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Interlake’s Fancy DeLancey

Many cultures celebrate spring as a time of rebirth and renewal. Nowhere is that more true than within the Great Lakes shipping industry. As mother nature gives up her icy grip on the shipping lanes, scores of merchant seamen begin to arrive at ports around the lakes where their ships have lain idle through the long winter months. Shutters are removed from the pilothouses, fires are started in the boilers, massive diesel engines are lit off, huge stores of groceries and supplies are brought aboard and stowed, and, in a matter of days, mooring lines are cast off and vessels steam out onto the lakes to begin another shipping season. The appearance of the first freighters on the lakes signals the beginning of spring just as regularly as the blooming of the first crocuses and tulips.


Queen of the Lakes
April 25, 1981 to the Present

The spring of 1981 was a particularly joyous time for employees of Pickands Mather and the Interlake Steamship Company. On April 25, 1981, company officials who had been dispatched to ports around the lakes during the previous weeks to oversee fitout of the Interlake fleet gathered at American Ship Building in Lorain, Ohio, to participate in the launching and christening of a grand new vessel. Named the William J. DeLancey in honor of the president of LTV Steel—the nation’s second largest steel manufacturer and the Cleveland-based fleet’s most important customer—the mammoth new ship was the third thousand-footer to fly the Interlake house flag. It was more than just another “footer,” however. Stretched to six inches over 1,013 feet in overall length by her designers and builders, the DeLancey was the longest ship on the lakes. With her official addition to commerce on the lakes, the majestic Interlake freighter displaced the Barker, the Mesabi Miner, and the other 1,004-foot ships as the newest Queen of the Lakes. As her throbbing 17,120-horsepower diesels moved the big ship past the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor at Lorain and out onto Lake Erie, she fell heir to a title that had over the years been held by some of the finest ships ever to operate on the inland seas.

None of the thirteen thousand-footers that were in operation on the lakes by the end of the 1981 season could be considered “ordinary,” but by any standards the DeLancey was an extraordinary vessel. While the economics of shipbuilding in the 1970s and 1980s dictated that most of the thousand-footers were strictly utilitarian, no-frills ships, Interlake had spared no expense on the DeLancey. Its splendid outfitting achieved a level of luxuriousness that had not been seen on the lakes since the early years of the twentieth century. The unique ship had been built to serve as the “passenger boat” for the Interlake fleet. Each season, the company’s most important business customers would be wined and dined in the DeLancey’s elaborate passenger quarters as they enjoyed a trip on the lakes. Passenger quarters of some sort are found on most freighters, but none could compare with the elaborate accommodations on the new Interlake vessel. And the extraordinary luxuriousness of the accommodations on the DeLancey did not begin and end in the passenger quarters, either, which is commonly the case. The decor of the crew quarters, dining and mess rooms, and even the work spaces on the ship reflect a level of luxury that cannot be found aboard any other modern freighter. In fact, it is questionable whether any freighter on the lakes can tout accommodations as fine as those found aboard the William J. DeLancey. In short order, the new ship was nicknamed the “Fancy DeLancey’” by the sailors who served aboard it.

Interlake Steamship’s...

Interlake Steamship’s William J. DeLancey in its fitting-out berth at American Ship Building in Lorain, Ohio, just prior to departing on its maiden voyage in 1981. Although the 1,013-foot freighter’s name was changed to the Paul R. Tregurtha in 1990, the ship reigns yet today as the Queen of the Lakes. To the right of the DeLancey is an empty drydock. Along its bottom are the stout wooden blocks that ships rest on when in the drydock. (Author’s collection)

The ship’s elegance did not detract in any way from its primary mission, however. Above all else, the DeLancey was designed to haul iron ore, and in that respect it was the equal of any ship operating on the lakes. Built six feet deeper than the Barker or Miner, the DeLancey could carry 68,000 tons of iron ore at maximum midsummer draft. The ship was specifically designed to haul ore for LTV Steel from loading docks on Lake Superior to the LTV mill at Indiana Harbor, Indiana, or the company’s transshipment terminal at Lorain, Ohio, just a few hundred feet downstream from where the Interlake freighter had been built. From Lorain, the ore was then shipped aboard smaller, river-class vessels to Cleveland and up the Cuyahoga River to LTV mills that could not be served by thousand-footers.

LTV was the successor to Republic Steel, formed by the merger of Republic and several other major steel producers. Interlake had been carrying ore for Republic and LTV for a decade, since wresting the contract from Cleveland-Cliffs. Several other shipping companies also shared in the LTV contract, including Columbia Transportation, which had just built their thousand-footer, the Columbia Star, to operate in the same service as the DeLancey. The naming of their grand new freighter after William J. DeLancey, the president of LTV, reflected the importance of the LTV contract to Interlake, and was a means by which the shipping company hoped to further solidify the relationship with their best customer.

