The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Herbert W. Dosey
We were sitting on the dock in front of the tug office at Cleveland early last October when the subject came up. McNulty had just come in with the Iowa from a towing assignment and eased himself into a chair with the remark that things were very quiet in the harbor.
“Too quiet,” spoke Lambert, the marine surveyor, “nothing like the puffing and whistling of years ago with constant arrivals and departures, and ships moored two abreast along the congested wharves. If it wasn’t for those fellows,” he continued, nodding in the direction of a Dutch freighter across the river, “they could fill in this creek and pave it.”
“Aye, that they could, lads,” drawled bridgetender Moran as he knocked the embers from his pipe. “And mind ye now, I well remember the days when six to ten lumber carriers from the northern lakes would arrive in one day. And then there was the ore going up river to the furnaces and coal going out. Tankers arrived daily from Sarnia along with sand and limestone from the islands. I’ve seen days when we could hardly keep the bridges closed long enough to get the teams and drays across.”
While Moran filled his pipe I hastened to mention the stately package freighters that had played an important part in the shipping of bygone days. The Mutual Transit Company, Union Line, Western Transit, Anchor Line and others. All gone now but recalled with nostalgia by those who knew them.
At this juncture the staccato exhaust of a diesel engine became increasingly audible from around the lower bend and conversation was suspended pending identification of the approaching craft. The surveyor mumbled, “Fisherman,” through a stifled yawn, while McNulty wound his watch and squinted down river as a small sightseeing craft rounded the bend with a group of curious tourists seeking a glimpse into the maritime world. They pondered the huddled tugs at the wharf before us, stared inquiringly at the high-sided Dutch freighter across the channel, and then disappeared around the upper bend.
The ensuing silence was broken by Moran as he flicked pipe ashes from his knee, “Well, lads, ye’ve just seen the last of the passenger ships go by. Fancy that now. A boat load of gawkers is all that’s left of a proud fleet of passenger ships that used to steam to all parts of these lakes. There was the old City of Hamilton and the City of Montreal sailing out of here for Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence ports – let’s see, that was around 1908. Then there was the Eastland under Captain Phillips, Grant Donaldson was her chief. She had the most beautiful brace of engines ever to propel a ship. Quads they were, and high steppers. Then there was the old City of the Straits with the Fletcher-Harrison beam engine, making daily trips to the islands. Salem Robinson was her skipper and a gentleman sailor he was.”
“Tell me” queried the surveyor, “do you remember any of the old cross lake steamers? They say there were several.” “Yes,” I said, “The trim propeller Lakeside made daily trips to Rondeau prior to the First World War and the Forest City made daily trips over to Port Stanley. And every Monday at 4 P. M. the Huron departed for Georgian Bay and North Channel ports. She was later re-named the Colonial and used on the translake run to Port Stanley until succeeded by the St. Ignace. After a season on the Erie-Dover route she mysteriously burned off Dunkirk and was finally beached just east of that harbor. That was in the twenties.”
McNulty thought that judging from pictures he had seen, the Northwest and Northland must have been the most beautiful ships ever to sail the lakes. Mention of these two ships excited old Moran to such a degree that his pipe shot sparks. “Aye! lads,” he sputtered. “Those were the true liners of the lakes -greyhounds they were.”
“I am beginning to see,” said the surveyor, “that if YOU add the daily steamers from Detroit and Buffalo to those we have already named and include the former Anchor liners Octorara, Tionesta and Juniata, you have a most impressive array of ships arriving and departing from this port.”
“According to tales my old man used to tell,” offered McNulty, “they had traffic jams in this harbor long before they ever had them ashore, which is hard to realize when you look at it now.”
Moran placed his pipe upon the bench beside him and unfastened his jacket, for the sun was warm. We recognized this gesture as portending the delivery of a sage pronouncement, and so we waited.
“The days of passenger ships are gone,” he began, “the whole proud fleet of them has disappeared forever. You saw what just passed up the river -a boat load of sightseers looking for shipping, well they’re forty years too late – it’s gone, and they’re riding in the last passenger craft to enter this channel. There was a time when they could have seen a forest of spars and smoking funnels right from here. Well, all they’ll see will be a fetid river, rotting docks and grass. Grass, mind you, down in these flats where a blade never had a chance when I came to these parts. The automobile did it. Where they can’t drive, they won’t go and the beauty of these lakes will be denied them, more’s the pity.” The pipe was retrieved and relighted as we silently reflected upon these true utterances from the sage of the bridge. But there is a brighter side to this history, and I surrendered to an impelling urge to present a more cheerful picture.
