The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Richard A. Belford
Steamboat races on the Great Lakes have been few and far between. In fact, there never has been anything like the golden days of racing that Mark Twain told us about in his stories of life on the Mississippi.
Probably the only race that most of us can recall is the one between the Tashmoo and the City of Erie but don’t think there haven’t been a few such contests on the Lakes. They have been unofficial races with no publicity and no watching crowds. For the most part they were viewed only by the crews who participated in them and most were spur of the moment actions that were sparked by situations and fired by clashes of personalities.
The first time I was in a race was back in the twenties. We were going up the Soo River on the lower side of the locks, aboard the Amasa Stone. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and the air crisp and clear. Halfway through the watch I stepped up to the after gangway to have a look around.
To my surprise, just a little behind us off to starboard I saw a big steamer which seemed to be overtaking us. I gave her a second look. She was the big whaleback Alexander McDougall! She was towing a barge and the black smoke was pouring out of her stack as though she was in an awful hurry.
“I’d better tell the engineer,” I said to myself and turned to go into the engineroom doorway. Just then the chief engineer came tearing down the stairway from his room above. He brushed past me and charged down the steps into the engineroom. I followed him on the double.
“That damn fool is trying to run around us!” he shouted to the first assistant engineer. “He is pulling a barge, too! We gotta stop him! Now!”
“You, boy,” he called to me, “get out there into the firehold and tell those firemen to keep their steam up. We’re going to need every ounce they got!”
As I disappeared down the stairs into the crank room on the way to the firehold, I saw the engineers kneeling before the valve gear tightening the action of the eccentrics. Already the piston rods were picking up speed and a more powerful throb filled the hot air of the engineroom.
As I opened the door between the crank room and the firehold and stepped down onto the catwalk between the boilers, I was greeted by the most sulfurous smell a firehold can produce. My nose told me at once that the firemen were cleaning their fires. I poked my head cautiously out between the boiler fronts. Big Joe was raking the clinkers out of the second door from me. I waved my hand to catch his eye. He saw me and nodded. “Chief says to keep the steam high,” I shouted. “We got a race on!”
Joe’s face turned white. He dropped his fire rake and stared at me as though I were a ghost. For a moment he stood motionless as a statue. Then, suddenly, as though shaken by some great inner emotion, he sprang violently into action. “Gus,” he shouted to his partner, “do you hear that? It’s a race! Give her hell, boy!”
I turned to go back to the engineroom. “Tell the chief we’ll give her all we got,” he called after me.
As I hurried along the inky black passageway between the boilers, I could hear the draft fan droning high above me, its sound punctuated by the clang of slice bars, the scraping of shovels and the thud of coal as it tumbled out of the bunker onto the steel floor plates of the firehold. The air reeked with the pungent smell of sulfur and the gritty grime of coal dust.
The whole picture changed as if by magic as I stepped into the engineroom. The walls were white and clean. The whole area was well-lighted and the stifling, pungent smell of coal and soot was replaced with the more agreeable odor of oil and hot metal. The cranks in their pit were revolving at a tremendous rate and the whole frame of the big engine vibrated with the increased action. Up a flight of stairs and into the main engineroom I found the chief standing before the gauges, his gaze riveted on the needle of the steam indicator. His displeasure of its present position was confirmed by a scowl that covered his face.
I wanted to rush up to the gangway to see how we were doing but under the eagle eye of the chief I didn’ dare. “Mind your water!” the chief cautioned. “That starboard boiler is too high.”
I hurriedly adjusted the water levels so the boilers would steam better. Ten minutes later the hand on the steam gauge indicated an increased pressure, a fact which was confirmed by the reassuring beat of the engine.
“I’m going to have a looksee,” the chief said to the first assistant and started up the stairs to the fantail.
The first was a good sport. “Go up and have a look for me,” he said with a wink. “I’d like to know how we’re doing, too.”
I hurried up the stairs and was about to glance out of a porthole when I heard a roar of laughter from the fantail. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” the chief chortled. “They’ve given up and are pulling back. They should’ve known better than to try something like that, ‘specially when they’re pulling a barge. He’s got a big engine and all that but it’s not that much faster than we are. Ho! Ho! That’s a good one.”
Frankly, I was disappointed. I had hoped that we were going to have some real excitement-but this was not the time. It was good for a starter but I had to wait a couple of months before we got into a real race with a photo finish.
