publisher colophon

11

Bessemer Reclaims the Crown

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it must have seemed to many people as if John D. Rockefeller and his Bessemer Steamship Company were intent on nothing less than the total domination of bulk shipping on the lakes. Through 1896 and 1897, most of the freighters launched by the major shipyards had the now-familiar Bessemer “B” on their stacks, and most were exceptionally large ships. From May of 1896 until the launching of the Superior City in April of 1898, one or more Bessemer ships either held or shared the title as Queen of the Lakes. A little over three months after the Superior City was launched for American Steamship Company, another Bessemer ship reclaimed the title.

STR. SAMUEL F. B. MORSE

475’x50’x24’
Queen of the Lakes
July 31, 1898 to January 20, 1900

The Samuel F. B. Morse was launched for the Bessemer fleet on Sunday, July 31, 1898, at the F. W. Wheeler shipyard at West Bay City, Michigan. The new Queen of the Lakes was 475 feet long, with a 50-foot beam, and measured at 4,936 gross tons. The Morse did not take to the water easily, and her launching proved to be a major embarrassment for Frank Wheeler.

The giant Bessemer freighter had been scheduled for launching on Saturday afternoon, July 30, and thousands of spectators ignored the stifling heat to gather at the shipyard and on lumber piles, tramways, and docks on the opposite side of the Saginaw River. Wheeler was eager that the launching go without a hitch, and by 10 a.m. his work crews had put a heavy coat of grease on the sloping ways down which the big ship would slide.

At 3 p.m., the time that had been set for the launching, Wheeler pushed a button to sound a bell. Along the hull of the Morse, teams of sweating workers wielding sledge hammers drove out the wooden blocks holding the freighter on the ways. On the opposite side of the keel, other workers worked in unison to drive stout wooden wedges under the keel to start the big ship on her slide into the water. Despite the efforts, the Morse would not budge from her perch. For more than an hour, the spectators waited patiently in the summer heat as Wheeler and his launch crew tried to break the freighter free. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., Wheeler threw in the towel. The flags flying from the Morse’s masts were lowered, and his crews went to work re-blocking the hull. The thousands of local residents who had gathered to witness the launching went home disappointed.

Wheeler found that the grease on the ways had melted in the midday heat. Without the lubricant, there was too much friction between the steel hull of the Morse and the heavy wooden timbers of the ways for the big freighter to slide.1 Wheeler told his staff to be at the shipyard early the following morning to again attempt to launch the Bessemer steamer. At 9 a.m. on Sunday the Morse gave up her grip on the ways and slid into the water “as gracefully as a duck.” Only Wheeler and his workers were present to cheer the launching of the new Queen of the Lakes.2

The Morse had all of the latest equipment aboard, including steam appliances, steam winches, steam capstan, and steam steering gear,3 but “as in the case with the rest of the steamers of the Bessemer fleet, nothing in the shape of luxury of appointments [was] provided. These boats are made without regard for beauty of line, but are built for carrying large cargoes.”4 She could carry 7,500 tons of ore.

While she may not have been a beauty, the Morse had a unique appearance as the result of having twin smokestacks on her stern. The stacks exhausted gases from her powerful 2,700-horsepower quadruple expansion engine.5 Like the Superior City, the new Bessemer freighter had a hatch between her pilothouse and raised forecastle and a catwalk spanned the resulting well. She also had a midship deckhouse.6

In the contract for construction of the Morse, Bessemer also hired Wheeler to build two large schooner consorts. The first of the consorts, the John Fritz, was actually launched before the Morse, on June 22, 1898. The second, the John A. Roebling, was completed on August 13, about the time shipyard workers had put the finishing touches on the Morse and the freighter was ready to go into service. The barges were identical, each 456 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 24 feet deep. While their gross tonnages were less than that of the Morse, their carrying capacities were slightly greater.7

Bessemer’s giant...

