The Fascinating Life of a Great Lakes Passenger Steamboat Man – Fall 1981

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

By Thomas Andrew Sykora

One of the early members of the The Great Lakes Historical Society, and a member of its Board of Trustees since 1969, William Raymer Wingate passed away on April 6, 1981, at the age of 75. Bill Wingate was a special friend and an enthusiastic leader and promoter of all Society work. He possessed an outlook on life and a work style that were clearly characterized by an unbounding drive to get the job done. He had great wit, wisdom, and an exceptional memory for his chosen life work and they were all reflected in his talent as a public speaker for which he was in great demand. Above all, Bill Wingate was completely devoted to his family. For his inspiration to all who knew him, Bill will long be remembered.

Bill was one of those fortunate few who lived for his work, the steamboat industry of the Great Lakes. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 5, 1905, as a young boy he acquired early interests and influences that molded a fascination for lake boats. The youngster would sit with friends on a bluff over looking Lake Erie at Perkins Beach, located at the foot of Cleveland’s West Boulevard; some of those friends were the daughters of Clarence S. Metcalf, a founder of The Great Lakes Historical Society. The boy became captivated by the passing parade of freighters and passenger boats, of which there was an abundance. In recent years he would speak of his childhood fantasy in which he envisioned himself as a sailor, or perhaps even as the head of a steamship company ! Both of those early dreams would eventually materialize. Bill went through the Cleveland school system and was president of his senior class at old West High School. He was a Boy Scout in Troop #49 of Cleveland, and with a love of young people he became organizing founder of Avon Troop #333 of The Boy Scouts of America in Avon, Ohio, in later years.

Steamer YOSEMITE in Pennsylvania. Image from the Alpena Public Library.

Upon graduation from West High School, Bill attended for one year the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, and later graduated from Baldwin- Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, in June of 1929, where he was again president of his senior class. However, it was the steamboat that totally interested him. So it was that at age 16, he sailed for the new Columbia Steamship Company, formed only the prior year by the Oglebay Norton Company, when eleven vessels from ten companies were acquired from their operator, Capt. W. C. Richardson. Young Bill first shipped aboard the steamer Yosemite, under command of Capt. Joseph Moran, as galley porter. However, he wanted to work on deck, which was his goal. This accomplished, he sailed as a deckhand the balance of the summer of 1923, before returning to school.

That winter found him extremely restless and lonesome for the Lakes and he could hardly wait for the following summer season. He wrote Captain Moran for a berth, and having obtained his Able Bodied Seaman’s ticket, the young sailor signed on as a deckwatch. Virtually the same crew, it turned out, had moved over the the steamer D. Z. Norton with Captain Moran. Another summer was experienced sailing, but the following season the D. Z. Norton did not fit out and Bill was fortunate to obtain a berth as deck- hand aboard the Hutchinson steamer James E. Ferris in 1925. It was exactly fifty years later that the writer took Bill aboard the same vessel for a nostalgic tour of his old vessel. There were tears in his eyes as he viewed his old bunk aboard a vessel that had been virtually unchanged since construction. It was not until 1928 that he again sailed with Captain Moran on the C. Russell Hubbard. He loved the lake freighters, but, as he said many times, the passenger boat was his true love.

Upon graduation from college he was unable to make a shore capacity connection in the vessel business, so went with the General Motors-Frigidaire Division where he worked three years. He married Helen Sue Miller of Elyria, Ohio, on June 6, 1931.

Persistence, however, continued. His goal was to work with the passenger boats ashore. Undaunted, the young man went to the Cleveland headquarters of legendary passenger boat executive P. J. (Phil) Swartz, of The Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company. A plea for “any kind of work” was made. It was the fall of 1932, the passenger boats would be laying up for the season, but Bill got work. It paid half the salary he had been making; the young couple scraped. Then, he was laid off for the winter with no pay, but, Bill returned early the following spring. It was Bill’s first responsibility to book passengers for the old steamer Goodtime, his philosophy being that the passenger was the most exciting freight. The operators of the C&B Line duly recognized his fresh ideas, enthusiasm and an unlimited capacity for work. So it was that a dream was launched and his career afloat. He was on course. Later he was to be named General Passenger Agent, from 1935 until 1939, and then on to his election as a Director of the Company.

