A Voyage into the Past on the J.T. WING – Winter 1952

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Joseph E. Johnston

The navigator beginning an ocean voyage must establish a point of departure before losing sight of land. That is if he wishes to make his destination with the maximum degree of accuracy and the minimum of effort. At noon of each following day a position is established, either by dead reckoning or by observations of celestial bodies. No matter how painstaking today’s observations and calculations may be, they are of little value except in their relationship to those of yesterday, and to the point of departure. For unless one knows whence he came, and the course and distance made good, it is extremely unlikely that he will be able to lay a true course towards his destination. The study of history may be considered in this manner, for unless we know what progress we have made, and in what direction, and at what cost, how can we plan our future?

Historical museums are not justified by the number of objects they collect, but by the story those objects are made to tell by properly relating them to other objects in the collection and to people and events of significance to human progress. The Museum of Great Lakes History at Detroit, Michigan has kept this in mind from the beginning. Since the schooner J. T. Wing was opened, four years ago, visitors to this unique institution may voyage into the past of shipping on these inland seas.

Creation of a dugout canoe, ca. 1590.

Let us take as a point of departure the era of the dugout canoe, on these waters, for it is there that the voyage begins. That era began so far back in time there is not even an Indian legend telling of it. Today it is hard to imagine the towering wall of timber that crowded close down to the water along every one of the 8,000 miles of shore line. There stood the raw materials for the building of the dugout canoe. The trunk of one tree served to make as large a boat as the Indian needed, or could propel, and one particularly suited to primitive men. No seams to leak, and considerable resistance to hard use and neglect, it served well in the open Lakes, with their rocky shores, and could be paddled along the lower reaches of most of the rivers. Whatever simple commerce there might have been was served by these, the earliest Lakes craft.

For navigating above the first obstructions in the rivers the dugout had disadvantages. It was too heavy to portage. This posed a problem to those who desired to travel in the hinterland. The Indian’s solution of this problem constitutes the naval architecture – the first engineered job in this field, and began a tradition. That tradition is one of special types for special purposes.

So good was the Indian’s design for the birch bark canoe that we are copying it to this day, regardless of what materials we use in its descendants. It was good on both lake and stream, and since the Indian’s way of life did not permit the ownership of more than one boat, the birch bark canoe became the prevailing type. In war and peace it was the best craft, and for nearly a hundred years after the coming of the white man it served Church, State, and whatever trade there was.

With La Salle came visions of empire, and ships to serve it. His Griffin, built in 1679, was adapted to the special needs of the times, rather than designed for them. Of Dutch design, she could skim over the uncharted rocks of the unknown shores and come in close to the shore to load where no wharves existed. A few years after her untimely end another type of boat appeared on the Great Lakes. Here, indeed, was a special type for a special need. Built of plank, laboriously whipsawed from the tree, these vessels were about 28 to 32 feet in length, with a long run of flat bottom, resembling what we know as a Cape Cod dory, but with a much wider transom. The flat bottom served a very special purpose. When overtaken by a storm, and unable to reach shelter, this boat was run out on the beach, the cargo removed to a point above wave damage, placed on rollers and hauled out.

Mackinaw Boats

Two masts carried what has since come to be called a schooner rig, and were so stepped against the after side of the thwarts as to be easily lowered when occasion demanded. There were two cockpits, one forward and one aft for the crew of two, who could, in a calm, propel the boat with oars. Between these two cockpits there was a decked-over section for cargo. The foot of the jib was attached to a large ring, or hoop, which could be rigged out to the end of the bowsprit when set, and hauled in for stowing, a very ingenious idea which made it unnecessary to climb out beyond the bow of the boat when taking in sail. From this early Lakes Craft several types have been developed. These became known by other names, but those which retained the rig described above, kept the name “Mackinaw boat,” regardless of what forms their hulls took. Since sailing craft usually are known by their rig it is not entirely incorrect to refer to any boat carrying the above rig, as a Mackinaw boat. The “Huron boat” now owned by the Museum of Great Lakes History carries such a rig.

For approximately two hundred years the Mackinaw rig was the most popular for work boats on the Upper Lakes. It was nearly a century, after they first appeared, until anything that might properly be called a ship was launched upon the Upper Lakes for commercial purposes. Small sloops appeared first and as early as 1785 one was navigating Lake Superior, but could hardly be called a ship since she was only 34 foot keel, 13 foot beam, and four feet deep. The schooner Nancy built at Detroit is generally thought to be the first commercial vessel built with the sole aim of commerce in view. Even she became a transport serving the garrison at Mackinac Island in the War of 1812. During that period there was much uncertainty as to the proper draft for Lakes vessels, and no special-purpose ships were built. Centerboards were being tried out, and later became very popular, even the largest vessels being fitted with them.

In one sense early Lakes steamers may be called special-purpose craft, since the demand of the times was for fast and dependable passenger service. But the next type that became a truly single-purpose boat was the lumber schooner. When lumber became the predominant cargo of the Lakes there were few improved harbors where the saw mills were located, so shallow-draft vessels were designed to navigate the shallow waters. In order to prevent excessive leeway in the open Lakes they were provided with centerboards. This feature, combined with their peculiar rig made the Great Lakes lumber schooner a distinct type.

Steam cut in on their monopoly of the lumber trade, and most of them ended their days in a tow behind some type of steam-powered vessel if they escaped being driven ashore in some gale. When iron ore became an important cargo there was an attempt to press the old wooden sailing ships into that trade, but they could not take the rough usage, especially at the loading docks, so again a new and special type had to be designed.