Bessemer’s giant Samuel F. B. Morse belching coal smoke from its unique twin stacks. The open-air flying bridge is shown clearly in the photo, as is her midship deckhouse. Hanging from the sides of the hull are timbers that were used as fenders to protect the hull when making a dock. (Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University)

STR. DOUGLASS HOUGHTON

475’x50’x24’2”
Queen of the Lakes
June 3, 1899 to January 20, 1900

An identical steamer was launched for the Bessemer fleet the following year by Globe Ship Building. Construction of the ship, named the Douglass Houghton, had reportedly been slowed by a year-long shortage in the availability of shipbuilding steel.8 The two ships and two barges had long careers on the lakes. In a way, all of them are still part of the Great Lakes industry.

The Morse, along with the other Bessemer boats, became part of the Pittsburgh fleet in 1901. She remained in Pittsburgh colors until 1954, when she was sold to Wyandotte Transportation, a division of Wyandotte Chemical Company. Wyandotte converted the Morse to a barge and renamed her Wy Chem 105. In 1955, the barge was purchased by a salvage company and sold to Merritt-Chapman and Scott of New York City. The construction firm used the hull as a temporary breakwater at the Clague Road water intake being built at Bay Village, Ohio. When the Bay Village project was completed, the barge was sold to Roen Steamship Company of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. From 1958 until 1974, Roen used the hull as a breakwater or cofferdam in a number of construction projects around the lakes. In 1975, she was scrapped at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, but a section of her midbody was retained for use as a yard barge. That portion of the old Morse remains in use at Bay yet today.9

The Houghton went into service for Bessemer in August of 1899. On September 5, the wheel chains that connected her steering wheel to her rudder failed while she was downbound with the barge John Fritz in the narrow Middle Neebish Channel of the St. Marys River. Despite the fact that the Houghton’s captain immediately reduced her speed to “dead slow” so that the unsteerable vessel could be anchored, the big vessel swung out of control, driving her bow twelve feet onto a limestone ledge alongside the channel. Caught in the current, the ship’s stern was carried across the channel until it, too, grounded.

As if the ignominious grounding was not enough humiliation for the big new ship, her crew noticed almost immediately that the towline stretching between the Houghton and the Fritz had gone limp in the water, and the unpowered, heavily laden barge was bearing down on them. While the crew aboard the Fritz frantically scrambled to drop her anchors, the barge struck the ship lying helpless across the channel, “cutting through [her] plates like a tin can.”10 Badly holed and taking on a torrent of water, the heavily laden Houghton settled to the bottom almost immediately, blocking the busy channel and forcing vessels transiting the river to go to anchor. For the first time since the Soo Locks opened in 1855, Lake Superior was cut off from the other lakes and vital ore shipments ground to a halt, creating what some referred to as “the most appalling situation in lake freight traffic that has been experienced in a quarter of a century.”11

From the standpoint of shipowners, the accident couldn’t have occurred at a worse time. The Great Lakes shipping industry was experiencing unusually high demand for shipments that fall, and ore was moving out of Duluth at the very profitable rate of two dollars a ton.12 Prior to the accident, freight was moving through the river at the staggering rate of a million tons every ten days. Even higher tonnages were anticipated as grain shippers tried to move the immense crop that had just been harvested.13

Salvage crews were hurriedly dispatched to the wreck site to refloat the Houghton and reopen the critical river channel. While salvors optimistically predicted that the operation would take only several days, some shipowners argued that it would make more sense for them to buy the sunken hulk of the big freighter and have it dynamited so that the river could be opened to traffic as soon as possible.14

The “Houghton blockade” became front page news across the Great Lakes region as scores of ships attempting to transit the river were forced to go to anchor. Owners of many of the ships caught below the blockade withdrew their ships from the Lake Superior iron ore trade and placed them in service on the less profitable routes on the lower lakes. James J. Hill and other officials of the Northern Steamship Company operating passenger ships between Buffalo and Duluth devised a creative system that enabled them to continue offering service to and from Lake Superior. The downbound steamer North West discharged her passengers on the shores of Neebish Island, just above the wreck site, and they walked along the shore to a spot below the Houghton where the upbound steamer North Star had docked. Passengers from the North Star similarly trekked up the river to reach the North West. Once the two groups of passengers had made the switch and their baggage and other cargo had been portaged overland, the two ships doubled back on their routes. While the system seemed highly innovative to many onlookers, others undoubtedly noted with some amusement that prior to the construction of the first locks at Sault Ste. Marie only a few decades earlier, all traffic between Lake Superior and the lower lakes involved a similar overland portage of passengers and cargo.15

