The Frontier: Handmaiden to Giants – Spring 1983


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

By Stephen A. Blossom

For 30 years, from World War I, through the roaring twenties and the depressed thirties and during World War II, the little steamer Frontier served as a small but vital cog in America’s enormous transportation system. Her role, humble but busy, was to deliver food and other supplies to the huge bulk carriers of the Great Lakes fleets as they passed through the St. Marys River on their way to and from the iron ranges around Lake Superior. Like her job, her nickname was unglamorous, “The Gutwagon!”

She spent her best years in the narrow pace of Soo Harbor, but the region she served was vast. Her work was confined to nurturing two large fleets of iron ore boats, but the cause she served was the economic health of America. This little ship and her crew, and the force of men ashore who assembled the supplies for her to deliver, played a indispensable part in building the powerful industrial complex that has grown in the American and Canadian heartland. If taken as a whole, the region has an economy mightier than that of any of the nations of Europe.

Supply boat NIAGARA FRONTIER before its name change to FRONTIER in 1917. Image from the Bowling Green State University Archives.

But for a sharper focus on the forces that shaped American industry and produced the Frontier, it will be helpful to key this study specifically to the Great Lakes iron ore trade. This is because the rate of iron ore consumption has been a clear reflection of the vigor of the nation’s basic industry, and because more than 80% of the iron ore mined in the United States has originated in the Lake Superior region and passed through the Soo. Without this gift of nature, America’s phenomenal growth would have been stunted and there would have been no Frontier at Sault Ste. Marie.

Iron ore was first discovered on the Lake Superior rim in 1844, but the problems of transportation were so severe in that remote wilderness that it was not until 1855, when the State of Michigan completed the first locks at the Soo, that iron ore became a growth industry. The locks bypassed the dangerous rapids of the St. Marys and provided a navigation link between the iron mines of the north and the blast furnaces beginning to spring up in the nation’s new steel centers at Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and points west, within easy distance of Lower Lakes ports.

The fifty relatively peaceful years between the Civil War and World War I were the time of domestic empire building, spectacular in failures as well as achievements. The railroads were especially thirsty for steel as they pounded their way across the continent, but the entire country needed it, and iron too.

By 1914 the young nation had acquired solid muscle but national maturity was still lacking. The war years saw America change from  a largely agricultural nation to one that was surely headed for industrial domination, but we retreated into our former isolationism in the twenties and thirties. We remained a great power, but reluctant and unready.

After World War II we looked around and found to our amazement that we were one of only two superpowers and willy-nilly, the leader of half the world. The story of the Frontier then, is the story of a special time in America’s development, when we were learning to handle ourselves in a world we could not longer ignore.

Another side to the Frontier is on a less heroic scale. In addition to the role she played in the big picture, she was also part of a community — the town of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, commonly called “The Soo.” Her crews were residents of the Soo. They supported the churches and the lodges, they patronized the banks and the bars. Their children attended the Soo schools, and many grew up to become sailors on the Lakes.

These children, like those in other cities closely tied to Great Lakes commerce, took pride at an early age in their detailed knowledge of the bulk fleets, both Canadian and American. They could call the name of a ship when she was still more than a mile distance, and they knew which of their friends had a father or a brother or an uncle aboard as a crew member.

So the history of the Frontier is in part a slice of the history of America, her iron and steel industry, and the Great Lakes commerce which served that industry, and in part it is a glimpse of a landmark town whose name, translated from the French, means “The Falls of the St. Marys.”

We must also include a hasty glance at Detroit. The explosive growth of the automotive industry in the first seven decades of the twentieth century was the greatest single industrial force of its time, and its raw materials were iron and steel.

 

A Corporation Is Formed

In 1890 the iron and steel industry was a chaotic jumble of individual furnaces and foundries, large and small, but mostly small. The industry was ripe for consolidation to direct its vigorous growth. The lakes fleets were likewise many and diverse, some so small and weak that a spell. of hard times could ruin them. The panic of 1893 brought on just such a depression, lasting more than three years, with many heartbreaking business failures.

In the Great Lakes area one notable result of the depression was the entry of John D. Rockefeller into the iron ore business. In accordance with his usual procedure of gaining control over his transportation costs, Rockefeller determined to build his own fleet. With the -assistance of Samuel Mather, a Cleveland shipping magnate, he built the 12-ship Bessemer Steamship Co. in 1897, and in 1900 he added the existing Steel Barge Co., a fleet of thirty whaleback steamers and barges.