“The passenger business is still flourishing,” I began, “and I have just recently enjoyed its services.”
“On the Lakes”? queried the surveyor.
“Yes,” I said. “Let me tell you about it. Last summer I drove to Niagara Falls -to Lewiston in fact, below the falls, and there I crossed the suspension bridge to Queenston in Canada and boarded the trim twin screw steel steamer Cayuga for passage to Toronto. This beautiful ship was acquired by a group of civic minded Toronto citizens on a share basis under the able direction of Alan Howard, and happy throngs are carried by her across Lake Ontario and through the lower Niagara River twice daily.
Departing before noon we steamed down the river for about eight miles between pastoral scenes along the banks -on past Youngstown and Old Fort Niagara to the vast expanse of Lake Ontario. A stiff northwest wind had rolled up quite a sea but the speedy Cayuga sliced right through in a most comfortable and reassuring manner. Unlike the old coal burners, the oil-fired boilers gave off no smoke to obstruct the view to leeward. As the hours passed the skyline of Toronto began to rise from the horizon and the reflected sun transformed the myriad windowed buildings into sparkling jeweled fairy castles. Toronto is an attractive city seen to the best advantage from an approaching ship’s deck.”
“That boat ride spared you driving all around the western end of Lake Ontario,” mused Surveyor Lambert as he arose to stretch, “and it’s not generally known that the largest building in the British Commonwealth, the 34 story Canadian Bank of Commerce, is in Toronto – but go ahead with your story.”
‘Well,” I continued, “upon closer approach the city stood out in greater detail and fellow passengers obligingly identified points of interest. Captain Strachan reduced speed as we entered the outer channel and threaded our way through the shipping in the inner bay, finally easing the 300-foot Cayuga into her berth without a quiver. I joined the throng going ashore and saw many autos coming off the freight deck.” “So the Cayuga is as busy as ever”? spoke Moran, and he seemed quite pleased. “Doing business as usual,” I assured him.
“The purser introduced me to President Howard in the dock office where I enjoyed genuine Canadian hospitality and learned all about the Cayuga Steamship Company. Someday I will give you the details but right now I prefer to get on with this yarn.”
“I’ll be shoving off soon to tow the Grand Island in,” spoke McNulty, “so heave ahead.”
“To me,” I continued, “a trip to Toronto would be incomplete without a visit with my friend Rowley Murphy, the prominent marine artist and historian. I went to his home and feasted my eyes upon many beautiful marine paintings done with such a true fidelity to detail that my critical seaman’s eye could find no flaw. And then I drove north – to Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay and my rendezvous with the beautiful Clyde-built Canadian Pacific liner Keewatin which was to carry me across Georgian Bay and northern Lake Huron, through the St. Marys river and finally across Lake Superior to Fort William on Thunder Bay.”
‘How many passengers were there”? queried Moran, and I thought that I detected a note of skepticism in his manner.
“About two hundred,” I reassured him. “Also forty automobiles on the main deck and 3,500 tons of mixed cargo in the hold.”
“Rather impressive,” ventured Lambert, “unless that trip was an exception.”
“On the contrary,” I replied, “that, according to Captain Ridd, was a comparatively light trip.”
Looking through the tug office window I observed the dispatcher at his desk within, and the increasing frequency of his glances at the clock upon the far wall led me to believe that Captain McNulty would soon be whistling off in the Iowa to assist the steamer Grand Island to her berth.
“We departed from Port McNicoll at four o’clock in the afternoon,” I continued, “having waited for the boat train from Toronto with passengers and mail. Captain Ridd quietly directed the wheelsman as we emerged from the harbor, made a left tum around the channel buoy and headed down the fiord between rocky, forested islands and headlands toward the broad expanse of Georgian Bay. On past Midland, Penetanguishene and the Giants Tomb we steamed, the stately Keewatin gliding along firmly and silently with only the slosh of the bow waves betraying her motion. The Western Islands emerged from the sea to starboard, then seemingly submerged as we dropped them astern at twilight.”