The DeLancey joined a U.S. fleet that totalled 151 ships, with a combined single-trip carrying capacity of just over three million tons. While tonnages in that 1981 season lagged behind the record volumes moved in 1978 and 1979, almost 75 million tons of iron ore moved that season, along with more than 39 million tons of coal, 28 million tons of grain, and 24 million tons of stone, for total shipments of 175,811,959 tons.1

While the tonnages hauled by the DeLancey and the other freighters in the U.S. fleet were fairly respectable, demand had dropped off dramatically in the late fall, and most vessels went to their layup berths in December. The soft U.S. economy, combined with record imports of foreign steel, began to have an impact on the country’s steel industry. The steel business was swiftly sliding into one of the worst recessions in its history, and it was dragging the Great Lakes shipping industry along with it.

After a reasonable season in 1981, tonnages plummeted in 1982. Iron ore shipments dropped from almost 75 million tons to only 38.5 million tons, while stone movements fell from 24.5 million tons to a mere 15 million tons. Total shipments on the lakes were down by almost thirty percent,2 reaching their lowest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fleets such as Interlake that were dependent on the ore and stone trades couldn’t find enough cargoes to keep their vessels busy, and many ships spent all or part of the season lying idle at docks around the lakes. The DeLancey provided company officials with one of the few bright spots in the 1982 season: it established a new cargo record by loading 63,007 gross tons of iron ore at Escanaba, Michigan.3

While tonnages recovered modestly during the 1983 season, they remained far below normal levels. The recession in the steel and shipping industries continued throughout the remaining years of the 1980s. It would have a profound and permanent effect on the Great Lakes shipping industry. By 1990, the U.S. fleet on the lakes had shrunk to only sixty-nine vessels, less than half the number that had existed when the DeLancey came out in 1981. Most of the ships that had disappeared from the scene had been sent to the shipbreakers as fleets struggled to reduce their excess tonnage and adapt to the changed nature of shipping on the lakes. A number of fleets had not survived the lean years of the 1980s. Cleveland-Cliffs abandoned its marine operations during the 1984 season after operating for more than 125 years. M. A. Hanna Company, another firm that dated back to the early years of the shipping industry, followed suit in 1985.4 In 1989, officials at Ford Motor Company decided to sell their Rouge Steel fleet, which had been operating on the lakes since 1924. The three Ford ships were purchased by Interlake, bringing the total size of that fleet to eleven vessels.5 Interlake officials felt that the downsizing of the industry, combined with their projections that modest increases in tonnages could be expected, represented an opportunity for them to enlarge their fleet and increase their share of the Great Lakes market.

Interlake itself had undergone a change in management during the turbulent years of the 1980s. Since 1973, Interlake and its parent, Pickands Mather, had been owned by Moore McCormack, an ocean shipping company based on the East Coast. Moore McCormack was headed by James R. Barker, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and a former employee of Pickands Mather’s marine department. Under Barker’s leadership, the James R. Barker, Mesabi Miner, and William J. DeLancey had been added to the Interlake fleet. Moore McCormack was staggered by the shipping recession of the 1980s, which had affected fleets on the oceans as well as those on the Great Lakes. After experiencing financial losses that threatened the survival of the company, members of the firm’s board of directors decided to abandon their shipping and mining interests on the Great Lakes. Pickands Mather, primarily involved in mining, was sold to Cleveland-Cliffs, uniting the two industry giants founded a century earlier by Samuel Mather. James R. Barker and a business partner, Paul R. Tregurtha, gained control of the Interlake fleet. Some say that Interlake was Barker’s “golden parachute,” a payoff for his years of service to Moore McCormack. But Interlake was saddled with heavy debt incurred as a result of construction of their three thousand-footers and conversion of several of their other ships to self-unloaders. With shipping on the Great Lakes far from healthy, many questioned whether Interlake could survive.

The massive twin...

The massive twin stack casings on today’s Queen of the Lakes are black with the familiar “Interlake orange” band. The actual exhaust stacks for the ship’s two diesel engines are located within the casings. (Author’s collection)

Barker brought his years of business acumen in the maritime industry to bear on the ailing fleet. He moved rapidly to secure government assistance to insure that Interlake would not fail. At the same time, he secured contract concessions from the union representing unlicensed seamen in the fleet and began to renegotiate contracts with some of the companies that Interlake hauled for. Although Interlake was still on an unstable footing when Ford’s three Rouge Steel ships were put up for sale in 1989, Barker and Tregurtha managed to put together a financial package that was acceptable to Ford management. With the three boats came a sizeable portion of the contract to carry iron ore, coal, and stone to Rouge Steel’s mill on the Rouge River at Detroit. That tonnage would keep the former Ford ships and several of the smaller Interlake vessels busy throughout the term of the contract.

