classes originated not only to maximize and regulate competition between boats, but also to minimize the cost of designing and building them. The system made boating more affordable to many people. Dozens of sailboat designs resulted from the movement. Some classes were more suitable than others for specific areas. There were few large one-design sailing boats around western Lake Superior, but the less-pretentious 22-foot Star-class, 28-foot and 38-foot Bilgeboard Scows ("Pancakes"), and 21-foot Shore Bird sloops were fairly common. Although these boat types originated around 1910, they did not appear in the Twin Ports until the mid-1920s. Similar craft were brought to nearby inland lakes in the 1930s.
Steam and naphtha launches appeared in the 1890s. Gasoline launches followed not long afterwards. These were open boats with awnings, measuring from 20 to 35 feet in length. The Pearson Boat Works was organized at Duluth in 1895 to build small powerboats. It became an important source for such boats for 20 years. Gasoline cabin cruisers made their first appearance around 1900, although there were few around the Head of the Lakes before the mid-1920s. Unlike earlier classes of small craft, most of these boats were factory-built and shipped to Duluth by rail. They were used primarily around Duluth and the Apostle Islands.
Gasoline engines were put into locally-built boats for commercial fishermen on the North Shore and at Isle Royale, where the most popular design was a 24-foot round-bottomed craft with square transom stern and an open cockpit; it was usually called a "gas-boat." A.J. Scott started building fishing craft at Grand Marais in the 1890s. Charles Hill began building them at Larsmont around the turn-of-the-century. Hill ultimately constructed nearly 200 boats, many of them gas-boats. His son Reuben continued the tradition into the 1960s.
Aside of a handful of liveries for canoes and small rowing skiffs, there were few boating facilities along the North Shore before 1940, and little pleasure boating. Most of the available boats were rented by resort-operators at Beaver Bay, Hovland, Cross River, Lutsen, and Grand Marais. The opening of the North Shore highway in the 1920s and its improvement following World War II brought a dramatic change in the recreational usage of the area. The highway brought a gradual increase in the resort business, and after 1950, with the advent of trailer-boating, there followed a general proliferation of recreational boating and fishing all the way from Duluth to the Canadian border.
Adapted from the National Register's Multiple Property Documentation(MPDF) "Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks A.D. 1650-1945" by: Patrick Labadie, Brina J. Agranat and Scott Anfinson.
Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
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