The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Richard A. Belford
Steamboats, like armies, have tremendous appetites. Every blast of the whistle, every jangle of the engineroom telegraph causes the expenditure of calories which someone had to select, pack and put aboard for the consumption of the ship and her company. Next to the crew and the ship itself the vessel’s stores are indispensable. Like coal and oil they must flow in a never-ending stream from fit-out time in the spring to layup days in the fall.
In 193\, after several years with the Sherwin-Williams Company, I was promoted to the Marine Sales Department. This office handled all of the marine accounts in the Great Lakes district. Having worked on the Lakes during college vacations, I had a good background knowledge of what went on aboard ship but the size and scope of the supply business for such a large fleet of vessels was new to me.
In those years immediately before the Second World War there were about four hundred ships in the American Great Lakes fleet. The reason for such a great number of vessels was that the individual ships were much smaller than those in service today. As an example, the largest fleet, the Pittsburgh Steamship Division (now Great Lakes Fleet of United States Steel Corporation) had almost one hundred steamers. Pioneer and Buckeye Steamship Companies (the Hutchinson boats) had about thirty-five, while the Interlake Steamship Company was the second largest fleet on the Lakes with nearly fifty vessels. The Oglebay Norton Company (Columbia Transportation fleet) was operating twenty-two boats.
Catering to the needs of such an extensive “armada” required an army of suppliers. The largest single unit of this kind was the Pittsburgh Steamship Division Soo warehouse at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It had been built by the United States Steel Corporation to service its own steamship division. In reality, it was a veritable supermarket for its steamboats.
One of my early recollections when I came into the Marine Department was the instruction on how to ship the Soo warehouse order. It usually amounted to a carload of paint and was the first order to be shipped in the spring. The entire order was trucked to the Great Lakes Transit dock at Cleveland where it was put aboard the first package freighter that went to the Soo. Sometime later, when the Great Lakes Transit went out of business, these shipments were made by rail.
The Soo store, which was started in 1901, is really one of the most unusual ship chandlery operations in the world. At one time more than 6,000 items of food and vessel supplies were carried in stock.
The grocery and meat departments alone were stored with 500 items of meat, vegetables and fresh fruit. The big meat cooler was frequently replenished with carloads of provisions, for each week 20,000 pounds of meat and poultry were required to fill vessel orders. A “green room” kept vegetables crisp and fresh. Even a line of packaged meats was stocked so that stewards had available the same variety of selections offered by the finest restaurants.
In another room the floor was piled high with cartons of canned goods. In a single season the lake vessels that traded at the Soo store used an average of twenty-five tons each of such items as coffee and butter. The milk requirement for a day was about 900 gallons. Some of these figures probably vary over the years, for while the ships have increased in size, the number of vessels is smaller and consequently there are fewer crewmen to feed.
Groceries, however, were only a part of the requirements of the fleet. The Soo store also had a hardware department which was constantly kept busy filling the orders for engineers’ supplies. In addition, there was blacksmith shop which turned out all kinds of metal fittings constantly required by the ships.
Heavy hardware when it comes to steamships is a must and the store really excelled in this area. They stocked anchors weighing up to 9,000 pounds each. They also carried about fifty propeller blades in assorted sizes and types weighing up to 3,000 pounds each. Anchor chains were another heavy commodity of which they carried fifty tons in twenty types and sizes. In addition to these, there were twenty types of manila rope and twenty-five types of wire rope.
There was a furniture department which filled orders for rugs, shower curtains, TV sets, chairs, etc. At one time there was a sail loft where all types of canvas products were fabricated. These were such items as awnings, weather cloths and hatch covers. With the increased use of watertight, steel hatch covers, canvas covers are now almost a thing of the past.
The vessels, which the Soo store refers to as their “delivery wagons,” are of special interest. There have been three of them. The steamer Superior was the first. It operated until 1917. The second vessel was the steamer Frontier. It served from 1918 to 1947. I remember her well. She was a big, broad-shouldered hulk of a boat. She always came huffing and puffing alongside just after we left the lock going down the river, her two-cylinder, high-pressure steam engine sending skyward a gigantic plume of snow-white steam to mingle with a column of ebony coal smoke which issued from her stack.
She would come along on the starboard side just a little forward of the after cabin, her hull nuzzling gently against our shipside. Then a gangplank would be laid between her deck and ours. While both vessels were still steaming slowly downstream, sacks of potatoes, sides of beef, crates of oranges and canned goods came “walking” across the plank to our deck. When she pulled away some moments later, we would have on board our complete supply of food and other requirements for the next trip.
