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Commercial Steam 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.

Steam-powered craft have existed on Lake Ontario since 1816 and above Niagara starting in 1818. They did not immediately replace sail as the primary means of transportation, however. Instead, steamers slowly infiltrated and monopolized different trades, beginning with the most lucrative like the passenger/package freight trade in the early nineteenth century, and ending with the least lucrative trades such as lumber during the waning decades of the nineteenth century. Like sailing vessels, steamers became highly specialized and efficient participants in the Great Lakes and national economy.

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Sidewheel Steamers Wooden Propellers Steel Propellers Motor-Powered Vessels Unpowered Vessels

Sidewheel Steamers The steam-powered vessels that first appeared above Niagara in 1818 copied some of the essential elements of the Great Lakes sailing vessel: wood hull, schooner rigged, and shallow bottomed. The first vessels were sidewheelers and most were used in the passenger and package freight trades where the profits were the highest and the demands for reliable service greatest. The package freight trade included the transportation of any type of products that required special handling (dishes, wagon wheels, clothing, etc.), much of which was individually crated or packaged for shipment. The majority of the vessels in service through the 1820s confined their operations to Lake Erie and the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers, where there was sufficient business to keep them occupied. By the 1830s, the growing communities on Lakes Michigan and Huron lured more vessels north and westward. One of these was the DON QUIXOTTE, a new steamer built for river service and lost near Thunder Bay Island in 1836, while reportedly bound to Lake Michigan to enter service on the Grand River. Very little is known of this type of early river steamer and, if it is well-preserved, the DON QUIXOTTE may well be one of the best examples of this type of marine architecture.

For a time the sidewheeler reigned supreme as the steamer of choice on the Great Lakes. Large and elaborate vessels were constructed to meet the specific needs associated with westward expansion and the rapid movement of people, supplies, and manufactured goods to frontier communities. One sidewheeler lost while engaged in the westward passenger trade was the NEW ORLEANS (lost in 1849). Vessels like the NEW ORLEANS became the backbone of the immigrant trade, shuttling settlers westward at an astounding rate. Sidewheelers remained popular for the short distance passenger trade into the early decades of the twentieth century, but they were soon replaced in every other trade by the propeller.

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Wooden Propellers The propeller was introduced on the Great Lakes with the VANDALIA in 1841 and soon became popular for bulk cargo because it allowed large quantities of material to be carried without the interference that was otherwise found in the deck and engineering arrangement of sidewheel steamers. By the late 1850s the sidewheelers were being displaced in all but the passenger trades and slowly even this trade was colonized. The PEWABIC (sunk by collision with the propeller METEOR in August 1865) is an example of the early adaptation of propellers to the passenger/package freight/bulk cargoes trade. Later the descendants of this type of craft largely replaced sidewheelers in the long distance passenger trade.

Between 1841 and 1869 there were a multitude of designs and design variations applied to vessels engaged in the bulk products and passenger/package freight trades. Most of these variations sought to fit the vessel to the needs of a specific trade or to use new technology. There was little standardization beyond simple arrangement of fundamental machinery and gear so that vessels built in this period offer a wide variety of forms. Other examples of these transitional propellers include the PORTSMOUTH (wrecked at Middle Island, November 1867) and the GALENA (foundered off North Point, September 1872).

The traditional form for bulk carriers began with the wooden propeller R.J. HACKETT in 1869. The HACKETT was the first vessel designed specifically for the iron ore trade, with the pilot house forward, machinery aft, hatches spaced on twenty-four feet centers, and a continuous hold reserved for bulk cargo. This vessel set the standard for lake bulk carriers that was to remain basically unchanged for a century. There are many minute variations, but Thunder Bay has over a dozen wooden vessels that developed from the HACKETT prototype. These include the JAMES DAVIDSON (stranded at Thunder Bay Island in October 1883), D.M. WILSON (foundered northeast of Thunder Bay Island in October 1894), B.W. BLANCHARD (former package freighter, lost as a bulk carrier when wrecked off of North Point, November 1904), SHAMROCK (former schooner converted to steamer, foundered off Alpena, June 1905), NEW ORLEANS (sunk in a collision north of Thunder Bay Island, June 1906, not to be confused with the sidewheeler mentioned previously), MONOHANSETT (burned at the southwest end of Thunder Bay Island, November 1907), WILLIAM PETER THEW (sunk in a collision off Thunder Bay Island, June 1909), OSCAR T. FLINT (burned and sank west of Thunder Bay Island, November 1909), NEW YORK (foundered 30 miles northeast of Thunder Bay Light by fire, October 1910), WILLIAM P. REND (foundered off North Point, September 1917), HELEN C. (stranded on the north shore of Thunder Bay, October 1922). In addition, Dana Thomas Bowen believes that the propeller EGYPTIAN (built at Lorain, Ohio, in 1873 and sunk south of Thunder Bay in December 1897) had the first fore-and-aft compound engine used on the lakes.