Corporate battle lines opposed to the Rockefeller interests were forming in this period. With the backing of J. P. Morgan, a Chicago lawyer, Elbert H. Gary, organized the Federal Steel Co. 1898. The alliance also attracted such moguls of the day as Henry W. Oliver, Charles M. Schwab, Henry C. Frick, and A. B. Wolvin. Andrew Carnegie, the giant of the industry, retired early in 1901. He sold out to Morgan and Associates, whereupon United States Steel Corp. was formed from ten companies and their many subsidiaries. It was the largest corporation in the world at the time, with an authorized capitalization of $1.4 billion.

Later the same year, after protracted negotiations, Rockefeller sold his iron ore holdings and his fleets to U.S. steel Corp., creating an enormous fleet of 112 vessels, including 69 steamers and 43 barges from six steamship companies, all under the banner of the Pittsburgh Steamship Co.

This swarm of ships and barges created a management problem of such complexity that the new corporation was soon forced to look for outside help. In 1904 Harry Coulby, a partner in Pickands Mather & Co. and a man generally acknowledged to be the most capable fleet manager in the Great Lakes, accepted the job with U.S. Steel on condition that he would continue to operate Pickands Mather’s several fleet as well. It was an unusual arrangement, but Coulby made it work so well that he continued as president of the Pittsburgh Steamship Co. until 1924.

Even before the formation of the Pittsburgh fleet, a supply problem had been developing at the Soo. Pickands Mather had established a ship’s chandlery there to sell food, ice and other needs. Known as “the store,” it did a roaring business during the navigation season, but it lacked a delivery boat. Horse and wagon could deliver supplies to dockside on order, but delays at the locks were often long, and the waiting boats would tie up side by side at the dock, so that the supplies had to be manhandled across the decks of as many as half a dozen vessels to reach their destination.

Creation of the Pittsburgh fleet brought the problem to a head, and in 1902 the fleet bought its first supply boat, the Superior, which had been a ferryboat in Duluth-Superior Harbor until the opening of a bridge put her out of business. She had a wooden hull, however, and could not stand up to the incessant pounding involved in coming alongside big steel ships under way, a duty that continued almost without letup during the eight-month navigation season. After a dozen years of this work it appeared that the Superior’s days were numbered, and a replacement, the Niagara Frontier was purchased at Buffalo in 1916.

That year was a big one for the Pittsburgh fleet and the Interlake fleet as well. Coulby, among other industrial leaders, had been watching closely the increasing effects of World War I on American industry, and he knew that the United States would eventually be drawn into the struggle. By 1916 he was ready to move. He added eight ore boats to the Pittsburgh fleet that year, six by purchase and two by building, and he threw in the new supply boat for good measure. On behalf of the Interlake fleet he bought thirteen vessels and built another.

When the supply boat entered service at the Soo in 1917 the Niagara part of the name was dropped, and she became simply the Frontier.

 

The Rise of Detroit

In the two decades before World War I there was an excited ferment among inventors, mechanics, engineers and just plain tinkerers in Europe and America as men pursued an elusive goal – the horseless carriage. Many such devices were built, but often the maker was a dilettante or a visionary, dabbling in esoteric fields but unwilling to come to grips with the consequences of his discoveries. Detroit grabbed the brass ring.

Barney Oldfield, the legendary racing car driver, did more than any other single person to focus the mind of the nation on the excitement of motoring. Ransom Eli Olds established an assembly line even before Henry Ford, a fact often overlooked; and Ford took the idea of mass production and carried it so far and so fast that he was sometimes credited with being the first to think of it.

 

World War I

The Niagara Frontier, bought by U.S. Steel Corp. in 1916, underwent radical hull rebuilding and other work before she entered service at the Soo in the spring of 1917, at about the same time America entered the war. Part of the work apparently was done at the Toledo yard of American Ship Building Co., and the balance at the Soo, although records are scanty. When completed she would have been hard to recognize, except for the distinctive square wheelhouse perched atop the second deck.