The transition in ownership of Interlake was underscored when several ships in the fleet were renamed. The former William Clay Ford and Benson Ford became the Lee A. Tregurtha and Kaye E. Barker, respectively, in honor of the wives of Interlake’s two new owners. Jim Barker was already the namesake of Interlake’s first thousand-footer, and in 1990 Paul Tregurtha was similarly honored when the DeLancey was renamed the Paul R. Tregurtha. That renaming also reflected a significant change in the relationship between Interlake and LTV.

When the bottom fell out of the U.S. steel industry in the early 1980s, LTV suffered massive financial losses. After accumulating a critical amount of debt, the company sought protection from its creditors by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Interlake was only one of a flotilla of LTV creditors left high and dry by the bankruptcy. LTV’s actions made it unlikely that Interlake would collect more than pennies on the dollar for millions of dollars of shipments they had already hauled for LTV. The steelmaker further exacerbated the financial impact by abrogating the terms of their contract for iron ore shipments. LTV acted unilaterally to slash the contract rates for ore shipments virtually in half.

For fleets like Interlake that had built ships and incurred substantial amounts of debt based on their contracts with the steelmaker, the action by LTV represented a serious financial blow. In fact, the LTV bankruptcy and subsequent rate reductions were major factors in Moore McCormack’s decision to rid themselves of Interlake. Under different circumstances, Interlake and the other affected fleets might have merely walked away from their contracts with LTV. But the fleets were already struggling financially, and they needed the income from those contracts—no matter how badly slashed—to make their own mortgage payments and retain their economic viability. All of the fleets have managed to survive, but their relationships with LTV are clearly strained yet today, although LTV remains an important customer. The renaming of the William J. DeLancey was at least in part a reflection of the change in the relationship between Interlake and LTV.

Today, the Paul R. Tregurtha seldom calls at LTV facilities around the lakes. Interlake has placed the giant ship in the coal trade, and it operates mainly between the Superior Midwest Energy Terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, and Detroit Edison power plants on the St. Clair River. The magnificent ship has now been Queen of the Lakes for more than a decade. Only the Carl D. Bradley held the title for a longer period of time. The long tenure of the Interlake freighter is due in part to the lack of new construction in the Great Lakes industry. On the U.S. side of the system, no new ships have been added since 1982, and none is presently on the drawing boards.

When growths in cargo tonnages force one of the U.S. fleets to build a new ship, it is likely that the vessel will be longer than the present Queen of the Lakes. The Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie was built to handle ships up to a maximum of 1,000 feet in length, but with special transitting procedures, vessels up to 1,100 feet long can now be locked through. A safe bet would be that the next ship built on the lakes will be 1,100 feet long, with the same beam and depth as vessels like the Tregurtha. Such a vessel would have a substantially greater carrying capacity than today’s thousand-footers, and the prospect of the additional revenue it could generate would be necessary before any shipping company would incur the staggering cost of building a new freighter. While the James R. Barker and Mesabi Miner cost just over $40 million in the mid-1970s, costs had escalated to more than $60 million by the time the DeLancey was launched in 1981. It is estimated that it would cost about $130 million to build a similar ship today.6 Today’s economic conditions don’t justify that sort of investment. Until cargo tonnages increase and the profitability of Great Lakes shipping companies improves, the Paul R. Tregurtha will continue its long reign as Queen of the Lakes.


  1.  1981 Annual Report (Cleveland: Lake Carriers’ Association, 1982), 21.

  2.  1982 Annual Report (Cleveland: Lake Carriers’ Association, 1983), 18.

  3.  Ibid., 34.

  4.  Hanna was forced to continue operating their thousand-footer, the George A. Stinson, when they were unable to find a buyer for the 1978-built freighter.

  5.  Two of the ships, the Samuel Mather—the former Henry Ford II—and the John Sherwin, were no longer viable freighters and have remained layed-up. Should tonnages under contract to Interlake increase, company officials have expressed their intention of converting the straight-decker Sherwin to a self-unloader and placing it back in service.

  6.  Jack Storey, “New Vessels Coming, But Not Tomorrow,” Evening News, June 3, 1990.

  1.  1981 Annual Report (Cleveland: Lake Carriers’ Association, 1982), 21.

  2.  1982 Annual Report (Cleveland: Lake Carriers’ Association, 1983), 18.

  3.  Ibid., 34.

  4.  Hanna was forced to continue operating their thousand-footer, the George A. Stinson, when they were unable to find a buyer for the 1978-built freighter.

  5.  Two of the ships, the Samuel Mather—the former Henry Ford II—and the John Sherwin, were no longer viable freighters and have remained layed-up. Should tonnages under contract to Interlake increase, company officials have expressed their intention of converting the straight-decker Sherwin to a self-unloader and placing it back in service.

  6.  Jack Storey, “New Vessels Coming, But Not Tomorrow,” Evening News, June 3, 1990.

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