“Once you drop the land you can run into some wicked seas there,” offered Lambert reminiscently. “I remember a night in the old Caribou somewhere off Cape Croker when we pitched and rolled in a cross sea until my bones ached.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, “but this night was calm and placid and we ghosted along through the moonlit haze like the Flying Dutchman. And sometime during the night we met our sister ship Assiniboia homeward bound to Port McNicoll.
“Dawn found us breasting a ruffled sea in northern Lake Huron near Detour and the day was still young as we entered the St. Marys river for the long winding haul to the Canadian Soo. In Lake Munuscong we met the beautiful passenger ship North American with a comfortable crowd aboard enroute to Buffalo. Are you listening, Moran? We wended our way past the encampment, across Lake Nicolet and through the rock cut, and as we approached the Canadian Pacific wharf at the Soo I beheld the new steam packet Norgoma alongside. I told you about her weekly sailings out of Owen Sound under the command of Captain Robert W. Morrison. She carries mixed cargoes of merchandise too, consigned largely to North Channel ports.”
“How many passengers would you say she carried on a trip ?” queried McNulty as he arose with a glance at his watch.
“Well, it varies,” I recalled, “but the voyage I was aboard we carried 106.”
“We didn’t tarry at the Soo very long, but there was sufficient time for a short visit with my friend Gordon Macaulay, the well-known marine photographer. We passed through the Canadian lock in the afternoon and continued on to Whitefish Bay and Lake Superior. Most of the crossing was accomplished during the night. The lake was in an ugly mood too, causing the liner to roll a bit, but morning saw us in the lee of Isle Royale. The slanting rays of the rising sun bathed the Sleeping Giant in a warm glow and the towering cliffs of Thunder Cape stood out in bold relief. You fellows know the rest. We stood up the fairway into Thunder Bay, passed the Welcome Islands and entered the Kaministiquia river in the shadow of flat-topped Mount McKay, which seemingly stands guard over the city of Fort William where we disembarked.”
“And I guess you just ran out of passenger steamers too, didn’t you”? beamed Moran with his finger tamping the pipe.
“Certainly not,” I replied enthusiastically, “there is more to this yarn. My car was promptly set ashore and I drove over to Port Arthur and its large shipyard and next day I headed west over a scenic road toward Minnesota and the Iron Range. Brief stops at the Ely, Virginia and Hibbing iron mines were very rewarding and then I headed south to Duluth and over the Interstate bridge to Superior in Wisconsin.”
“Did you see any passenger steamers there?” asked Lambert mischievously.
“Nary a one,” I admitted, “but Duluth is a regular port of call for the Chicago, Duluth and Georgian Bay Transit Company, operators of the handsome steamers North American and South American. After visiting the ore shipping port of Ashland on Chequamegon Bay I drove south through Central Wisconsin and swung east to Milwaukee where I took passage aboard the Milwaukee Clipper for Muskegon. This fine passenger steamer is the former Juniata of Anchor Line fame and beautifully appointed. Observing that we had a full passenger list I inquired of Captain Hoxie what the occasion was.”
“Probably some lodge picnic,” murmured McNulty.
“Not at all,” I countered. “The captain informed me that they carried capacity loads every trip and there were then 600 passengers and 120 automobiles aboard. We departed late in the day and as we proceeded east across Lake Michigan the setting sun cut a sharp silhouette of the impressive Milwaukee skyline. Had we been approaching the harbor I could easily have fancied myself back aboard the Cayuga approaching Toronto.”
“You’ve certainly covered the waterfront,” spoke Moran. “Hear me out,” I demanded, “there’s more to this yarn.”
During the voyage to Muskegon the captain mentioned that his company was building another ship. “You mean that another ship is to be added to this run?” I asked, surprised.
“Oh! no,” he said smiling, “the new one will be placed on the Detroit and Cleveland route. You will see her when we arrive in Muskegon. We dock right next to the shipyard where she is being fitted.” We arrived at about midnight and as we eased toward the dock I glanced off to port and saw the outline of a graceful steel hull with the glow of the full moon upon it.
Another modern lake liner was taking shape and being readied to cut its wake in the history of our inland seas. And so I drove back here to Cleveland, concluding a circuit of the lakes by ship and motor vehicle. This came as quite a surprise to my friends who, like Moran, were of the opinion that passenger steamers had vanished from the Great Lakes.
About the Author: Mr. Dosey, Chairman of the Membership Committee and a trustee of GLHS wrote “Algoma Argosy” for INLAND SEAS, Spring 1954.