The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Ernest H. Rankin
Captain Alexander McDougall’s whaleback were a great departure from the conventional type of bulk cargo carriers on the Great Lakes, but the Christopher Columbus was unique, for she was the only one of this type to be built as an excursion steamer. Launched at Superior, Wisconsin, on December 3, 1892, she was the twenty-eighth whaleback built between June 1888 and July 1898. In the Spring of 1893 she went to Chicago and was engaged during the Summer in carrying passengers between the Municipal Pier and Jackson Park, the site of Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, a distance of about six miles. She had been built expressly for this purpose.
For many years after, she was engaged in passenger service between Chicago and Milwaukee, and during the winters she was apparently laid up at Superior or Duluth. However, in the spring and fall, before going on her Lake Michigan run, she ran excursions out of Hancock and Marquette to Isle Royale, Huron Bay, Granite and Stannard Rock Lighthouses, and Pictured Rocks.
In one of her excursions out of Marquette a scraggly lad of eight formative years dropped the lunch basket which he had carried for his mother down the steep hills of the town to Spear’s merchandise dock, clapped his hands to his ears and howled! The Christopher Columbus, lying alongside the dock, gaily bedecked with long strings of banners and flags flying, had let forth a mighty blast from her deep-toned whistle, all too close to the ears of the excited boy who was so anxious to get aboard, for this trip had been his dream for a full week. But the whistle did not emit the short blast to hurry the townsfolk down to the ship, as the mate intended when he pulled the cord. The valve had stuck and its earsplitting din, with the escaping steam rising high into the blue sky, lasted for a full half-hour until the difficulty was corrected. Meanwhile, the thoughtful mother picked up the basket and led her frightened son, his hands still glued tightly to his ears and rivers of tears streaming down his cheeks, over the gangplank and into the hold of the vessel.
Below decks, the frightening noise of the whistle was dimmed considerably, the youth regained his composure, the sympathetic mother wiped away the tears with her handkerchief, paid their fares to a man at a window — fifty cents for herself and a quarter for the boy — and his upset world gradually returned to an even keel.
However, as the whistle continued its infernal racket, the boy remained below decks exploring the depths of the hold, except where barred by “No Admittance Except for Crew” signs. The town’s music-makers, “The Ideal Orchestra,” were busy getting their instruments ready near the upright piano in a far corner of the main saloon, for many took advantage of the excursion just to enjoy dancing. A narrow passageway led to an open steel walkway on either side of the engine- room, a pipe railing permitting an excellent view of the massive vertical cylinders of the steam engine which would turn the huge propeller. Another passageway led to a hole with a round entrance barely a yard across, and a vertical, iron ladder which disappeared into the depths of the hold. Here, when the fire doors were opened, the boy got a glimpse of half-naked, red-bodied “demons” shoveling coal into the roaring fires under the boilers. He was reminded of the ghastly pictures in Dante’s Inferno, a book forbidden to him, and remained watching for just a moment, as the rising heat, the acrid odors, the clanking of the doors and shovels, and the strangely lighted bodies, gave him an eerie feeling.
Eventually, the whistle ceased its shrill outburst just as suddenly as it had blown its first blast, evoking a deep silence and bringing a great relief to the lad. He went up on deck just in time to see the last of the holiday- makers rush down the hill and disappear over the gangplank into the interior of the vessel. These were the people from “up the road.” They had arrived on a special train from Negaunee and Ishpeming and other inland towns — the railroad depot was only a block away in the old, shabby Tremont House at the corner of Front and Superior Streets. And as the last rosy -checked, smiling straggler panted aboard with her ample lunch basket, followed by the gangplank, the lines were cast off and the Christopher Columbus slowly backed out into the harbor.
The youth, his fears completely conquered with the task and excitement of getting the ship under way, watched every move of the crew as they took in the lines, laid them in neat coils, and made everything shipshape for the cruise. Forward and aft and athwartship he went — there was no officer on board the boat more active than he! Well out into the harbor he turned the ship around, got her on her eastward course towards Laughing Whitefish Point, Grand Island and Pictured Rocks and telegraphed the chief engineer, deep in her hold, “Full speed ahead.” That very morning before they had left, his mother had given him fifty cents to buy the cap of a ship’s officer, the emblem at its peak marked “Captain,” and he wore it with pride.
The blood of a sailor was in his veins, for had not his grandfather, as a young man, sailed on the high seas and been blown skyward when the boiler of the propeller Independence exploded shortly after midnight on November 23, 1853, a few minutes after she left the Soo for her last trip of the season to Ontonagon on Lake Superior? He knew the story by heart, for his mother had told it to him many, many times.
With all things snug on deck the young officer returned below to the engine room and, leaning over the rail, checked the performance of the engine as it turned the propeller shaft, pushing the boat onwards. The valve mechanisms, with their polished steel arms and rockers, kept time with the steady beat of the engine, fascinating the boy. He watched an oiler, as he moved about the powerful machine, placing a drop of oil here and there from his long-spouted can and wiping away, with a handful of waste, the excess oil in order that every moving part might be spotless and clean. Finding everything shipshape and to his fashion below, he waved to the oiler, receiving in return a similar greeting and a friendly smile. He liked the warm, oily odor which came from the engine, and its steady rhythm was music in his ears.
However, the time came when the usual pangs of hunger were experienced, as is normal for boys of eight. He followed the passageway to the saloon, dodging the waltzing couples as he zigzagged across the felt slippery floor, the softness of the carpet as he ascended the grand staircase to the upper deck, and eventually found his mother sitting in a shady nook where she could watch the changing scenery of the distant shore as the ship sped on its way.
This mother had a store of tales, for she had been born and had spent her life in the vast wilderness spread along the south shore of Lake Superior. She knew the few Indians of the area who traded in her father’s store, and during her girlhood was as inquisitive about their ways of life as her son was about boats.