Small steam-powered propellers also served specialized purposes. The fishtugs WILLIAM MAXWELL (grounded on Thunder Bay Island in 1908) and JEKA (lost west of Middle Island in 193)) are examples of commercial fishing craft. The steam pile driver JAY OCHS (foundered southwest of Middle Island in 1905) was part of the large construction fleet that helped to build and maintain Great Lakes channels, harbors, and docks.

Back to top Steel Propellers The initial step into metal for hull material consisted of experiments with iron construction. On the Great Lakes this began with the assembly of the USS MICHIGAN at Erie, Pennsylvania from 1842 to 1844, using plate iron rolled in Pittsburgh. The sidewheel steamer MICHIGAN was the first substantial iron vessel on the Great Lakes and the first iron warship for the United States Navy. The MICHIGAN was followed by several small iron vessels that were built in Buffalo as early as 1844, but construction of larger vessels did not occur until the economic imperatives of the Civil War made such investments attractive. A larger contribution to iron shipbuilding was made when the iron passenger/package freighter MERCHANT was launched at Buffalo in 1862. This vessel was followed by a few other vessels of this type, but was not successful enough to supersede wooden construction in any significant way. The transmission of the general characteristics of the Great Lakes bulk carrier originally introduced by the HACKETT were in 1882 transferred to metal hulls when the iron-hulled ONOKO entered service. The ONOKO inspired a handful of iron bulk carriers in the 1880s.

After the experiments with iron, steel hulls for Great Lakes propellers were introduced with the bulk carrier SPOKANE in 1886. Steel was more durable than wood and easier to work with and less expensive than iron. Iron was also thought to be brittle, an important concern as larger bulk carriers needed to be able to flex transversely and longitudinally to withstand the stresses of Great Lakes storms.

During the early steel shipbuilding era, a number of innovations were tried to maximize carrying capacity within the limits imposed by locks, rivers, and harbors. The nearly cylindrical hull of steel whalebacks was a type that met with initial success upon its introduction in 1888 but eventually proved difficult to unload and too radical a design change for most lakefarers. From the whaleback influence there developed a number of short departures that were more successful in shaping future marine architecture than in extending the prototypes into long-term production. One of these variations was the "turtleback" (like the GRECIAN), a vessel with a rounded forecastle that was superseded on the cutting edge of vessel design because masters complained of poor visibility and other problems impacting navigation. Another was the "monitor," a vessel with a conventional bow and sides that sloped from deck to waterline at a forty-five degree angle. A different variation confined to package freighters was the "straightback," a design that carried a high forecastle, a straight deck line, and the pilot house about a third of the way back from the bow. There was also a brief attempt to relocated the machinery of vessels amidships, but this proved unsuccessful because the propeller alley interfered with ore unloading. Gradually, the basic lake bulk carrier settled into a predictable form: graceful steel hulls with little sheer, hatches set on twenty-four foot centers to facilitate loading, and pilot house set at the bow.

Vessels in Thunder Bay representing the evolution of steel shipbuilding include the NORMAN (lost northeast of Middle Island by collision, May 1895), GRECIAN (sunk off Thunder Bay, June 1906), ISAAC M. SCOTT (foundered off Thunder Bay in the Great Storm of 1913), W. H. GILBERT (sunk in collision off Thunder Bay Island, May 1914), D.R. HANNA (sunk in collision northeast of Thunder Bay Island Light, May 1919), EDWARD U. DEMMER (lost in collision southeast of Thunder Bay, May 1923), and W.C. FRANZ (lost southeast of Thunder Bay Island by collision, November 1934).

The most basic contemporary change in steel bulk carrier construction is the use of self-unloading vessels, which became popular in the 1930s. Today, most bulk carriers are self-unloaders.

Back to top Motor-Powered Vessels Vessels powered by internal combustion engines have been in use on the Great Lakes for more than a century. Most of these vessels remained small to medium sized until World War I, when war shipbuilding increased the spread of diesel engines. The first large Great Lakes bulk carriers to be powered with direct diesel power were the BENSON FORD and HENRY FORD II in 1924.

A number of small motor-powered wooden propellers were lost at Thunder Bay. The JAMES H. HALL was formerly a schooner, built in 1885. A gas engine was installed in 1913 and the vessel operated as a small freighter until it burned near the mouth of the Thunder Bay River in 1916 with a lumber cargo. The J.N. DEWEY was a compromise stern wooden fishtug that burned at Alpena in November 1920 and may have been returned to service. the O.E. PARKS managed to operate under virtually every mode of contemporary locomotion. The vessel was built as a steam propeller, but was converted to an unrigged barge in 1928 and then to a motor vessel in 1929. It foundered west of Thunder Bay Island in 1929 with a cargo of pulpwood.

Back to top Unpowered Vessels Only one unclassified unpowered vessel is known to have been lost off Thunder Bay. BARGE NO. 1 broke in two off Thunder Bay in November 1918 and became a total loss.


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