Lake Superior Memories – Summer 1980


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

By Dorothy Olcott Elsmith

A turn of the century Duluth girlhood was propitiously timed. The midcentury fur trading Fond du lac, Head of the Lake, had burgeoned into the Zenity City of the Unsalted Seas, with its Lyceum Theatre, Spalding Hotel, Opera House and Bowery. The Union Station was an architectural gem, astonishingly designed in French Provincial style by eastern architects, and today salvaged as a Train Museum.

Stepping up the steep hillsides from the waters of Lake Superior, the city had expanded in ten years from a population of 18,000 in 1885 to 20,000. The initiative of the pioneer spirit had articulated into the energy of free enterprise, unfettered by any Interstate Commerce Rulings, Income Taxes, or even Labor Unions. I remember one time when Hattie Flannigan, a spirited organizer for the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) breezed in to incite the workers at the ore docks. But she was unsuccessful and breezed out again.

Minnesota Point, a long sandbar, extends from Duluth across to Superior, Wisconsin, providing an excellent harbor for a middle-of-a-continent port. This was an exciting era to grow up in. J. J. Hill was stretching his railroad into the West. The Weyerhausers were cutting timber in the virgin forests of the North. Grain was pouring in from the Dakotas, stored for shipment in huge concrete Peavy Elevators at the water’s edge. Rusty red fingers of ore docks reached out into deep water. Long trains of raw iron ore from the great Mesabi Range rumbled down to discharge their heavy cargoes into the deep holds of waiting freighters. Companies could be identified by their different smokestacks: Cleveland-Cliffs, Pickands Mather, U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh Steamship, and others.

Image of William J. Olcott take in1883 for the University of Michigan Football team.

The life career of my father, William J. Olcott, was involved in mining and railroading operations of this area. His positions were held first under the Rockefeller interests; and later, these were amalgamated at the turn of the century with the U.S. Steel Corporation, which he served for forty years. He rose to the presidency of the Oliver Mining Company and that of the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad. One of the freighters bore his name.

Invited to name another, he chose to honor Charles R. Van Hise, President of the University of Wisconsin. As his daughter, I, Dorothy, still remember the exciting moment, drawing back the bottle of champagne on its white ribbons, letting it fly, and exclaiming “I christen thee the Charles R. Van Hise,” as the keel slid off the ways into the water. Dorothy was nine years old!

A photograph shows a sturdy young girl in a long-sleeved, high-necked, starched white piqué dress, wearing a floppy Leghorn hat trimmed with ribbon bows and daisies. Her shoes are high-buttoned, her stockings long black cotton. Her arms are filled with a dozen American Beauty roses, tied in a wide red bow-her first flowers from a gentleman, Fred Wovin, ten-year-old son of the president of the company!

Another event, at eighteen, stands out in grim contrast. The peak of Duluth’s social season was the Charity Ball, a benefit for the Children’s Home. It was held each year in the top floor ballroom of the Spalding Hotel, shortly before Thanksgiving. This November brought one of those stormy, blizzardy, freezing nights that herald Duluth’s long, rigorous winters.

The ballroom looked out over Lake Superior to a narrow channel, marked by concrete piers, into the harbor. In the midst of our gaity, suddenly the music stopped! Everyone rushed to the windows. Search lights were playing on a freighter, the Mataafa, lying broadside along the shore, swamped with breaking waves and blinding snow. She had failed to make the narrow entrance to safety. A breeches buoy firing from the shore was unable to reach the ship. We stood there in our evening gowns, paralyzed by the horrifying spectacle. Of course, all our partners in their Tuxedos dashed from the dance floor to try to lend a “helpless” hand. We watched men of the crew struggling to make way from stern to higher bow, one after another swept overboard! Some had taken refuge in the funnels where they froze to death.

Before morning daylight the Mataafa had broken up, a wreck still counted as one of the worst disasters at the head of the Lakes.

A kinder memory recalls those incredible trips down the Great Lakes, a courtesy extended through father’s position. My first was aboard the John W. Gates (no relation) in 1903 when I was twelve, along with three of my contemporaries, under my grandmother’s chaperonage. Later, during the teenage years, we made up our own group of ten or a dozen invited guests, and even specified the time-the August full moon.

CHARLES R. VAN HISE. Image from Bowling Green State University archive.