The first deck was enclosed with steel bulkheads, and the second deck was extended forward. An elevator near the bow served the ice compartment, hoisting huge blocks of ice up to match the level of an ore boat’s spar deck. Another elevator amidships carried meat and groceries up from below. Oil and grease and hardware items were carried as deckloads. A cargo boom was installed for heavy lifts. Above the waterline she was shaped pretty much like a bathtub, with a rounded bow and stern. Below the waterline she retained her fine ‘ferryboat lines and sharp prow that, with her twin screws, gave her the maneuverability she needed, both as a ferry and as a supply boat. Exactly when the Niagara Frontier became the Frontier is hard to tell because two authorities, Beeson’s Marine Directory, and the official Merchant Vessels of the United States, list the ship under her old name as late as 1919, and both change to the new name in 1920. Other sources show the change occurring in 1917. Judging by the sedate pace of corporate and governmental bureaucracies, we may guess that the new name appeared on the vessel in 1917, but it took three more years for the change to trickle down through multiple layers of administration to the record books.

Looking backward for a moment we see that 1914 had been a slow year, with iron ore shipments falling to 32 million tons. Then, under the forced draft that resulted from the war in Europe, the entire economy surged ahead; ore shipments leaped to 66 million tons in 1916, a level that was not equaled until 1929, and was not surpassed until 1941. That 66 million tons of iron ore represented a little more than the maximum effort the Great Lakes region was capable of sustaining at that time.

The Frontier missed that peak year, but she had a rough initiation all the same, because in the next two years the hungry blast furnaces on the Lower Lakes gulped more than 127 million tons of Lake Superior ore.

Work on the Frontier was seldom easy. Two shifts of twelve hours each was the rule in those days, and the week was seven days long. The hardy men at the Soo found little to complain about, however, because sailors all far from the place at the mouth of Scajaquada Creek where Lake Erie’s first steamboat, the Walk-in-the- Water, had been built in 1818.

The Niagara Frontier was built for the Buffalo and Fort Erie Ferry and Railway Co., for about $70,000, according to the Buffalo Express. The newspaper gave her length overall as 140 feet, and her documents show a length between perpendiculars of 120 feet, a more technical measurement preferred by naval architects and other experts. Her regular run was to be a short one, from the foot of Ferry Street straight across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, on the Canadian shore.

Of greater interest that day to shipmasters and other members of the marine fraternity, no doubt, was a stray paragraph in the paper’s marine news column. It noted that at the Soo there were forty-two boats waiting to transit the locks, and that on the previous day four boats, upbound with coal, had struck bottom in the St. Marys River, pointing up a problem with low water levels and the need, often expounded, for deeper dredging in the connecting channels.

Labor management relations were poor at Buffalo as elsewhere in those years, ranging from sullen to bitterly hostile. The Niagara Frontier ran into her share of such troubles, as well as a lot of competition. Eight steamers were running from Buffalo to Canada, plus one from Buffalo to Grand Island, farther down the River. Two of the steamers were sizeable excursion boats, the Americana and the Canadiana. They ran to Crystal Beach Park on one of the beautiful sandy beaches on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, a favorite spot for Buffalo people as well as tourists and honeymooners.

Passengers on the Niagara Frontier were usually bound for Erie Beach, much closer to the River. A little train trundled them from the Fort Erie landing across to the beach. Someone with a sly sense of humor had chosen the line’s name: The Fort Erie, Snake Kill and Pacific Railroad. Locally it was called the Sandfly Express. The only bridge between Canada and the Buffalo area was a railroad bridge, so the ferries and excursion boats had the trade to themselves. Passengers and farm produce provided nearly all the revenue.

What of the world beyond Buffalo and the Great Lakes?

William Howard Taft was succeeded in 1912 as president by Woodrow Wilson, who was reelected four years later as his supporters proclaimed “He kept us out of war.” But a few months after his reelection Wilson led us into the war over the world worked seven-day weeks. The ships had to be kept moving, no matter what.

“The cook never goes hungry” is a time-honored saying, and we cannot doubt that the men on the Frontier ate well. A Great Lakes maritime tradition is that the ore boat crews eat better than workmen any place else, a powerful recruitment factor for many decades.

World War I ended at last in November 1918, and in 1919 our boys came home from the trenches.

 

The Roaring Twenties

Among the things that made the twenties roar, some historians say, was the 18th Amendment, which went into effect January 16, 1920. However, at the Soo, within shouting distance of Canada, where whisky was legal, bootlegging must have been common. Although testimony is hard to find, who can doubt that the Frontier and her crews must have claimed their fair share of such of the contraband bottled goods traffic?