It came like a thief in the night. It was a beautiful moonlit evening. We were just to the west of the Apostle Islands and on a course for Allouez to pick up a cargo of iron ore. I came off the six to twelve watch at midnight and stopped for a moment on the fantail to get a breath of fresh air. The moon was full and high in the southern sky, turning the ripples of a smooth Lake into a pathway of silver. Off to my right, perhaps a mile away and slightly ahead of us, steamed another freighter, her lights winking cheerily. As I watched, her firemen began stoking their fires and a black ribbon of smoke issued from her stack. The sooty smoke drifted back over the moonlit water, smudging the seascape I had been admiring only a moment before.
It was beautiful while it lasted, I reflected, as I went to my room. It had been a good watch and I had worked hard. Now I was tired. I undressed, climbed into my bunk and was asleep in a few minutes time.
Lulled by the vibrations of the engine, I did not waken when the beat began to quicken. Others had also observed the black smoke streaming behind the freighter and had interpreted it as a challenge. There was an exchange of phone conversation between our bridge and engineroom. The first assistant tightened his valve gear and sent his oiler to the firehold with the message to “keep ‘em bright.” The droning sound of the draft fan was increased to a roar! The whole engineroom was suddenly electrified! Piston rods flashed like lightning in and out of cylinders. Cranks whirled in their pit, a blur of whirling steel. Even the feed pump, which usually stroked at a methodical pace, quickened its step to fall into the line of march. Auxiliary machines, such as the refrigerator engine and the dynamo, seemed to join in with the rhythm of their fellows.
Of course, the increased vibration of all this activity awakened the chief. Realizing that something out of the ordinary was happening, he pulled on his trousers and hurriedly descended to the engineroom. Naturally, the chief would awaken to such commotion. He was a light sleeper and his cabin was directly above the engineroom. (I was only twenty feet away from the heart of all this noisy activity but I continued to sleep! If I had known what was going on, I would have been wide awake in a second but the arms of Morpheus had me locked in their grip.)
As I slept peacefully on, the fever pitch of the race swept over the whole vessel. Every wide-awake member of the crew had his eyes fastened on our adversary. The sun rose on the two steamers streaking their way across the Lake, their stacks spewing out ebony clouds of rolling smoke, and both heading toward the entrance of the Allouez breakwater with only a few miles left to go.
What happened after that is difficult to piece together as the watch wasn’t called till we were inside the breakwater and the only story I got was put together from bits and pieces of conversation of those who witnessed the climax of the race.
I was about halfway through my breakfast when shipmate Jerry came into the dining room just fresh from his watch. He chuckled as he seated himself and began with a broad grin, “We sure had the old girl roarin’ last night. Ye shoulda seen her go. She was running like a scared rabbit. I couldn’t grab a crosshead all watch -they were goin’ that fast. I guess we showed ‘em!”
I was mystified and just about to ask Jerry what it was all about when the door opened and the first mate entered the room.
“Here comes the conquering hero!” the steward called out as he caught sight of the first officer. “Man, Oh, man! I never saw anyone dress down a-skipper and his mate as well as you did. An’ they deserved every word you told ‘em. They sure had a hell of a nerve trying to cut you out when you were already entering the harbor. What kind of seamanship was that when they all but stove a man’s boat in when they had no right to be there in the first place. An’ you told ‘em so, an’ ye did it like a real hero. I congratulate you!”
The mate, ordinarily a very quiet man, flushed and stared down at his plate. Just then, the chief came in and the mate smiled and waved toward him. “There’s the one who really won the race. He got us there first and I wasn’t going to let those guys bluff their way to the dock ahead of us.”
Then, everyone in the dining room began to talk at once. I could only listen in bewilderment. My ears simply could not believe the things I was hearing. We had run a race of races. We had won in a photo finish and might have lost even then if our mate had not shouted his way right up to the finish line!
So that was the way it went. I had been real keen about taking part in a race and then when the time came, I blew it: I went to sleep and slept clear through the whole thing! As far as I know, that was the last race that ever took place on the Lakes and that was forty-four years ago.
Now, I understand, the word racing is an unclean noun. It is unlawful, illegal and tremendously frowned on by the front office. Well, after all, the two little scrapes I mention weren’t really races. They were instances in which we speeded up our engines to avoid the embarrassment of getting stepped on – not really races after all!