Within two days, salvage officials announced that their divers had successfully placed a temporary wooden patch over the hole in the hull of the Houghton and efforts were underway to pump out the flooded cargo hold. As the water was being removed from the hull, a large crew of workers was taken to the wreck site to begin lightering cargo from the ship’s hold to make it easier to refloat her. It was estimated that about two thousand tons of ore would have to be laboriously shovelled out of the hold before the vessel would float free.16

Five days after the ship had blocked the channel, salvage officials reported that pumping and lightering operations had managed to raise the bow of the Houghton more than forty inches, but they found that the ship was wedged tightly in a crevasse in the rocky bottom of the river channel. A decision was made to blast out the rock holding the ship, and drilling equipment was rushed to the site to bore holes into the rock ledge so dynamite charges could be set. A stout hawser twelve inches in diameter was run from the bow of the Houghton to a large tree on the shore to control the downstream swing of the bow once it was freed. The last thing the salvors wanted was for the big ship to float free, but out of control, and possibly ground itself again.17

The Douglass...

The Douglass Houghton, wrecked in the St. Marys River in 1899. Alongside the sunken Bessemer freighter is a salvage barge from Soo Lighter & Wrecking. A pencilled note on the back of the original photo says that 332 ships were delayed when the Houghton blocked the critical shipping channel. (State Archives of Michigan)

The following day, Monday, September 11, lightering and pumping efforts had raised the bow of the Houghton by five feet and blasting operations began shortly after dawn. To the dismay of salvors and officials from Bessemer Steamship who were present at the site, the first blasts managed only to crack the sturdy rock ledge. Many additional charges had to be touched off before the rock was sufficiently shattered to allow the vessel to be pulled free of the ledge by four powerful tugs. After six days, the Houghton blockade had finally ended. Up and down the river, crews on more than two hundred ships idled by the blockade prepared to weigh anchor and get underway.

To avoid the chaos that would result by turning loose two hundred ships in the narrow confines of the river, vessel movements were tightly controlled by Captain A. H. Davis of the Revenue Service, a predecessor of the Coast Guard. Word went out to ships’ captains that downbound vessels would get underway first, and they would be released from their anchorages in the order in which they had arrived. One-third mile spacing was mandated between ships, resulting in a forty-mile-long procession winding its way down the river. Together, the ships in the convoy carried 300,000 tons of iron ore, 11,900,000 board feet of lumber, and 900,000 bushels of wheat.18

Only two ships in the convoy were involved in incidents during the carefully orchestrated procession down the river. The 300-foot package freighter Northern Wave grounded, but was easily released. Pickand Mather’s 300-foot, wooden bulk freighter Crete ran onto the boulders behind the Houghton and was trapped for about two hours before being pulled free by tugs.19

The following day, large crowds gathered at Port Huron and Detroit, and at other points along the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, in the expectation that they would see an unprecedented procession of ships passing downbound. The first vessels to reach the lower rivers were the fast passenger steamers North Star and North Land, but they led no grand flotilla. The ships had become strung out during their voyages down Lake Huron. With the exception of a group of twenty-five freighters that passed Detroit at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, September 13, most of the ships freed from the blockade steamed past the gathered crowds of onlookers singly or in disappointingly small groups.20

Shipping officials and government leaders were relieved that the supplies of iron ore so vital to the U.S. economy were again flowing off the ranges bordering Lake Superior. At the same time, the Houghton incident vividly demonstrated that neither the industry nor the nation could afford to be totally dependent on a narrow river channel that could so easily be shut down. Within a few years after the sinking of the Houghton, construction began on a second channel around the west side of Neebish Island. Once the West Neebish Channel had been hewn through the solid rock between the island and the mainland, it became the downbound route, while the Middle Neebish Channel was limited to upbound traffic.21

In 1901, the Houghton and the other Bessemer vessels passed into the Pittsburgh fleet. Nine years later, she was reboilered and one of her two stacks was removed.22 In the summer of 1945, both the Houghton and her nemesis, the Fritz, were sold to the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company, the predecessor of today’s Upper Lakes Shipping, and the two ships were registered as part of the Canadian fleet. They served their new owners for twenty-three years, making hundreds of trips through the St. Marys River, where the career of the Houghton had almost come to an end so many years earlier.

