McDougall’s Dream: The Whaleback – Spring 1953

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

By George Barrington Mason

The whaleback will never be forgotten as long as men sail the inland seas, for it was so completely a Great Lakes product that for many years after it had become obsolete, the rest of the world generally believed it to be the prevailing type of lake cargo-carrier. By its unique and revolutionary design, it captured the popular fancy as perhaps no other ship except the American clipper has ever done.

In the whaleback’s construction the principal features which marked it as radically different from conventional ships were the almost cylindrical form of the hull, the pointed, conoidal bow and stern, and the turreted superstructure which allowed it to be loaded until the rounded deck was practically awash. The name “whaleback” was of course derived from this rounded deck, which curved down into the sides, suggesting the back of a partly-submerged whale, but the snout-like bow, with twin hawse pipes for nostrils, brought the whaleback steamer and its barges the unflattering nickname of “sow and pigs.”

Actually only forty vessels of the whaleback type were ever built on the Great Lakes, representing a very small percentage of the total contemporary fleet of about 800 freight-carriers in these waters, and in addition, three more whalebacks were launched at coast yards, and a whaleback steamer was built under contract at an English shipyard, to Captain McDougall’s designs.

Of the 40 lake-built vessels of this unique design, 15 were freight steamers, 24 were freight barges, and one, the noted passenger steamer Christopher Columbus. Two of the whalebacks built on the coast were barges and the other a steamer. None has been constructed since 1899, and only four whalebacks are still in existence.

Alexander McDougall

The inventor and designer of the whaleback, Captain Alexander Mc­ Dougall (1845-1923), was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1854, settling near Collingwood, Ontario, on the southern shore of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron. At 16, he shipped as a deckhand on a Lake vessel and for 21 years continued to sail the Lakes, becoming a second mate at 18 and captain of a large ship at 21. He moved his mother and family to Duluth in 1871, and in that year, at a Buffalo shipyard, helped to build the iron Anchor liners China, India, and Japan, then the finest passenger steamers on the Lakes.

This brief shipbuilding experience inspired his radical design for the freight-carrier which came to be known as a whaleback, the basic plan of which he patented as early as 1881. In that year, he gave up sailing and undertook stevedoring at various lake ports, meanwhile attempting to interest capitalists in his whaleback vessels. After seven years of effort he secured the required financial backing and his first whaleback, the barge 101, was built.

Due to the lack of skilled shipfitters at the head of the Lakes, the conoidal ends of this first whaleback were built to his order at a Wilmington, Delaware shipyard and then were knocked down, shipped to the Lakes, and erected with the cylindrical hull at the yard of Robert Clark in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1889. This experimental hull was relatively small, being only 191 feet long, and was extremely narrow, having a beam of only 21 feet.

In 1889 McDougall organized the American Steel Barge Company and built the next six whalebacks, comprising the steamer Colgate Hoyt and five barges, No. 102, 103, 104, 105, and 107, at his own yard in Duluth, which was relocated in 1891 at the neighboring city of West Superior, Wisconsin.


After building 33 more whalebacks, several non-whaleback oil barges, and a shipyard tug there, Captain McDougall sold out his interest in the American Steel Barge Company in 1899, and founded the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company at Collingwood, Ontario, near his boyhood home. The new shipyard built only vessels of conventional design, and no more whalebacks were built by their original builders. The last one built was a steamer named Alexander McDougall for its designer, and was of a transitional type, with a straight stem above its spoon bow, and a raised forecastle.

McDougall had ambitious plans for pushing the construction and use of whaleback ships all over the world and secured patents on their design in almost every country in Europe and in North and South America. Under these patents the whaleback steamer Sagamore was built in 1893 to Captain McDougall’s designs, for Belgian owners, by W. Doxford & Sons at Sunderland, England. Having been successively renamed Solideo and Ilva by later Italian owners, it became a war loss in 1917, after a quarter century of service. One of McDougall’s projects contemplated the construction of a fleet of whaleback barges on the Rio Grande River in Nicaragua, in return for a grant of 2,000,000 acres of valuable land, but nothing came of it.

Another project resulted in sending the whaleback steamer Charles W. Wetmore across the Atlantic to Liverpool with a cargo of wheat. Her design was severely criticized by the British for its lack of cargo-handling apparatus, such as masts and booms, and of trunks above deck for better trimming of bulk cargos. These features appear to have been added after her return to this country, for the List of Merchant Vessels of the United States, for 1892, contains an excellent photo-engraving, showing against a New York harbor background “An Ocean Whaleback Steamer,” fully equipped with masts, booms, and cylindrical trunk hatches. This can only have been the Wetmore, since a contemporary account of the British-built Sagamore describes her as of conventional whaleback design, with bolted-plate hatch covers and no masts.

The Wetmore next sailed from Wilmington, Delaware, loaded with shipyard machinery and fabricated steel for construction of a whaleback steamer at Captain McDougall’s new shipyard at Everett, Washington, a brand-new city founded by him in 1891. The Wetmore reached Everett late in that year, via the Straits of Magellan, after losing her rudder off the California coast. Placed in the Pacific Coast coal trade, she suffered a series of collisions and grounding and, early in 1892, stranded at Coos Bay, Oregon, and became a total loss.


