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Commercial Sailing Vessels

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.

Early commercial and naval vessels used on the Great Lakes were based on European designs. After the War of 1812, a growing number of vessels were built to meet regional needs, reflecting a better understanding of the Great Lakes environment and the demands of specialized trades. The following links provide descriptions of the types of commercial sailing vessels that have navigated the Great Lakes over the past two centuries.

If information on a specific vessel is available elsewhere on this website, it will appear as a bright blue link. Please note that clicking on such a link will open a new browser window.

Square Rig

Fore-and-Aft Rigs:

Sloops Schooners Scows Schooner-Barges and the Tow-Barge System Grand Haven Rig

Square Rig Square rigged vessels have all the sails on one or more masts set from yards, wooden spars attached perpendicularly to the mast(s). Sails stretched by these yards were square or rectangular in shape, giving the rig its name. These vessels could, and usually did, carry some triangular jibs and/or staysails between the foremast and bowsprit.

In the late 18th century, saltwater vessels traveling long distances were normally square rigged. When commercial shipping began to appear on the Great Lakes, saltwater seamen constituted the bulk of the labor base and brought with them the idea of what would constitute a good "laker." The square-rigger was not very successful on the lakes, however, because it was more expensive to operate due to the extra labor needed to handle the vessel and the vast amount of cordage, blocks, spars, and other equipment that had to be purchased, maintained, and occasionally replaced. By the 1830s, the popularity of square riggers waned and the fore-and-aft rig came to predominate. After the 1860s, vessels in commercial trade using even the modified square rig, such as barques, brigantines, and barkentines, were not very popular because their yards and extensive rigging inhibited loading and unloading.

A number of vessels believed to have been square-rigged on at least one mast (difficult to determine because of the variability of rig description from different sources) were lost in the Thunder Bay region. These include the bark H.P. BRIDGE, lost off of Thunder Bay Light in 1869, the bark EXCELSIOR, lost between Thunder Bay and Middle Islands in 1871, and the barkentine OGARITA, which burned southeast of Thunder Bay Island in 1905.

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs In the fore-and-aft rig, most sails were set from the masts along the center line (rather than perpendicular to the keel) of the vessel. The sails were usually stretched by a gaff and boom arrangement in which both spars were attached behind the mast by boom jaws. The gaff stretched and controlled the upper part of the sail, while the boom was attached and functioned in much the same way on the bottom of the sail. Above the raised gaff, and stretched between it and the topmast, was the gaff topsail, a triangular sail that provided extra pulling power. A full array of triangular jibs and staysails might be included before or between the masts.

The fore-and-aft rig had the advantages of being more maneuverable, less labor intensive, and cheaper to maintain than the square rig. For this reason, fore-and-aft rigged vessels superseded square-riggers for virtually every commercial use on the lakes by the mid-19th century.

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs: Sloops The sloop was a fore-and-aft rigged vessel with only one mast. Sloops were small, usually under sixty feet in length. These vessels came into favor with those who frequented small rivers, bays, or harbors where the water was shallow, the winds were unsteady, and the channel unmarked. Sloops served admirably in this capacity, combining great maneuverability with low labor and maintenance costs. They were limited as to their size, however, and were not preferred for work far from shore.

Sloops were most often used by the early explorers of the region and those who worked close inshore in the coasting trade. They were often owned and sailed by farmers, contractors, and others to whom maritime activities were a sideline. Sloops carried farm produce (hay, fruits, and vegetables) and building materials (lumber, stone, and cement) from the point of production to nearby communities. After the first three decades of the 19th century these vessels rarely made trips of more than a few hundred miles. There are no known sloop-rigged vessels lost in Thunder Bay, but given the prevalence of this type for small commercial fishing vessels, it would not be surprising to find some undocumented small sloops in the area.

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs: Schooners The schooner was a fore-and-aft rigged vessel with two or more masts. Schooners varied in size, but all combined a high degree of seaworthiness with maneuverability, large cargo capacity, and low labor and maintenance costs.

Some schooners carried one or more small square sails that were stretched from a yard on the foremast. The small square "topsail" was an attempt to give the fore-and-aft rigged vessel some of the advantages of a square rigged vessel when a following wind was encountered. Later, an even more satisfactory compromise was achieved when this square sail was converted to a triangular sail called a "raffee." The raffee was set with its pointed top hoisted on the fore topmast and its broad bottom stretched by a yard. The sail had the pulling power of a square topsail, yet was easily handled by a small crew. Below the raffee and from the same yard, a large square sail called a "runner" was sometimes set when the wind was abaft (behind) the beam and the winds were light. This sail also provided considerable pulling power and emulated the square rigged design. Technically the vessels that used these later variations were topsail schooners, but Great Lakes seamen usually called them schooners.

There were two primary hull configurations for the traditional schooners: the "canaler" and the upper lakes schooner. The canaler got its name because it was constructed with the dimensions and configuration of hull and rigging necessary to allow it to transit the Welland and the St. Lawrence River canals. Between the opening of the Welland Canal in 1829 and its first enlargement in 1846, vessels were limited to 100 feet long (including the projection of the bowsprit and jibboom forward and the mizzen or main boom aft), to 22 feet wide, and to 6 feet depth. After 1846 these dimensions for the Welland were increased to 150 feet, 26 feet, and 9 feet.