An incident still known along the river as “the big freeze” illustrated how dependent the economy was on Great Lakes shipping other than the iron ore trade. An early freeze in the fall of 1926, caught more than two dozen boats in the river and backed up more than 250 boats while their skippers waited and worried. Many of the ships were carrying grain for Buffalo, New York and elsewhere, and the national grain market was completely disrupted by uncertainty over deliveries. Farmers loaded their sledges and sleds with milk, meat, potatoes, and anything else on hand, and made deliveries right to the side of the boats across the ice. Eventually icebreakers and tugs broke open the channels and towed the ships to open water, whereupon the grain traders and the sailors began to breathe more easily.

Overseas, we can see now in retrospect what few could see then — the sprouting seeds of a future war. But American farmers and factory workers, bankers and businessmen, were too busy to notice events in Europe and Asia. Economists and newspaper pundits repeatedly expressed alarm or amazement at the growing number of business mergers, the steady flow of new products, the incredible discoveries of science and achievements of technology. And things were, indeed, beginning to move faster.

At the end of the decade a summary of world industrial production showed the United States leading with 34% of the total, followed by Britain, Germany and Russia with10% each. The report failed to mention the Soo or the Frontier, but this nation was making more than 40% of the world’s steel.

For the decade, iron ore movement at the Soo averaged almost 50 million tons a year; in 1929 the figure was 66 million tons. And the Frontier did her part. All in all, it was a decade that seemed to justify American self-confidence.

 

Crash!

The thirties, that bleak and ominous decade, actually should be extended backward about two months, to October 28, 1929, the day of the Big Crash on Wall Street. Also, taking further historical license, let us cut the decade short by four months at the other end, so that it closes on September 1, 1939, when Germany started World War II by invading Poland.

The effects of the stock market crash were felt nationwide, including the Soo and aboard the Frontier. It didn’t happen all at once. It went on for three years, and in 1932 iron ore movement totaled a pitiful 3.6 million tons, about the same as in 1886, when the famous Mesabi Range was still being opened in Minnesota. Commerce, industry, agriculture, finance, suffered dreadfully, in Europe as well as in North America. Thirty million workers were unemployed world-wide, about 13.7 million of them in the United States. The president in the Great Depression and in World War II was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a strong politician who changed more things faster in this nation than anyone before or since.

The depression relaxed its grip on America very gradually. Recovery reached a high point in 1937, and the Frontier’s crew was busy aboard their renovated delivery wagon.. She had spent the previous winter in the Cleveland yard of the American Ship Building Co., being rebuilt at a reported cost of $50,000. The iron ore movement was strong, coming to 63 million tons by the end of the season, and the newspapers reported that in August the billionth ton of Lake Superior ore was delivered to the Lower Lakes. The Frontier, as we shall see, spent seven weeks of the 1937 season on the bottom of the Soo Harbor.

“Armament programs worldwide have resulted in a shortage of shipyard materials and high prices, which has held back the building of new merchant ships,” Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported in November 1937.

It was a false prosperity, however, because the following year the depression returned with a vengeance. Iron ore movement fell to about 19 million tons, on a par with the level of 1900 as steel production plunged, and in the first part of the 1938 navigation season 185 iron ore boats remained in winter quarters, only 124 sailing.

In 1939, war preparations in Europe once again stimulated American industry. By the time a still-reluctant nation was flung into the struggle by the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the nation’s iron mines and coal mines, furnaces and factories were once again operating at full blast.

Ore tonnage at the SOS reached the unheard-of total of 81 million tons in 1941!

The depression did some odd things at the Soo and doubtless other small towns. Many of those who had left were no longer able to cope with the poverty and hopelessness, and returned to their home place to wait it out until things looked better. It was that bad.

This population phenomenon increased the Soo’s growth rate at the same time that the national growth rate was dropping. In the ten years ending January 1, 1940, the town’s population increased by 2,092 persons, giving the Soo a growth rate of 15.2%, while the United States population increased by 8.9 million, for a record low rate of only 7.2%.

The depression seemed to stimulate the entertainment business in one way at the same time that it was putting thousands of musicians out of work. Benny Goodman introduced a new style of music, and the traveling big band became popular. Thirty million homes had radios by the end of the decade. In the tensions of 1939 one song fit the mood perfectly. “God Bless America” was an instant winner.