The new shipyard at Everett produced only one whaleback, the steamer City of Everett, reputed to be the first American steamship to circumnavigate the globe and pass through the Suez Canal. Having been converted to an oil tanker, the Everett was operated by the Standard Oil Company for many years in transatlantic trade, towing non-whaleback oil barges, until she was lost at sea in 1924, en route from Cuba to the United States, after 30 years of service.

Another project, for the building of whaleback barges to be towed by powerful tugs in Atlantic coastal trade, resulted in the construction of two barges, the 201 and 202, at the yard of Handren and Robins, Brooklyn, New York, in 1890. Both ships soon found their way to the Lakes, where each was lengthened 61 feet in 1896.

The whaleback steamers Joseph L. Colby and A. D. Thomson, which McDougall operated for 18 months in coastal coal service, and barges 109 and 110, towed by them as consorts, all returned to the Lakes. As the four ships were too long for the St. Lawrence River canal locks, they made the trip down to the ocean by running the rapids and presumably were returned by the same route, although how the rapids were overcome on the way up is not clear.

The steamers Pillsbury and Washburn, built in 1895, were unique in being the only freight whalebacks built with ‘tweendecks and side ports, as they were intended for Lake package-freight service, but these features were removed when they were acquired by the Bessemer Steamship Company in 1900 and renamed Henry Cort and James B. Neilson, respectively.


No account of these strange craft would be complete without mention of the fastest and most successful of them all, the whaleback passenger steamer Christopher Columbus. Built by Captain McDougall for a company formed to provide transportation to the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, this famous ship was launched in three months and was guaranteed by her builder to make 20 miles an hour with ease, and to load 5,000 passengers within five minutes and unload them in less time. She actually carried 7,000 people as guests on her trial trip, but was allowed only about 4,000 in regular service.

After a year of most successful service at the World’s Fair, the Columbus was acquired by the Goodrich Transit Company and operated in excursion business between Chicago and Milwaukee, continuing to be efficient and popular until scrapped in 1936, after 40 years of service.

The freight-carrying whalebacks had a much shorter useful life on the Lakes, since they became obsolete and unsuitable for the ore and coal trades in about 15 years. When the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, or Steel Trust Fleet, built their first ships of the 570 to 600-foot class in 1905-1906, the smaller whalebacks were turned in to the shipyards in part payment for the new tonnage, and later sold by them for ocean service, under new names. Having made their way to the coast, they gradually disappeared there, through stranding on shore, foundering at sea, or simply being abandoned as no longer serviceable.

Of the larger whalebacks, which continued in Lake service, only four still remain. The last whaleback steamer under the American flag, built in 1896 as the Frank Rockefeller, served for a time as the automobile­ carrier South Park and is still in service as the lake oil tanker Meteor. Three more whalebacks, also too large for passage to the coast, are yet in operation on the Lakes, but under Canadian registry. These are the steamer John Ericsson and barges 137and Alexander Holley.

The last and largest of the whalebacks, the steamer Alexander McDougall, was scrapped in 1946, as one of 20 over-age Lake freighters then removed from service. The first whaleback steamer to be lost was Thomas Wilson, sunk in collision with the wooden steamer George G. Hadley near Duluth in 1902. Samuel Mather, renamed Clifton, disappeared in Lake Huron with all hands in 1924, and James B. Colgate foundered in Lake Erie during the Black Friday storm of October, 1916. Pathfinder towed the whaleback barge Sagamore until its loss in 1903, and later served as automobile-carrier Progress until scrapped in 1934. James B. Neilson (ex- Washburn) stranded in Lake Superior in 1915, but was raised and served 21 years longer as J. T. Reid until scrapped in 1936; her sister ship, Henry Cort (ex-Pillsbury) was wrecked on Muskegon breakwater in 1931. John B. Trevor, renamed Atikokan, served Canada Steamship Lines until dropped from registry in 1926.

Four more whaleback steamers ended their days in Atlantic Coast service. Bay Port (ex-E. B. Bartlett) and Bay State (ex-Joseph L. Colby) both stranded in 1917, the first-named in Cape Cod Canal and the other off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Bay State was re-floated and operated for another 18 years until scrapped in 1935. Bay View (ex-A. D. Thomson) also served until scrapped in 1936. Bay City (ex-Colgate Hoyt, first whaleback steamer ever built) stranded on Rock Island, Rhode Island, in May, 1909, with barge Brittania (ex-116), but both ships were floated and safely towed into port. Sold and renamed Thurmond, Bay City stranded again only seven months later, in December, 1909, off Seaside Park, New Jersey, and this time became a total loss.