The St. Lawrence River canals were smaller. The effect of these size restrictions was to force shipbuilders to pack as much cargo capacity as possible into a hull of the maximum size. This was accomplished by making the counter (stern) and stem (bow) flatter, by shortening the main or mizzen boom so that it did not hang over the stern, and by creating a stubby bowsprit with hinged jibboom so that the jibs and associated rigging could be temporarily removed from impeding lock passage. To offset the loss of sailing quality caused by the flat bottomed - as opposed to "V"-shaped - hull, shipbuilders installed centerboards that were extended through the bottom of the vessel to lessen slippage to leeward when sailing into the wind. The centerboards could be raised when passing through canals. The upper lakes schooners had finer lines and fewer restrictions on size than the canalers because they normally operated above the Welland Canal, but these schooners also carried centerboards.

Little is known about the marine architecture, material culture, and shipboard life that existed aboard lakes schooners between the War of 1812 and the early 1850s. Three examples of this sparsely-documented period of Great Lakes fore-and-aft riggers are located in or near Thunder Bay: the H. HUBBARD capsized off Thunder Bay Island in June 1845; the HAVRE was lost on Middle Island in November 1845; and the ELLEN was stranded at Thunder Bay in 1856. The HUBBARD may be of particular interest because it may have foundered in deep water and could be very well preserved. The HUBBARD was also associated with Peter White (1830-1908) - later a Marquette merchant heavily involved in local iron mining, speculation in pig iron, and banking. White was a seaman on the vessel.

Thunder Bay is particularly strong in examples of the glory days of Great Lakes commercial sail. The highest development of both the American and Canadian Great Lakes canal schooner is available for study in at least nine examples, including the E.B. ALLEN (lost by collision in 1871), the CORSICAN (lost in a collision in 1893), the ELVINA (foundered in 1901), the EMPIRE STATE (wrecked in 1877), the E.B. PALMER (wrecked in 1892), the BELLE WILSON (foundered in 1888), and the CORNELIA B. WINDIATE (foundered in 1875). The EMPIRE STATE and BELLE WILSON were built in Canada.

Similarly, the zenith of the upper Great Lakes schooner is preserved by at least eleven examples lost in the vicinity of Thunder Bay: the LUCY RAAB (wrecked in 1862), the ANNIE C. RAYNOR (wrecked in 1863), the ROANOKE (foundered in 1866), the NONPAREIL (lost in 1866), the MARION EGAN (lost in 1875), the NELLIE GARDNER (lost in 1883), the LUCINDA VAN VALKENBURG (sunk by collision in 1887), the FRANCIS BERRIMAN (sunk by collision in 1877), the JOHN T. JOHNSON (lost in 1904), the JAMES H. HALL (former schooner, later motor vessel burned in 1916), and the JAMES MOWATT (foundered in 1919).

Thunder Bay also contains a number of Great Lakes sailing vessels that made trips in the early direct trade with saltwater ports. Both the KYLE SPANGLER (lost by collision in 1860) and the JOHN F. WARNER (wrecked in 1890) had made trips to saltwater, the former to the U.S. Atlantic Coast and the latter to the British Isles.

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs: Scows The Great Lakes scow was a craft with a very distinctive hull design. The scow was a flat bottomed, flat sided, and often flat bowed and sterned vessel that was characterized by a "hard chine" or squared bilge. These boxy vessels were utilitarian craft meant to serve the ports, rivers, bays, piers, and even beaches in the largely unimproved Great Lakes from the War of 1812 through the early 20th century. They were an important part of 19th century commerce because they combined large cargo capacity with shallow draught and relatively low costs for construction and operation. Scows carried a variety of rigs (bark, schooner, sloop, or unrigged), but were most often rigged as sloops or schooners.

By the late 19th century the sailing scow was well on its way toward obsolescence and the scow hull form was becoming widely used for unrigged barges like those square steel barges that are extensively used today. The first scow barges were of wood and later of steel. At least one unrigged wooden scow exists in Thunder Bay - NUMBER 83, probably a construction or dredge dump scow. The vessel foundered northeast of Thunder Bay Island in October 1941.

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs: Schooner-Barges and the Tow-Barge System The "tow-barge" or "consort" system of shipping developed on the Great Lakes during the Civil War involved the use of a steamer and one or more barges towed in tandem from port to port. The barges were often cut-down steamers with engines and superstructure removed or schooners with shortened masts. The attraction of this system was that the towing steamer could increase its total cargo moved with relatively little increase in fuel consumption. The system made it possible for owners to get the maximum return out of their vessels, while decreasing overhead through reduced crew size and reduced maintenance costs. Schooner-barges were often wooden vessels near the end of their active service life and considered more or less expendable. The economic value of this system soon led to its adoption on all American coasts.

A number of former sailing vessels were lost as schooner-barges in Thunder Bay, including the JOHN F. WARNER (1890), the FRED A. MORSE (1892), the ELVINA (1901), the BAY CITY (1902), and the WILLIAM A. YOUNG (1911).

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Fore-and-Aft Rigs: Grand Haven Rig The tow-barge system helped to end the independence of sailing craft, but one of its spinoffs, the Grand Haven rig, accomplished the opposite. The Grand Haven rig was a two-masted rig in which gaff-rigged schooners had their masts set toward the extreme ends of the vessel, leaving a large area amidships for loading, unloading, and deck load. This configuration had been developed for use on tow-barges in the lumber trade during the 1870s, but it was found that vessels sailed so well with this economical rig that by the 1890s some three-masted vessels were being converted to this configuration. The rig helped to keep otherwise obsolete sailing craft in operation by reducing labor costs for manning and loading, increasing carrying capacity, using sails more efficiently, and reducing maintenance costs associated with the more labor-intensive three-masted schooner rig. There are no known examples of the Grand Haven rig sunk in the vicinity of Thunder Bay.

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