Tag Archives: Great Lakes Shipping History

Winter on the Lakes


Men wave from the frosted nose of a whaleback ship.

As the snow begins to fall, many of us have already turned up the heat in our homes. But what if you had to wait for a tanker ship to bring fuel to your town before you could turn on the heat? That’s what happened in many  towns along the edge of the Great Lakes during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Sailing as the SS South Park and later as the SS Meteor, the last surviving whaleback ran as an oil tanker and spent many cold seasons traveling the lakes while carrying home-heating fuels and other fuels meant for machinery in her 16 tanks. The good thing about the whaleback was that she could last long into the cold weather without getting stuck in ice that frequently trapped other ships. With her round nose, it was said that the whaleback could slide up on the ice and crush it so she could continue traveling to the towns that needed oil.


Crewmen pose near equipment coated in inches of ice.

Imagine walking on the rounded decks in November, December, or January wind and snow storms! Nowadays Great Lakes ships are often built with storm tunnels, or tunnels that run between the front and back of the ship underneath the deck, so that the crew can move around the ship without much worry about the weather. The whalebacks weren’t built with interior storm tunnels, so the deck hands and other crewmembers had to walk the icy deck to get to the machinery in the forward end of the ship. Owned by the Cleveland Tankers Company, the tanker Meteor often ran the lakes well past the usual closing date in early December.


The Meteor sits encrusted in ice at a dock.

Sometimes the fleet moved cargo around the lakes well into February. Once the ice was too thick, the ships would be docked until the ice had broken up before being refilled and sent out to deliver fuel again in the spring. Many stories would come out about daring rescues as ships became stranded in the ice. The Coast Guard would remove buoys, and other aids used for navigation, during the fall so that the items wouldn’t be destroyed by the ice and winds on the lakes. That meant that the Meteor and other ships still traveling the lakes in the off-season didn’t have all of the options that they usually had for knowing their location.


An early whaleback encounter with ice.

The Meteor’s deck log (record book) from February 1961 shows that she ran 87 extra miles during the month in order to avoid ice fields. At times she would try to back out and turn to move the ice from around her hull if it got too thick to make any headway toward her destination. However, she still got stuck in ice fields on a number of occasions, which often required sitting in the ice waiting for the US Coast Guard vessel Mackinaw to make her way to the whaleback in an attempt to get her out of her frozen mooring. The Meteor would then follow a path created by the Mackinaw or other ships to steer clear the icier portions of the lakes and make progress.

On February 3, 1961, loaded with a cargo of gasoline and fuel oil, the Meteor headed out from East Chicago. A note written in the log explains what happened: “From 6:50 AM to 4:15 PM working in ice fields at various courses and speeds making approximately 11.5 miles headway – lost time 9 hours, 25 minutes. Ran approximately 10 extra miles to east shore to avoid ice fields.” That month, the ship’s route included East Chicago, Indiana, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Ferrysburg, Michigan. She logged nearly 3,000 miles traveling between docks that February. The Meteor’s crew made 14 trips during that time, hauling liquid cargoes around the lakes to keep cities fueled and warm throughout the cold winter.

McDougall’s Dream 2016

Check out the brochure below for more information about our upcoming McDougall’s Dream event!13996306_1318768378140877_2936128342079023397_o13908985_1318768481474200_5000631179682144981_o

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

The year 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the passenger steamship Eastland. The disaster took the lives of 844 people. The ship had been built tall and narrow, and most of its weight was held on its upper decks. Previous incidents had shown that the ship would list when too many people stood on one side. Passenger ships like the Eastland were owned by various companies and had specific regular routes that allowed the public to get to work and move about the lakes and rivers in the area, along with affording these passengers the opportunity to take excursions.

Whaleback ship designer Alexander McDougall built one whaleback that was meant for the transportation of people instead of cargo. The whaleback steamship Christopher Columbus, after being used as a passenger ferry for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, continued its life as a passenger ship owned by the Goodrich Transportation Company, traveling a route between Milwaukee and Chicago. After the World’s Fair, another row of staterooms and an additional deck was added, making the ship very tall. Having boasted 7,000 passengers on her first voyage, the Columbus was allowed to transport 4,000 at a time on her route in Lake Michigan. After the sinking of the Eastland, the public became wary of traveling by ship, and it may be that the strange configuration of the whaleback, along with its height, made them particularly nervous about getting on board.

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board. (Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board.
(Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

A few years after the Eastland disaster, McDougall wrote about how it affected the use of the Columbus. He wrote: “About three years ago, a passenger ship in Chicago harbor rolled and drowned many people, which caused distrust in excursion steamers. To show her stability, the owners of the Christopher Columbus invited the public [to watch] on many other steamers and boats out in Lake Michigan opposite Chicago, where the Columbus, with 4,000 sacks of sand and 300 men were placed all on one side, and on the different decks, where passengers on one side would stand; then with a large tow line from her bow and a powerful tug, she was whirled about in the lake and there much satisfied the public for her patronage continued.” Captain Alexander McDougall also wrote that though the additional deck made the Columbus much taller than she had been previously, she was still “as steady as a church.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune, on August 6, 1915, printed an article about the stability test that the Columbus underwent. “Three hundred lives, the steamship worth $400,000, and the reputation of the Goodrich Transit Company were risked in the undertaking. Experts declared the test satisfactory.” The Columbus continued on as a passenger ferry until she was ultimately scrapped in 1936.

McDougall’s Dream is Saturday September 27!

Alexander McDougall

Alexander McDougall

This year marks the 10th annual “McDougall’s Dream”. This all-day event celebrates local ship builder and entrepreneur Alexander McDougall.

In the late 1880s he came up with an innovative design for a steel-hulled vessel that would ride low in the water and shed the waves off its back like a whale, which gave the vessels their popular name of “whaleback.” McDougall’s American Steel Barge Company built the whalebacks in Superior, near the site of the current Frasier Shipyards. Only one whaleback ship remains – the Meteor – now land-berthed on Barker’s Island and open for tours.

McDougall’s Dream is this Saturday September 27 at the Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. Afternoon presentations begin at 1 p.m. with topics ranging from shipwrecks to shipbuilding. The evening events start at 5 p.m. with a cash bar, dinner catered by Famous Dave’s BBQ, a silent auction, and keynote speaker Pamela Brunfelt, Iron Range historian from Ely, Minnesota. Proceeds from the event help to restore and preserve the Meteor and the legacy of Captain Alexander McDougall.

The cost is $15 for the daytime talks, $40 for the evening dinner and keynote speaker, or $45 for a combination ticket for daytime and evening events.

For more details, take a look at our “Events Calendar” page. To make a reservation, call us at 715-394-5712.