The Houghton and her barge were laid-up at Toronto in 1967, replaced by newer vessels with greater carrying capacities. In 1969, the Houghton’s cabins were removed and her hull was filled with stone and sunk to form a breakwater at Ontario Place, a government park. The Fritz and her twin sister, the barge John A. Roebling, had met the same fate the prior year. An observation platform now stands atop the Houghton’s forecastle, and her name is still visible on her bow.23 To the crewmembers aboard the hundreds of ships that pass Ontario Place each year, she is a reminder of a long and proud era in the history of shipping on the Great Lakes.

Many people view the years of the launching of the Morse and Houghton, 1898 and 1899, as representing a major watershed in the history of the bulk freight industry. Prior to that time, ships were substantially unloaded by hand. Mechanical systems like the Brown Hoist had helped to speed up the process, but down in the holds of the freighters, buckets and barrels were still filled by sweaty laborers wielding shovels.

In 1898, most of the manual labor was eliminated when a Brown Hoist at Conneaut, Ohio, was fitted with a clamshell bucket designed by Hoover and Mason Company of Chicago. Lowered into the hold of a ship in the open position, the jaws would automatically close and scoop up cargo as the bucket was hoisted. Each clamshell bucket had a capacity of about five tons of cargo per bite. By using twelve hoists with clamshell buckets, the dock at Conneaut could unload ships at an average rate of about nine hundred tons an hour, meaning that the largest vessels on the lakes, ships like the Morse and Houghton, could be completely unloaded during a single eight-hour shift.

As ports around the lakes scrambled to install clamshell buckets on their hoists, a very different type of unloader was introduced in 1899 that totally revolutionized the unloading of bulk cargoes. Within a few years, the remarkably efficient “Hulett” made all other unloading systems obsolete.

George Hulett was an eccentric genius who wore baggy clothes and always seemed to have a wet plug of tobacco in his cheek. In 1899, he demonstrated a new type of unloader at the docks at Conneaut which was just as strange in appearance as he was. The Hulett unloader used a clamshell bucket, but it was attached to the end of a long steel arm, rather than being suspended from cables. The top of the arm was connected to a horizontal rocker arm that, in turn, was connected to the top of a movable platform housing a large hopper. Together, the system looked like a massive prehistoric beast.

Rather than being controlled by someone stationed on the dock, the Hulett steam-powered unloader featured an operator who rode in a cab mounted just above the bucket. From his vantage point, the operator would lower the arm into the hold of a ship and take a ten-ton bite of cargo. As the arm was raised out of the hold, it would automatically pivot toward the top of the platform on the dock until the bucket was stationed directly over the hopper. The operator would then open the jaws of the bucket and the cargo would drop into the hopper, from which chutes would carry it to waiting rail cars. Because the operator rode into the hold atop the bucket, the unloading system was about twice as fast as the hoists and did a better job of cleaning a ship’s hold than any of the other equipment then in use.

Many of those who had gathered to watch the demonstration at the Carnegie Steel dock in Conneaut doubted that George Hulett’s odd-looking contraption would work at all. They stood in stunned silence as they watched it take bite after bite of ore from the hold of the ship. They knew that what they were seeing was a glimpse into the future of their industry. The Carnegie Steel officials wasted no time in contracting with Hulett to have three of the new machines installed at their dock. They went into operation during the 1899 season, and a fourth was added in 1901, by which time dock officials at Cleveland and Erie had also placed orders for Hulett unloaders.24

George Hulett continually improved his unloaders. Starting in about 1911, he began producing electrically-driven Huletts with a bucket capacity of seventeen tons. Twenty-ton capacity Huletts were eventually installed at a number of ports, though the seventeen-ton electric model was always the backbone of the industry. In 1925, William Livingstone, long-time president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, wrote that, “the thing which in my judgement most influenced the change in type and size of the bulk freighters on the lakes came about through the invention of the Hulett unloader . . . .”25 George Hulett, the unlikely inventor, profoundly altered the course of the Great Lakes shipping industry. In time, even the ships would be changed so that they would better conform to the capabilities of the unloading machines.