 

Tragedy

Tragedy hit the Frontier in the summer of 1937. Two men were drowned when she sank without warning on the afternoon of July 19 just after making fast to the William J. Olcott of the Pittsburgh fleet as the big ore boat was crossing Soo Harbor downbound from the locks. Nine men were rescued, as well as three women visitors, including the captain’s wife and two friends from Toledo. Victims of the sinking were Joseph D. Manning, a fireman on the coal-fired supply boat, and Walter Craven, a shore-based blacksmith who was repairing the hull “on the run.”

The last man off was the ship’s butcher, Adolph Wandler, Sr., who had been working in the meat cooler and thus failed to hear the alarm bell. His son, Adolph, Jr., found him just in time, and the father made a running grab for a line from the Olcott as the Frontier went out from under him. A tug, the Iowa, of the Great Lakes Towing Co., rescued two men from the water, picked up the seven men and three women who had boarded the Olcott so hastily, and returned them to the Pittsburgh Supply Dock, several in a distraught condition.

Two weeks before the sinking, the Frontier had stove in her bow just above the waterline by striking the corner of her pier. She had continued to service passing ships, apparently without incident. By July 19, Craven and a helper had removed five plates from the damaged area, leaving a seven & foot horizontal gap in the starboard bow close to the waterline. The Sault Evening News quoted Capt. William Collins as saying there were 18 inches of water in the forward hold (the ice compartment) at the time of the sinking.

“They loaded the Frontier extra heavy that day because they knew they would have to supply more boats than usual,” a Soo man recalled recently. “It had been very foggy, and boats were anchored all over the River, waiting for traffic to resume at the locks. In a heavy fog the engineers would close the locks and everybody would have to go to anchor.”

“The Olcott was the third boat we supplied that day,” a survivor said. The first two were Pickands Mather boats.”

“She ran into her own bow wave, that’s what sank her,” a third man declared.” She was hurrying back to pick up the Olcott and she turned so quick the bow wave just washed right in that big hole.”

Opinions at the Soo are divided on the blame. Some say Captain Collins was at fault; some say it was the manager of the Pittsburgh Supply Co., William Maxwell; and some say it was Thomas Small, the captain who was at the wheel when the Frontier rammed the dock one dark night. A similar accident had damaged the port bow earlier in the year.

Capt. Chester C. Willett of the U.S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation presided over a formal hearing the following spring at which Captains Small and Collins and the Frontier’s engineer, Robert X. MacArthur, were charged with failure to report a serious accident and with navigating a ship in an unseaworthy condition. A search of Coast Guard archives, however, has failed to uncover what findings were made in the case, and old- time residents of the Soo do not recall seeing any newspaper account of the outcome.

A confusing factor is a report, published in several newspapers in September, that a crack, a foot long and 1.5 inches wide, was found in the Frontier’s bottom when she was raised. The alleged crack was not mentioned at the hearing, however, and apparently was never referred to again.

Captain Small, now a local legend, lived to celebrate his 107th birthday in Cheboygan, Michigan, October 18, 1980. He died on Christmas day the same year.

The Frontier remained on the bottom of Soo Harbor, a menace to naviga- tion, for about seven weeks until she was raised September 4. She was returned to commission two weeks later. During her absence, the Favorite, a big salvage tug of Great Lakes Towing Co., was chartered The Favorite still lies at the Soo to do her work.

 

World War II

The United States, paralyzed by domestic isolationists and their allies, avoided the dreadful struggle for two years, until Japanese bombs shattered the nation’s complacency on December 7, 1941. Nothing could have united the nation more effectively.

The Soo was suddenly recognized as a bottleneck of the highest strategic importance. If saboteurs or some wild suicide mission of enemy bombers could damage ‘the locks at the Soo, that single act could cripple the nation’s war effort. Balloon barrage detachments, including large numbers of military troops, were deployed throughout the area, on the Canadian side as well as the American. The Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers tightened security measures. Both Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and her sister city across the River, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, suddenly found themselves in a war zone for the first time since American soldiers destroyed the Canadian lock in 1814.

As elsewhere, there was a lot to do, and not enough time. With those big blimps swaying back and forth in the sky, the ore fleets and the Frontier buckled down to work.

Iron ore tonnage went up another 12 million tons in 1942, reaching 93 million before sliding off to a more sustainable average of 81 million in the following three years. The end of the war came in 1945.