Barge 101

Of the whaleback barges, 101, first whaleback ever built, served a few years as a coastal oil tanker and then foundered off Seal Island, Maine, in 1908. Barges 102 and 103, first rechristened Sir Joseph Whitworth and Jahn Scott Russell when they joined the Bessemer Fleet, and later Berkshire and Bath, respectively foundered off Cape Charles, Virginia, in 1906, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1910. Barge 104 was wrecked on the Cleveland, Ohio, breakwater in 1899, while being towed out of harbor in a storm, and 105, as Baroness, foundered off Fire Island, New York, in 1911. Barge 107, renamed Bombay, foundered in Vineyard Sound in 1913, while barge 109, then called Baravia, sank off Montauk Point, Long Island, in 1914.

Barge 110, first renamed Badger, was one of four whalebacks that survived to become Pure Oil Company tankers in the 1920s, and burned at New Orleans in 1932, as Pure Lubwell. Barge 111, then named Ivie, sank in Hampton Roads, Virginia, after colliding with M. & M. T. Co.’s steamer Berkshire in 1916. Barge 115 foundered off Fire Island, in 1911, under her later name of Baroness. Barges 116 and 118 became Pure Oil Company’s tankers, like 110; first renamed Brittania and Baston, they became Pure Tiolene and Pure Detonox (ex-Pure Oil No. 9) and were abandoned to the ship-breakers in 1947, after a half century of service. Barge 117, Providence, was sold British in 1929, presumably for scrapping, as no record of her is found after this date.

Barge 126, as Baden, stranded at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, in 1906, and barge 127. first renamed Jeanie, soon became Texas Oil tanker Dallas and was abandoned in 1937. Barge 129 was sunk in collision on Lake Superior in 1902, and so was whaleback barge Sagamore, only a year later. It is of interest that the latter ship was replaced by a non-whaleback barge Sagamore, built at the Globe yard, Cleveland, in 1898, as David Z. Norton, which continued to be towed by Pathfinder.

Barge 130, then called Lynn, was abandoned in 1924. Barge 131 was the fourth whaleback to become a Pure Oil Company tanker, serving as Pure Nulube (ex-Salem, ex-Pure Oil No. 10) until abandoned in 1947. Barge 132, as Portsmouth, foundered off Freeport, Texas, in 1927, and barges 133 and 134, then Searsport and Bangor, ended their careers by coastal strandings in 1912-13, off Fire Island, and in Hampton Roads, respectively. The two whaleback barges built at Brooklyn, New York, 201, Cassie, and 202, Fannie, stranded at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1919, and foundered off Barnegat, New Jersey, in 1908, in the order named.

One of the chief advantages claimed for the whalebacks was that their rounded decks and turreted superstructures enabled them to operate, unhindered by storms and heavy seas, when conventional vessels were obliged to heave to or reduce speed to bare steerageway. Another was that the rounded upper corners of the midship section made them self-trimming and, finally, the simplicity of their design made them cheap and easy to build.

Their inventor, Captain Alexander McDougall, admitted in later years that the rounded deck and the fore-and-aft stringers under the outer edges of the 8-by-10-foot bolted-plate hatch covers would not admit of a large enough hatch opening for the modern clamshell system of unloading cargo, which employs buckets having a 24-foot spread when open. It was this most serious drawback that rendered the whaleback obsolete.

Captain McDougall was an inventive genius, having patented some 40 inventions, mainly pertaining to ship construction and equipment, ore and grain loading machinery, and dredging apparatus. When the Mesabi iron range first came into production, he perfected and patented a successful process for cleaning the sand iron ores of the Mesabi. During the first World War, his fertile brain evolved the idea of a whaleback gunboat, and he made several other proposals to the War and Navy Departments, but the short duration of the war prevented their receiving consideration.

Alexander McDougall showed outstanding ability in the promotion of large business undertakings. In 1891 he founded the Pacific Steel Barge Company and the city of Everett, Washington, in which it was located, and in 1899 founded the St. Louis Steel Barge Company, which built three vessels for service on the lower Mississippi River, and he was one of the prime movers of the Great Northern hydro-electric project in 1900-1903. During the First World War he was president of the McDougall-Duluth Shipbuilding Company, which built many steel ships for lake and ocean trade, and shortly before his death opened his McDougall Terminal. Captain McDougall married Emmeline Ross of Canada in 1878 and was survived by a son, the late A. Miller McDougall, and a daughter, Mrs. Lewis G. Castle of Duluth.

The Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia, possesses a wealth of memorabilia of the whalebacks, either acquired by purchase or through the generosity of donors on the Lakes and elsewhere. These include a series of Captain McDougall’s experimental ship models and a fine oil painting of the Christopher Columbus, by Howard Sprague, all given by the late A. Miller McDougall of San Francisco, who also allowed the Museum to make a photostatic copy of his father’s scrapbook of his ships and inventions. There are also two tempera paintings by V. D. Nickerson of proposed whaleback steamers and barges, the gift of Lewis G. Castle of Duluth, which although painted in 1882-84, some years before any such vessels existed, shows them exactly as they were later built. The actual relics of the whalebacks include the brass capstan plate from the Alexander McDougall, presented by Herbert R. Spencer of Erie, Pennsylvania, and a collection of door fittings from the Columbus, given by L. H. Kent of Ludington. There is also McDougall’s patent anchor from the Columbus.

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About the Author: Mr. Mason Is Editor of Publications of the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Virginia.

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