Working and learning from men who had piloted one of the largest steamer lines, the young man continued to prosper. Then, the Great Depression hit and business reduced with tough economy decisions that had to be made. The C&B Line, it turned out, was writing its final chapter. The relatively new flagship Seeandbee, launched on November 9, 1912, at the Detroit Ship Building Company yard at Wyandotte, Michigan, as Hull No. 190, with four stacks, a side-wheel, floating giant, was to be included in the layup fleet. Bill realized the consequences of deterioration that would eventually engulf the 11,000 hp, triple-inclined engine, along with nine boilers of this “Queen of the Lakes,” if she would have to sit for the years of inactivity scheduled. He recognized an opportunity of a lifetime. If he could get her sailing with expediency, the vessel would indeed be viable. The halcyon days of lake travel had been from the turn of the century until 1925; yet, in 1932 there were twenty-two boats. In 1939 there were only a few and Bill hoped people would board the Seeandbee to “forget their troubles and be happy again. ” He convinced the owners that they had everything to gain, and he was given license to organize the new venture.

Passenger steamer SEEANDBEE docked and awaiting to be boarded. Image from Alpena Public Library.

He leased the Seeandbee to Mr. T. J. McGuire of Chicago in 1939 and it worked. She was repainted, her quadruple smokestacks were given a Wingate designed logo, and she prospered. Bill had instituted a new schedule and price structure, and for a magnificent sum of $49.50, one could relax on a seven-day, 2,230-mile cruise from Chicago to Mackinac Island to Cleveland and to Buffalo and return. With a capacity of 740 passengers, she was almost always full.

Bill also sought out P. J. Swartz’s brother-in-law, conductor “Phil Spitalny and His All Girl Orchestra.” This included a chorus line of seven girls and when the 1935 season closed, the whole production was booked by Balvan & Katz into the Chicago Theater. Not only was there prime entertainment, but Bill had demanded the best of food. With a charter to Mr. McGuire as the Cleveland & Buffalo Steamship Company (Illinois) in 1939, the big boat was then sold to him for $135,000 and operated for the new company until 1942, when the Seeandbee was sold for $750,000 to the U. S. Navy and cut down to the main deck as the steamer training aircraft carrier USS Wolverine (IX-64). The Wolverine made sea trials out of Buffalo on August 11, 1942, and ultimately retired from the U.S. Navy in February of 1946.

The C&B Line had been dissolved. Its president, Alva Bradley, (father of our Society’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Morris A. Bradley) was soon to become the first president of a new organization, The Great Lakes Historical Society, in the spring of 1944.

Steamboat Bill’s fascinating career continued, but now as an established passenger boat executive. There was one season with the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company until the steamer Milwaukee Clipper was rebuilt in 1940. It was here that Bill had a personal hand in the redesign of the former Juniata, and he was named by her owners, the Wisconsin & Michigan Line, as their first General Passenger Agent. When World War II flared up he applied for a Navy commission which never came; and he worked for the duration of the War in the Lorain yard of the American Ship Building Company as a fitter-leader.

Following the War Bill organized the Cleveland-Cedar Point Steamship Company and persuaded the owner of the steamer Theodore Roosevelt to run her between Cleveland and Cedar Point where he was operating manager in 1944. The owner, however, returned the vessel to Lake Michigan the following year, so Bill sought another vessel for this profitable run to Cedar Point during the era of gasoline rationing. The heavy steamer Alabama was acquired and he ran her in 1945 until the Theodore Roosevelt returned to recapture this large revenue run out of Cleveland. Without a destination, his Islands-Bay Steamship Line Alabama was put on an entirely new route with surprisingly successful daily trips between Learnington, Canada, and Put-in-Bay. New financial interests, however, gained control and Bill left to develop a cross Lake Erie run in 1946 with the temporary, test operation of the 1,500 hp, 1928-built steamer Cadillac, later the U. S. Coast Guard vessel Arrowwood (WAGL 176) and later renamed Cadillac when Bill bought her for $22,500. As envisioned, she was to be a test of traffic demand of both passengers and “less than carload” freight. However, her molded hull was not suited for this use, what with the powerful “vagaries” and tempestuousness of Lake Erie weather. Primarily, though, the future of the concept ended with the tragic drowning of its principal financier, Leathem D. Smith, of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin! The Cadillac ultimately succumbed to the scrapper’s torch at the Steel Company of Canada in Hamilton on May 26, 1962, as the Lady Hamilton.