The old Soo store records throw interesting sidelights on the early days. In those times the freighters had no modern refrigeration and depended on ice coolers to preserve their perishable foods. For this purpose there was a large icehouse next to the store building. In the winter ice was cut from the river, “except on days when it was colder than 30 degrees below zero,” and stored for use during the navigation season. It was difficult to keep meat in those days and so in order to have it as fresh as possible it was butchered aboard the Frontier and wrapped for immediate delivery. The Frontier was a large vessel and in addition to a hold for ice she had a butcher shop, a post office and a grocery store all located on her lower deck.
Those were the days before the ship-to-shore radio phones, and orders for supplies were placed with the store when the vessels were on their “up trips.” On the return trip the store would be informed by telephone from the Coast Guard station when the steamer was in the river. In that way the order would be placed aboard the Frontier to meet her when she steamed out of the lock into the lower river.
The present Soo warehouse was built in 1937. In the same year the Frontier sank in the river below the locks. She was raised, reconditioned and returned to service. In the meantime, the tug Favorite served in her absence.
In 1947 the Frontier was replaced by the Ojibway, a smaller, though more efficient, boat. She was built in Ashtabula and sailed to the Soo in May of that year. Being only 64 feet long and not designed for lake cruising, she gave her crew a ride long to be remembered and inspired them to dub the trip “the cruise of the Pitching Pickle!”
While the Soo store is still the largest ship chandlery operation on the Great Lakes, there are many smaller independent stores located in the principal cities all over the lakes area. Over the years I have become familiar with the history of many of the stores in the Lake Erie region and recall several incidents that have occurred in the last few years.
In Cleveland, The Hausheer and Sons Company is one of the best known ship chandleries on the Great Lakes. Now known as the Beacon Hausheer Marine Supply Company, the firm has been in business at the same address for the last 117 years. They celebrated their 100th anniversary in June 1954. Hundreds of our orders were shipped to vessels via their launch service. It was rare indeed to have anything go wrong. One humorous incident I recall vividly concerned an order for several 5-gallon pails of red lead primer. The shipment was delivered to Hausheer’s on our morning truck. Early that afternoon the phone rang and the same customer duplicated the order. Thinking a mistake might have been made, I remarked to the buyer that I had filled the same order for the same vessel that morning.
“Oh, that,” he laughed, ‘ewe dumped that all over Hausheer’s launch! When we were hauling it up the shipside, the bails pulled out and when the pails hit the deck, the covers flew off and zowie! They’ve got an orange* deck now!” (Fortunately, no one had been hit by the falling pails.) *Red Lead primer is actually a bright orange in color.
Another longtime Cleveland marine supplier, the Upson-Walton Company, has changed hands and is now known as the Samsel Rope and Marine Supply Company.
In Buffalo Connelly Brothers chandlery celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. In one of the most unique disasters on the Great Lakes their old store by the Michigan Avenue bridge was annihilated on the night of January 21, 1959. One of the Midland Steamship Company’s vessels, the Michael Tewksbury, which was moored in the river south of the bridge, broke her moorings in an unusually high wind. The gale and current took the vessel down the river. She collided with the bridge and toppled it over on Connelly’s warehouse. Miraculously, no one was injured. The attendant who was on duty at the time had gone next door on an errand. The entire building and its contents were completely demolished.
Connelly Brothers, I understand, had the distinction of delivering orders with a steam launch, or tug, long after that type of vessel had been given up by other chandlers. The steam launch, however, served a double purpose. In the spring it was hired by vessels all over Buffalo harbor to pump up their boilers — a service which the vessels were unable to perform for themselves.
In Toledo, where there were three marine suppliers until recently, there is now only one, the Valley Camp Store. The Toledo Marine Supply went out of business and the Superior Marine Supply, which had to give up its waterfront location to a new housing project, has also discontinued its service.
With all the changes in the times, in methods and in personnel, ships are still like armies. Like armies they must have a wealth of facilities supplying the needs of their tremendous appetites. As long as there are ships there must be “the Butcher, the Baker, and the Paint and Thing Makers” to back them up and to keep them running throughout the navigation season.
About the Author: Mr. Richard A. Belford, recently retired from the Sherwin-Williams Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was sales service representative of their Transportation Sales Department, which supplies paint for Great Lakes fleets. During his vacations when in college, Mr. Belford worked aboard the Amasa Stone, and has had many interesting experiences during more recent travels on the Lakes and in upper Canada. A member of the Great Lakes Historical Society he has written other articles for INLAND SEAS.