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.