Certain boats became our favorites: the T. F. Cole, the J. P. Morgan, the Harvard, the Shenango. Never, however, the William J. Olcott or the Charles R. Van Hise, as neither was outfitted for guests.

The accommodations on these 600-foot private yachts were palatial-half a dozen staterooms, not cabins, at the bow, with brass beds, not bunks, windows, not portholes. A glassed observation lounge ran across the front, below the captain’s quarters. The pilothouse stood at the top where we were always welcome. The lounge was furnished with wicker furniture, card tables, books, games, and a horned Victor Talking Machine with an assortment of latest records: the Prince of Pilsen, the Red Mill, Caruso and Scotti and Madame Melba.

Dining room and kitchen ran the width of the ship, with a hatch between to our quarters. Two stewards fed us all too well; our only exercise was jumping rope, playing quoits, or walking six times around the deck to make a mile. Above the intervening hatch hung an awning, the carpet below was laid down on the steel plates. This was our relaxing area, lounging in a hammock or steamer chair, reading, sewing, playing cards, or watching the passing scene and the sea gulls. Our yachting costumes were fetching-ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirtwaists, popular Peter Thompson sailor suits, and fancy wide straw hats against the sun.

The round trip took eight days-four going down, loaded deep into the water, one day unloading at a Lake Erie port, Conneaut, Ashtabula or Erie, and three days return riding high and light. Those remarkable Hulett cranes worked day and night hoisting their buckets of ore from the depth of the hold. Meantime, passengers were being entertained by officers of the company at Cleveland’s Country Club. It was fun on the down trip to jump the deck as we drew level to the upper locks, to run the rapids between the American and Canadian sides. Indian canoe men steered us skillfully down the fast white water, just in time to jump aboard as our boat was now lowered to the level of the St. Mary’s River.

One trip afforded a different kind of excitement. We awoke one night aground in a fog below Detroit. We were awakened and ordered into two lifeboats, leaving all our belongings behind! They deposited us on the shore where, as day broke we managed to find a train to the Sault. How sad we were to desert our loved yacht and leave her to her fate. In an hour or so our boat put in an appearance, coming in slowly under her own steam. We climbed thankfully aboard. Though somewhat damaged and long delayed we made the last lap, the length of Lake Superior, to home port. Concern for our captain and a possible penalty were later dissipated.

Time was money in loading and unloading these freighters and their valuable cargoes. Passengers had to be ready to leave on short notice. The phone call from the ore docks would allow us maybe only an hour or so, often in the middle of the night, to make the six miles to the west end. It was an eerie feeling walking single file along the narrow three-plank trestle between the interlaced wooden girders on either side. Passengers had to climb down one ladder to the water level of the boat, and then up another ladder to the deck. Here was pandemonium-ore trains rumbling on the tracks above, iron ore shooting down into the hold, winches closing the hatches, lights flashing, officers calling orders! What a relief to get safely aboard and sort ourselves out in the luxurious accommodations.

Once at sea, the ship was ours from pilothouse to propeller. Passing under the Aerial Bridge out into the Lake, captains would blow a courtesy salute when passing our house at 23rd Avenue East, and First Street. Mother, an unenthusiastic sailor, would appear on an upper balcony waving a sheet. She was secretly thankful, I imagine, not to be aboard. Father loved the water but could seldom break away during the summer shipping season. My sporting grandmother, however, was always ready to join us.

These were truly halcyon, fantastic, unrepeatable days, even if hindsight seems to label them pure, if pleasant, graft!

What a comedown, twenty-five years later, on return from a sentimental journey back to loved Duluth, to have to descend to the rank of a mere tourist aboard the SS Tionesta!

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About the Author: Professing to special concerns regarding travel, gardening, church and community activities, the author of the above article has added “writing”, and in 1961 published an autobiographical compilation, “From Log House to Glass House, a Chronicle of Seven Decades,” which includes many nostalgic memories of her life bordering Lake Superior. Born in Bessemer, Michigan, Dorothy Olcott moved with her family to Duluth, Minnesota, in 1894. She graduated from Duluth Central High School, and four years later from Smith College. A master’s degree was subsequently earned at Columbia University.

Later, following marriage, five children, twenty-one grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren were added to her life interests. Woods Hole, Massachusetts, became a summer home and later, her year-round residence where she now resides. Mrs. Elsmith is a Contributing Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, and this is her first contribution to Inland Seas®.


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