In 1882 the iron-hull Onoko was launched at Cleveland, and became the first of the long slender metal-hull ships of the type we know today as bulk carriers, all of which are special-purpose vessels. A prominent designer of these ships declares there is nothing more that science can do to improve them. All they can do is build them longer and longer.

Another special type of vessel that has come and gone on the Great Lakes without leaving a trace is the package freighter, which often was really a dual-purpose ship because of its passenger accommodations. This was the principal means of travel available to many communities before the railroad reached them. The design permitted loading and unloading through side ports by the use of hand trucks, a very economical method for small shipments of bags, boxes, and bales. What the spur line railroad did to the package freighter, the highway trucks did to the railroads. only the truck survived the fight.

In no other waters of the world can a ship wear itself out running between two ports, carrying only one type of cargo, and like its predecessors the bulk carrier of today is unique. So, from the birch bark canoe of the Indian to the leviathan of the Lakes in our day it has been one story with many variations. With a few boughs and a bit of bark (the materials at hand in his day) the Indian built his special-type boat. Not far from the open Lakes is another material which we dig up, melt, and roll into thin plates, for the building of a boat especially suited to our times. The magic of Hiawatha lives on in the building of the long ships of today, only after the manner of Tubal Cain. Once, of a summer night, from the decks of the schooner J. T. Wing. on the shore of the Detroit River:

I thought I saw old Tubal Cain, his smithy glowing bright,
Although it may have only been a passing steamer’s light.
I thought I heard his anvil ring, although I could not tell;
It may be that I only heard a passing steamer’s bell.
I sometimes wonder if the myths, we think are dead and gone,
Are still alive, and with us, and still are living on;
For down within each deep dark hold, of vessels passing by
Upon a star-lit summer night, there’s more than meets the eye.
The dark red earth we think of, asjust another ore,
Will meet with some strange alchemy, along the Erie shore;
And so instead of inert dust -if we but only try,
‘Tis either swords, or pruning hooks, that we see gliding by.

And so it is in the hold of the schooner J. T. Wing. There the attempt is made to turn objects into ideas, through the alchemy of logical sequence in arrangement, so that our “young men shall see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams.”

J.T. WING at Belle Isle -1955

In that section of the Museum which is called “The Story of Lakes Shipping” there is a series of models of Lakes craft; all built to one scale, and arranged in chronological sequence, beginning with the dugout canoe and ending with the modern bulk carrier. Either the careful reading of the labels, or a brief talk by a guide, will dramatize the display and the visitor will see the characters who have moved across the stage of time. Here is the Indian, silently threading the intricate water courses in his birch bark canoe; Father Marquette, smoothing the trail for civilization; the colorful traders and trappers, and the voyageurs, blazing trail for commerce; La Salle, the indomitable, driving his Griffin through the storm while his captain cringed in fear of the elements; Captain Job Fish, venturing out into the treacherous waters of Lake Erie, in a new and untried steamboat. The list is too long to give here, but to the visitor in the museum ship they spring to life and it becomes clear that there were giants in the land, and still are.

The exhibit of obsolete lighthouse equipment tells in a graphic manner how, by the use of prismatic lens the feeble rays of oil lamps were captured, reflected, and concentrated so as to be visible 20 miles, and timed in their flashing so as to set them apart from any other light in their vicinity.

The “Ship Bridge” shows how the navigator of a steam vessel controlled his ship; the collection of builders’ half-models tells the story of hull design; the working knots of seamen are shown without the confusion of difficult ornamental knots; authentic, contemporary oils and water colors show the famous old lakers as they were in their various periods. The St. Lawrence Seaway is treated in a manner which brings out its importance to this area. The “Language of the Lights,” a visitor­ operated exhibit, shows the lights required on various types of vessels as they appear at a distance in the dark.

There is a hobby case too, usually holding work by one or more members of the Great Lakes Model Shipbuilders’ Guild, and changed at frequent intervals. The Guild’s first Annual Exhibition, Summer 1952, brought together the largest fleet of fine models ever shown at one time in Detroit. Nearly 600 visitors to this show purchased their tickets in advance, and many others paid as they entered. By request the display was kept intact for one week and on the last day 1000 persons viewed them. This group of craftsmen augment the work of the Museum by volunteer work of all kinds, and the draftsmen among them are doing a big job of perfecting plans of old ships which come to light from time to time, and reducing in scale some of the very large drawings of current ships. The Museum and the Guild working together, hope to collect every possible drawing of Lakes vessels, past and present, so that coming generations will not find themselves in the unhappy position of having no sources of information on by gone Lakes ships.

A fine gesture was made by a local industrialist, Mr. Gust Hofer, President of the Huron Engineering Corporation. A huge anchor of the old wooden-stock type was raised from Lake St. Clair. The Museum needed such an anchor to complete its collection, but could not immediately raise the $250.00 asked. Mr. Hofer, hearing of the Museum’s plight, immediately sent his company’s check for the amount, and notified the Museum to pick it up.

Through such generosity the Museum of Great Lakes History grows. Although self-supporting as far as plant maintenance and the payment of salaries goes, no surplus has accumulated for such emergencies as the one met by Mr. Hofer. Serving the entire Great Lakes region it seeks exhibit materials from all sections, so that the story of the development of commercial shipping on these waters shall not perish.

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About the Author: Captain Johnston is a retired ocean shipmaster who is now in charge of the Museum of Great Lakes History, a branch of the Detroit Historical Museum.
(This article first appeared in Winter 1952)

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