After the explosion, which had totally wrecked the Independence, her father became a merchant and went into storekeeping. However, he did not give up sailing entirely for he owned a small, schooner-rigged yacht, and had named her Carrie for this mother, the youngest of his daughters. In this boat she sailed with him many a mile along the coast, camping here and there, and she knew the shoreline as well as the Indians did who travelled along it in their birch bark canoes. The Indians had called the early Lake Superior steamers ishkote-nabikwans, or “fire vessels.” As the boy sat beside his mother and stowed away an incredible amount of food, she entertained him with tales of the past — Indians, camping and boats. He would be a sailor!
This sailor still recalls that there were thick ham sandwiches on freshly baked, soft rye; hard-boiled eggs and an envelope of salt; sweet pickles, bananas, and a richly frosted chocolate cake, freshly made for the occasion. There were other things too, for his mother, brought up in a frontier village of stumps, far from the great towns “below,” had been taught by her mother to be prepared for almost any emergency. Had the Christopher Columbus been wrecked upon a desert island in the middle of the Lake there would have been food for everybody. If necessary, they could have caught fish, for in the depths of her reticule there was sure to be found a length of fishing line wound around a small stick, and a few hooks, their barbs imbedded in a cork! She could prepare all manner of fish and small game for the pan or pot, and if necessary, “dress-out” and skin a deer. She was a true daughter of a Lake Superior pioneer.
As the Christopher Columbus sped by Laughing Whitefish Point, which lay about two miles south of her course, the mother told her son the source of its name. This point, some eighteen miles distant, as seen by the Indians from Sauks Lookout, a prominent headland near Carp River, when reflected as a mirage, appeared to them to be a giant white- fish with its head sticking out of the Lake, and laughing. They called it atik-a-meg-baptit, or “the whitefish laughs.”
Around Laughing Whitefish Point was Shelter Bay where the family had camped on the shore when she was his age, for there was a safe harbor for the Carrie. Farther on were Au Train Bay, Island, River and Lake where she had also camped. The location was called Au Train by the French fur traders, denoting the place of the dogsled team, or “traineaus.” Au Train River was one of the principal waterways used by the Indians to cross the peninsula in their canoes, its headwaters being very close to those of the White Fish River which flows south into Little Bay de Nocque, requiring a very short portage. The boy inquired as to its Indian name, but the mother did not know that answer.
The excursion ship passed close to Grand Island, the kitchi niniss, “great island” of the Indians, where they came in the spring in large numbers — as many as five hundred at a time — with their winter’s take of furs, and they stayed to hunt, fish and pick berries. In the fall they took to their canoes and followed the waterways south to the warmer climate of Lake Michigan. They camped at the southern end of “Kitchi Niniss,” for here was shelter, and the four small log cabins of the traders where they disposed of their furs. The cabins were still there — the mother had visited them only a short time previously.
The highlight of the cruise was, of course, Pictured Rocks, a place of several names. The Chippewa Indians called them the “sea gull rocks,” or gai-ash-kabi-kong. Others knew them as sch-kuee-arch-ibi-kung, “the end of the rocks,” and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the Indian Agent, knew them as ish-pa-beta, the “high cliffs.”
The skipper of the Christopher Columbus held a course as close to the wave-sculptured rocks as possible, so that all aboard might enjoy this handiwork of Mother Nature at her best. Even the dancers and the orchestra left their merriment to enjoy this scene of beauty. The ship slowed down to half-speed ahead, and the boy could hear the jingle of the bell as its pleasant sound came up through an engine room ventilator, and the reply in the pilothouse. As they passed along, his mother told him of Miners Castle, the Amphitheatre, Sail Rock with its several facets, the Chapel and the Grand Portal, its low, wide entrance leading into mysterious darkness where Mennibojon lived deep in the caverns. Some day, when he had a ship of his own, he would explore it to its very depths.
His mother, a versatile artist with story, pen and brush, held her son in rapt attention as the miles passed behind them. She called his attention to the beauties of nature — the lights and shades of the colors — and even a lad so young in years was impressed with all that he saw and heard.
Memories of the delightful hours spent on the Christopher Columbus with his mother, sailing over the blue, placid waters of Lake Superior would be remembered forever.
All too soon the Christopher Columbus rounded the end of the breakwater in Iron Bay. The young captain signaled for “ahead slow” and then “stop” and after a minute or so, “astern” and “stop” again, easing the mighty ship alongside the dock with never a bump! The crew, in their white ducks, tossed the coils of light lines of the hawser cables to the waiting dockmen, who caught them as they flew through the air.
The steel cables, as they emerged from the hawseholes, looked like snakes as they splashed into the water. Hand over hand, the dockmen hauled the dripping cables in, dropping the bights over the dock pilings. The slack disappeared into the ship, and the cables, now taut, held the Christopher Columbus fast, and the gangplank slid out onto the dock. Not till then did this embryo navigator, his imaginative duties finished, go to find his mother. He waved to the officers in the pilothouse, and left with the other tired excursionists, barely able to climb the steep hills to his home and to tumble fully dressed into his own “berth.”
About the Author: Did this young lad, with the love of the sea filling his mind and heart, later become a sailor? The answer has to be “no!” By the time he had reached the age of decision he had chosen another means of transportation, which somewhere along the way had captivated his imagination But this time the attraction lasted for 45 years! Specializing for the greater part of this period in the safe operation of high speed trains, he became proficient in the field of railway signaling.
During these years he also acquired an interest in local history and historical writing, a pursuit to which he has devoted full time since retirement. The author of this article is Executive Vice President of the Marquette County Historical Society and Editor of its quarterly Publication, Harlow’s Wooden Man.