The Georgian Bay Line now wanted Bill, and in 1949 he was made District Sales Manager and was to be with them for twelve years It was then that a longtime dream prompted him to organize the purchase of a small charter party ship. He incorporated WASAC Waterways, Inc., and purchased a vessel which had been laid down in the yard of Rice Brothers Corporation in 1922, at East Boothbay, Maine, as the trawler Arnold T. Rice. Ultimately launched as the 550-hp passenger boat Bainbridge for the Benton Transit Company of Benton Harbor, Michigan, she was later to be the Arnold Transit Company and Mackinac Island steamer Algomah II. Bill brought her to Cleveland, renamed her the Erie Queen and had her renovated at the then G&W Welding Company in 1962. During the first season she was severely damaged at her mooring when the Norwegian ship Sirefjell lost control while winding at the D&C dock and rammed her, causing her to be ultimately withdrawn from her intended Lake Erie trade by Bill’s company.

Another setback. He always said, “Such experiences in life mold one’s character.” Thus, undaunted, Bill again fought on. The Georgian Bay Line opened their doors again and he rejoined them and remained as Charter- Convention Cruise Manager, and later as Cleveland District Manager until the company’s vessel operation was ended in 1967. That also concluded his passenger boat career, along with the end of an era of large steamer overnight passenger business on the Great Lakes.

The Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc. in the Terminal Tower asked Bill to join them, and he organized the Tourism Department and was named Director of Tourism. Thus, he worked successfully in a field of endeavor for which he was highly qualified, until he retired in 1972.

He and his wife then traveled extensively throughout the world. Bill was also in demand as a Society speaker. As a masterful organizer, he initiated many promotional areas for the Society including a series of successful membership campaigns.

His career was an adventure. Bill had a “down-to-earth” and pragmatic philosophy, a great sense of humor, and a readiness to learn from his experiences, all qualities that indeed made his career an adventure. Bill Wingate used to say that every day was a highlight of life and it was all a matter of how one looked at one’s work. He fully enjoyed his. His devoted wife, Sue, son, William Douglas, and daughter-in-law, Jean, survive. A memorial service was held at the Avon United Methodist Church, Avon, Ohio, on April 12, 1981, with our Society’s President Dr. Alexander C. Meakin assisting.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: The grandson of Clarence Sheridan Metcalf one of the founders of our Great Lakes Historical Society, also a Great Lakes marine historian, Thomas A. (Andy) Sykora attributes his love of the Great Lakes and its vessels to his Grandfather, who inspired this fascination at an early age. Living on the shore of Lake Erie in Lakewood, Ohio, he could see the freighters and passenger steamers pass under full speed as they approached the port of Cleveland. But it was sailing aboard the old passenger ships that captured his love for boats. He was one of the earliest members of our Great Lakes Historical Society and has been its Secretary for over ten years.

Andy initiated his sailing experience by working aboard various lake freighters, and sailed during five summers, which helped put him through college. A graduate of Baldwin- Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he also earned an advanced degree in transportation, and has been responsible for Great Lakes fleet operations out of Cleveland for twenty-six years. He has written earlier articles for INLAND SEAS® and other marine publications. An accomplished musician, he has been active in Cleveland’s Hermit Club Orchestra and various jazz organizations for some twenty-five years. He and his wife, Mary Jane, and their children, Phil and Leslie, reside in Rocky River, Ohio.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member