Newest Member of the Coast Guard’s Great Lakes Fleet – Spring 1972

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

By Jim Castagnera

The icebreaker was an imposing and refreshing sight to those who had come to see it. They had passed by the city incinerator and woven among a myriad of warehouses and shacks to reach the pier. Emerging from among the scarred walls of Milwaukee’s commercial heart, they came upon Edisto — high, white, clean, with a red “racing stripe” running diagonally to the waterline near the bow.

Image from the United States Coast Coast Guard photo collection

Including the Polaski High School Band, about 200 Milwaukeeans turned out to welcome USCG cutter Edisto. That’s not a bad turnout for a working day in a working town. And on December 13, at 10:00 A.M. the temperature was a numbing 18 degrees.

Heading the welcoming party was Wisconsin’s number one citizen, Governor Patrick Lucey. Mayor Henry Maier arrived a little late, but in time to join in the ceremony and present a city plaque to Captain William J. Brasier, Edisto’s “skipper.”

The Department of Transportation, too, sent in the first team, led by Secretary John A. Volpe, and including Admiral Chester R. Bender, and St. Lawrence Seaway Chief David Oberlin. Admiral William A. Jenkins brought the Ninth District’s personal greetings to Edisto. (Captain Brasier had already presented a ship’s plaque to Admiral Bender three nights earlier in Cleveland. Along with the plaque came “the best damn crew in the Coast Guard,” according to Captain Brasier. The Admiral had replied, “1 accept the best damn crew in the Coast Guard!”)

The twelve-day trip through the Seaway and Lakes had covered Edisto with a white, slippery skin. The frigid Milwaukee air kept the skin intact. It also prohibited any lengthy speeches. But, though it was brief, the welcoming ceremony proceeded with high spirits. Secretary Volpe scored big with two comments. First, he promised Milwaukeeans that “Even though the Braves have gone and deserted you, I promise you, you will never lose the Edisto to Atlanta.” The crowd roared. In closing he said, “I wish to thank this band (the U.S. Navy Training Center Band) and this band (pointing to the kids from Polaski High) for daring, in these temperatures, to come out here and put those trumpets and horns to your lips. I admire you.” The kids hurrahed.

While the Secretary faced the press corps in the ship’s hangar and guests munched glazed donuts in the ward room, the public, too, was invited aboard. The crowd shuffled up the gangway, as the Polaski kids played “On Wisconsin,” and majorettes twirled and danced to keep warm. Enthusiasm ruled the waterfront.

But what did it all mean? The bare-legged, half-frozen majorettes, a governor, a secretary of transportation, plus Coast Guard Admirals, Corps of Engineers colonels, local politicians, and newsmen (some of them from as far away as Washington, D. C.), all were gathered at the Erie Street Pier (an uninviting locale just across the river from the sewage disposal plant), to welcome a 269-foot ship. What made this ship so important?

Inside the hangar, which was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting, a reporter asked the same question. Sipping his cranberry juice, Secretary Volpe said this: “The extension of the Seaway navigation season implements President Nixon’s demand for increased utilization of our fourth seacoast. . . .I might (also) observe that the Edisto herself will be no small stimulus to the city’s economy. . . . We are undertaking here — in cooperation with our great Canadian neighbor — a new adventure.”

To be more precise, Edisto will help the Mackinaw keep the St. Marys River/Straits of Mackinac area open during “Operation Taconite.” Not only should this operation be more effective than before, but the heat will be off those buoy tenders and tugs that were damaged, mostly by overwork, last year.

Perhaps more important, Edisto will take some of the pressure off “Big Mac” herself. The Mac just can’t be in two places at once. That seems self-evident. But that’s almost what she was called on to do last April, when “operation Taconite” was in full spring swing and Buffalo was itching to open for business. If we see a big difference in the effectiveness of springtime operation in ’72, Edisto will make that difference.

“SO, Mr. Secretary,” the press asked Volpe, “does that mean that when Edisto leaves in three years, a new lakes breaker will be built?” Well, the secretary wouldn’t pin himself down on that one. Neither will this writer. There is little doubt that ports like Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago have the potential to serve this region year-round. Ships from around the Lakes and around the world are anxious to help them realize this potential. All they need is water to get there on. Edisto is one more factor — a big one — in providing that open water.

Those who will be chipping the ice aboard Edisto and catching those chilly winds down the back of their necks, may find two comments the secretary made to be most relevant. Near the close of that December 13 press conference he said, “I feel that we are all pioneers here on the Great Lakes, just as surely as anyone at any time in our history. We are pioneering a new age of commerce which will have vital impact upon the growing wealth and needs of this nation.”

Earlier that day, addressing himself chiefly to the crew of Edisto, he had said, “Let us see in this work a voyage of exploration, for what we are doing here is simply that. We are trying the new, we are trying the different, in the hope of discovering a new way to serve man. This is a noble task. And so, gentlemen, I say God speed and good luck!”

As I said, when the temperature is 20 below and Lake Michigan winds are gusting at 75 m.p.h., it may make the job a little easier for those aboard Edisto to take a moment to recall those words.

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About the Author: Mr. James O. Castagnera is Public Information Officer of the Ninth Coast Guard District, Cleveland, Ohio. He began his Coast Guard service in 1969, after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Readers of INLAND SEAS will recall earlier articles written by Mr. Castagnera concerning Coast Guard activities on the Great Lakes, including the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1934.

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