Excerpted from Martin, Jay C. 1996. Preliminary Comparative and Theme Study of National Historic Landmark Potential for Thunder Bay, Michigan. Great Lakes Visual/Research, Inc. Lansing, MI.
As immigrants entered the Great Lakes region, thousands of acres of land were brought into cultivation. Canal networks connected western farmers with eastern markets beginning with the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Welland Canal in 1829, both of which triggered a substantial increase in the trade of bulk agricultural products. The king of Great Lakes agriculture was grain, especially wheat, corn, and oats.
Agriculture blossomed in the American midwest after 1825 as land was settled and brought into cultivation. Corn and oats shipped from the west were generally intended for feeding eastern livestock, while bulk wheat and flour was intended for human consumption, also in the east. Most wheat was shipped unmilled after the 1850s because it was more efficient and less laborious to ship than milled flour in barrels. Raw grain was converted to flour or transshipped in Buffalo or Oswego. Restrictions on shipping domestic trade goods in foreign bottoms meant that trade between U.S. ports was carried exclusively on vessels registered in the U.S., although cross-border trade before the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1845 took about twenty percent of grain from ports like Cleveland across the border to Montreal.
The bulk of the grain produced on either side of the border was transported from western to eastern Great Lakes ports by sailing vessels until near the end of the nineteenth century. Sailing vessels were chosen over the early sidewheel steamers because sailing craft could carry a larger capacity at less expense, with greater ease of loading and unloading. Sailing vessels, particularly schooners, could carry a cargo of grain eastward and then return with coal, salt, plaster, and heavy equipment. The introduction of the first propeller-driven steam-powered vessel (the VANDALIA) in 1841, with its more efficient arrangement of machinery aft, its greater dependability, and its larger unobstructed holds, began to provide some competition for sail. Sailing vessels still dominated the trade until the 1870s and 1880s, when the construction of larger iron and steel bulk carriers and the introduction of the tow-barge system either made sailing craft dependent upon steam-powered vessels or pushed them from the trade altogether.
Other agricultural products chipped via the lakes included virtually every kind of fruit and vegetable that could be grown locally. Agricultural products also included distilled spirits made from corn, wheat, and barley, and animal products like grain-fed beef, pork, and mutton that resulted directly from the production of staple grains in the region. Compared to the volume carried by vessels in the grain trade, the shipment of these other products declined after the canals and railroads connected the east with the west.
Vessels lost in the vicinity of Thunder Bay while engaging in the agricultural trade include the schooners CORNELIA B. WINDIATE, which foundered in Lake Huron late in 1875, FRANCIS BERRIMAN, which sunk by collision southeast of Thunder Bay in 1877, and NELLIE GARDINER, which was lost between Scarecrow and Bird Islands in 1883. The steel propeller D.R. HANNA, lost by collision northeast of Thunder Bay Island Light in May 1919, were also engaged in the grain trade.