A drawing of...

A drawing of a typical Hulett unloader, first demonstrated in 1898. The arm of the unloader can be lowered into the hold of a ship by the operator, who rides in a tiny cab just above the clamshell bucket. The ore, coal, or stone scooped out of the ship’s hold can then be dropped into railcars positioned under the unloading rig. (Author’s collection)

Notes

  1.  “She Did Not Slide,” Bay City Times, July 31, 1898.

  2.  “She Slid Sunday,” Bay City Times, August 1, 1898.

  3.  “She Did Not Slide.”

  4.  J. B. Mansfield, ed., History of the Great Lakes, vol. I (Chicago: J. H. Beers and Co., 1899; reprint, Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1972), 414.

  5.  “She Did Not Slide.”

  6.  Ship Biography, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University.

  7.  Mansfield, 453.v

  8.  Gordon Pritchard Bugbee, “The Life and Times of the Bessemer Fleet, Part 2,” Telescope 27, no. 3 (May-June 1978): 73.

  9.  Ship Biography, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University.

10.  “Houghton is Wreck,” Detroit Free Press, September 6, 1896.

11.  “Navigation Situation Appalling,” Detroit Free Press, September 7, 1899.

12.  Ibid.

13.  “Two Hundred Vessels,” Detroit Free Press, September 10, 1899.

14.  “Navigation Situation Appalling.”

15.  Ibid.

16.  “Pumps Have Started,” Detroit Free Press, September 8, 1899.

17.  “Two Hundred Vessels.”

18.  “Dynamite,” Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1899.

19.  Ibid.

20.  “Rush Last Night,” Detroit Free Press, September 13, 1899.

21.  Bugbee, 73.

22.  The second stack on the Morse was also removed early in her career, probably when she had new boilers installed in 1903.

23.  Rev. Peter Van Der Linden, ed., Great Lakes Ships We Remember II (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1984), 147.

24.  James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1973), 178.

25.  Harlan Hatcher, Lake Erie (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945), 326.

  1.  “She Did Not Slide,” Bay City Times, July 31, 1898.

10.  “Houghton is Wreck,” Detroit Free Press, September 6, 1896.

11.  “Navigation Situation Appalling,” Detroit Free Press, September 7, 1899.

12.  Ibid.

13.  “Two Hundred Vessels,” Detroit Free Press, September 10, 1899.

14.  “Navigation Situation Appalling.”

15.  Ibid.

16.  “Pumps Have Started,” Detroit Free Press, September 8, 1899.

17.  “Two Hundred Vessels.”

18.  “Dynamite,” Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1899.

19.  Ibid.

  2.  “She Slid Sunday,” Bay City Times, August 1, 1898.

20.  “Rush Last Night,” Detroit Free Press, September 13, 1899.

21.  Bugbee, 73.

22.  The second stack on the Morse was also removed early in her career, probably when she had new boilers installed in 1903.

23.  Rev. Peter Van Der Linden, ed., Great Lakes Ships We Remember II (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1984), 147.

24.  James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1973), 178.

25.  Harlan Hatcher, Lake Erie (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945), 326.

  3.  “She Did Not Slide.”

  4.  J. B. Mansfield, ed., History of the Great Lakes, vol. I (Chicago: J. H. Beers and Co., 1899; reprint, Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1972), 414.

  5.  “She Did Not Slide.”

  6.  Ship Biography, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University.

  7.  Mansfield, 453.v

  8.  Gordon Pritchard Bugbee, “The Life and Times of the Bessemer Fleet, Part 2,” Telescope 27, no. 3 (May-June 1978): 73.

  9.  Ship Biography, Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University.

Previous Chapter

10. A Superior Freighter

Next Chapter

12. Quad Queens

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814343371
MARC Record
OCLC
1056021956
Pages
78-83
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-08
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.