Americans, like everybody else, were tired of the war, and much of our industrial plant was worn out. Overseas industries were in ruins. The old Frontier, too, had just about had it. A new supply boat was ordered in 1945, to be built in Ashtabula, Ohio, by American Ship Building Co. In May of 1947 the diesel-powered Ojibway, 64 feet long, was delivered to the Soo, and she began regular service June 1.

The Frontier, her glory days ended, was sold down the River.

 

Soo Memories

The Soo is like a cleaner, cooler Niagara Falls, but without the dense stand of chemical and industrial plants on the outskirts, and without the over- whelming hordes of tourists. Chippewa County, of which the Soo is the county seat, is not good farming country, although some dairy farms have been profitable. Its most notable product has been a high-protein hay which is in such demand as a fodder for racehorses that the best of the crop is bought by the stables of Britain’s royal family and by some of the top Kentucky stables. The biggest and most impressive thing at the Soo is the array of four huge locks that make the 20-foot lift to the Lake Superior level from the lower harbor. Even more impressive, if one watches for awhile, is the endless flow of waterborne traffic.

The great source of economic stability over the years has been the locks and the civilian employees of the Corps of Engineers who operate and maintain them. But that is a small force, fewer than 200 persons. A college, a hospital and a prison also offer employment, but profit-making enterprises have not flourished there in the way the big Algoma Steel plant in the Canadian Soo has flourished, bringing that city to a population of about 90,000, six times that of the American Soo.

On the American side, tourism has been an important economic factor, but not really big because the season is short and the location is remote. Away from the tourist attractions the town lives its private life on the back roads and the side streets, much the same as fifty years ago. The number of those who remember the Frontier is also beginning to dwindle, and those who worked on her are fewer still. Their memories paint a picture of a place and time more relaxed and easy-going than most of us are familiar with today.

Many children in those days were privileged to hitch a ride on the. Frontier more or less without supervision. Mrs. Reeta Van Dusen Freeborn was one such child.

“My girl friend was Marion Lampman, whose father was manager of the Pittsburgh Supply Co.,” she recalls. “He retired in 1930. When Marion and I used to get in the way around the house and get on my mother’s nerves, she would say ‘Oh, go down and take a ride on the supply boat.’ The boat had a distinctive whistle. You could always tell when she was going out. She was nimble, too. She could turn on a dime and take a nickel change!” Mrs. Pearl Wandler Brown, a daughter of the Frontier’s butcher, has similar memories. The Wandler children, one after another, inherited the chore of delivering their father’s lunch.

“Mother would say ‘Pearlie, take your father’s lunch down to him.’ This was at noon hour when we were’ out of school for lunch. I would have to run just about all the way to make it back to school on time!

“We always just called it ‘the boat.’ On a Sunday my girl friend and I could ride a Pittsburgh boat up to the locks and walk home from there. Or we would walk up to the locks and ride back to our boat.

“My father went to Denmark when he was young to learn how to be a butcher. By the time he came over here he could do anything in that line, not just cut the meat. He could make pork sausage and head cheese or whatever. At home when I was older and I would try to carve the meat he would always watch closely. Then he would say ‘You don’t cut it right, Pearlie,’ and he would take over and finish the carving.”

One of Pearl Brown’s older brothers was Paul R. Wandler. “I used to take our father’s lunch to him too, especially on Sundays and holidays when he would get an extra helping of everything. In the year of the big freeze, when so many boats were frozen fast in the river, my father would go and. visit aboard the boats and take me with him. In the winter he was a watchman at the store and sometimes I would go with him on his rounds. The clearest memory I have of the store is the smell of coffee beans being ground.”

Timothy J. Flynn was a linesman on the Frontier and the grocery clerk. He retired in I967 as captain of the Frontier’s replacement, the Ojibway.

Joseph A. Quigley was a deckhand and later he worked in the butcher shop. He was captain on the Ojibway from 1951 to 1970. “It was a good place to work,” he said recently. “I always had a good boss.”

Capt. David H. Freeborn, U.S. Coast Guard, the son of Mrs. Reeta Freeborn, recalls a different aspect of the Soo.

