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Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Thomas Wilson
Whaleback Freighters

The use of steamers to tow barges or consorts dates to the 1860's. Initially, wooden sailing ships were towed behind large wooden steamers. A unique concept in steamer/consort design was introduced by Captain Alexander McDougall in 1889. His whaleback, also known as a pigboat, was a cigar-shaped vessel with conoidal ends and the superstructure set above turrets mounted on the main deck. Nineteen whaleback steamers, one passenger vessel, and 23 consorts were built by McDougall between 1889 and 1898. The design influenced most shipbuilding modifications introduced on the Great Lakes during that period, including "turtlebacks," "monitors," and "straightbacks." The whaleback freighter was also the immediate forerunner of the Doxford turret ship, built in England and widely used for ocean cargo transportation. The whalebacks became obsolete when their design proved incapable of adapting to developments in cargo handling machinery.

Captain Alexander McDougall's concept for a cheap, cylindrical hulled steamboat to carry bulk freight on the Great Lakes initially met with great reluctance on the part of Lakes shipbuilders. In 1887-1888, McDougall built his first whaleback, barge 101 at the Robert Clark Shipyard in Duluth, Minnesota. The 428-ton barge was 191 feet long and 21 feet in beam. It had a cargo capacity of 1,200 tons. The 101's conoidal bow and stern were fabricated at the Pusey & Jones Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington, Delaware. The following year, McDougall obtained financial backing from New York interests and formed the American Steel Barge Company with a yard in Duluth, Minnesota. The company launched two 253-foot long barges in 1889. In 1890, McDougall built his first whaleback steamer, the Colgate Hoyt, named for one of the company's directors. The Hoyt cost $120,000, a little more than twice the cost of a whaleback barge. It was reputed to travel at 16 miles per hour, surpassing many of the conventional steamers of the day.

The whaleback's rounded deck and turreted superstructures were well adapted to heavy seas and allowed the vessel to operate under such conditions without reducing speed. The whaleback's simple design also was cheap and easy to build. In 1893, the cost of operating one whaleback freighter with two whaleback consorts was estimated at $33.33 per ton. An 1893 model whaleback could carry 3,600 gross tons of iron ore, drawing 17 feet of water with a reserve buoyancy of only 25 percent. One of the whaleback's major drawbacks, however, was its lack of a protected passageway between the fore and after ends of the ship which hindered communications during foul weather.

After completing his fifth whaleback, McDougall relocated his shipyard across the harbor to West Superior, Wisconsin. In 1891, the whaleback steamer Charles W. Wetmore visited England, sparking interest in the new hull design on both sides of the Atlantic. The Wetmore was later to sail to the Pacific coast of the United States where McDougall established a shipyard at Everett, Washington, in 1891. In 1893, McDougall's Duluth shipyard was busy building ten ships simultaneously. The yard launched a ship every Saturday for eight Saturdays, then on the ninth Saturday it launched two ships and a tug.

In 1893, McDougall built his only passenger whaleback, the Christopher Columbus. The Columbus was built to carry passengers from Chicago to the World's Fair. In June, 1893, a McDougall whaleback, steamer number 218, was launched from the Doxford and Sons Shipyard in England. Doxford and his engineers then designed their own modified version of the whaleback, a more widely built, ocean-going steamship called the Doxford "turret" ship. McDougall's last whaleback, the Alexander McDougall, was built in 1898. This steamer was a transitional type with a conventional bow mounted on a whaleback hull.

The Thomas Wilson is the best known example of the earliest whalebacks. Though relatively few whalebacks were built in a period of less than ten years, whaleback design and construction underwent an evolutionary process from the first whaleback barge to the last transitional-type steamer. The only surviving whaleback above water is the S.S. Meteor, formerly the Frank Rockefeller. The Rockefeller was more than 50 feet longer than the Wilson and had a registered tonnage which exceeded that of the Wilson by more than 50 percent. Though only four years had passed between the construction of the Wilson and the Rockefeller, the whaleback design had undergone considerable modification. The Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers in 1896 reported the construction of the Rockefeller as follows:

The hull departs somewhat in appearance from the other whaleback steamers. The deck has less crown and the topsides are straighter. The pilot house is separate from the main cabins, the intervening space of 34 feet being occupied by fueling hatches. The old plan of placing engines and stacks in separate tunnels has been abandoned, and one large turret protects the whole of the space. This greatly improves the ventilation of both engine and fire rooms. The boilers are placed higher than has heretofore been the practice, affording additional cargo space. There are eleven center line cargo hatches, each 12 feet x 8 feet, and ten side hatches, 6 feet x 4 feet feet, the latter located upon the port side of the ship, this arrangement allowing 21 ore spouts to be lowered into the vessel at one time, thereby reducing the time required for loading.

S.S. Meteor
The S.S. Meteor, formerly the Frank Rockefeller, is now a museum ship in West Superior, Wi, Sep. 1990; MHS/SHPO Collections


The Rockefeller, renamed S.S. Meteor, was converted into a tanker in 1943. It was retired from service in 1969, purchased by the city of Superior in 1972 and set on Bakers Island in the Superior Harbor in 1973 as a museum vessel. The relative proximity of the Wilson to the Meteor offers a unique opportunity for the comparative study of both vessels by divers and interested individuals.


|--Thomas Wilson-- |--Historic Description--|
|--Construction and Career-- |--Whaleback Freighters-- |--Description of the Wreck Event--|
|--Post-Depositional Impacts-- |--Present Description-- |--Significance-- |--Photographs--|
|--Minnesota Lake Superior Shipwrecks-- |
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