“The old passenger boat, the SeeandBee, used to come up into Lake Superior, and while she was waiting her turn at the locks some of the kids would swim close and dive for coins the passengers would toss in the water. I was too young for that, but my grandfather, David E. Van Dusen, a banker at the Soo, took me aboard the boat one day to meet the captain. ‘This little guy is too young to dive for coins,’ he told the captain. ‘What can we do about that?’ Well, the captain gave me a 50-cent piece, which was a lot more than the bigger kids were getting, and my grandfather used it to buy a pile of sand for-my sandbox!”

James R. Barker, a grandson of the Frontier’s butcher, and his mother spent every summer at the Soo when he was a boy. From their home in Cleveland they would catch a ride on an upbound boat in June and return in September.

“When Grandpa came to the States (before World War I), he was a master butcher looking for a job. He got as far as Chicago and there they shanghaied him into a logging camp to be the cook. He stayed there awhile and then moved to the Soo to be the butcher on the boat. After he was settled in the Soo he went back to the old country to get Grandma in Sweden.

“On the Frontier, the orders were packaged right on the boat for each ship, all except for the hardware, which was a deckload. When it came time to put up an order for a ship my grandfather would have a big inventory to draw on, with steaks and chops and whatever was needed. In between putting up the orders he would take down another side of beef and replenish his inventory.

“Once in awhile the skipper of the ore boat and the skipper of the Frontier would get to talking and forget where they were, and the ore boat would. ground on the shoal at Little Rapids turn, at the end of the harbor.”

He recalls, “The Frontier was enormous on the inside. In the fresh fruit department there was everything you could think of, in wholesale quantities. On a warm day the aroma was so rich it made me feel good all over just to walk in there. That’s my sharpest memory of the Frontier. She was a friendly old boat.

“She was lighted all around the outside, and at night when the Canadian Soldiers were thick it looked like a big cloud of flickering light where each light bulb was fixed. She used to look pretty on a foggy night, too, with those rows of misty lights. She always made deliveries somehow, even in the thickest fog.”

Things are different today at the store. There is no butcher, but the frozen food compartment is enormous, with meats, fish, baked goods and ice cream. The Ojibway is too small to have a freezer, but the ore boats now have plenty of room for frozen foods.

 

Done With Engines

The Frontier’s new owner in 1947 was Hans Hansen Weldong Co., a well- known “topside” ship repair firm on the Maumee River at Toledo. Hansen had her towed from the Soo in the spring of 1948. With her boiler and engine removed and her interior remodeled she was removed from Coast Guard documentation in January 1949, and began her third career as a combination parts warehouse and workboat.

That tale is quickly told, even though it covers another 30 years, but what was happening in America no one would have believed in 1949. Automobiles, new roads and inexpensive fuel made the suburbs attractive, and the housing industry could- hardly keep up with the demand. As the suburbs spread farther into the countryside year by year, the boom fed upon itself. More jobs, higher pay, appliances, superhighways, steel mills, shopping centers, everything. The television industry broke out of its cocoon. The invention of the transistor in 1947 brought in its wake the computer revolution, the end of which is- not yet in sight.

At the Soo, the young people began to leave again after 1960, and some of the older ones too. From a peak of 18,722 persons in 1960, the town’s population fell to 14,448 in 1980.

“Before the war,” Barker recalls, “the place had a kind of idyllic small- town quality about it. Many of the young men could get jobs on the boats. People didn’t seem to worry much.

“Some time after the war, though, there seemed to be a feeling of decline. The whole country was booming for 20 or 30 years, but it seemed as if the Soo was being left behind.”

Part of that boom was in a new field: aerospace. We put a man on the moon. Several, in fact. We put two unmanned laboratories on Mars. One of the things they were looking for was iron ore.

Hansen sold the Frontier in 1957 to E. & H. Transportation Co., Inc., of St. Clair, Michigan, which removed the entire superstructure, making her into a flat-deck barge. A pile-driving unit was mounted on her, and she was returned to official documentation.

Her next owner was Malcolm Marine, Inc., of Marine City, Michigan, which bought her in 1963 and mounted a powerful Murray & Tregurtha diesel propulsion unit on her stern for marine salvage and construction projects.

BASF Wyandotte Co., a chemical company in Detroit, bought the Frontier from Malcolm in 1974, complete with propulsion, to serve as part of a work force drilling for salt deposits under the Detroit River. Wyandotte kept her busy at this job for five years, even though she had developed an awkward habit of sinking unexpectedly, usually at dockside in the middle of the night.

In September 1979, the Windsor-Detroit Barge Line of Detroit bought her. The propulsion unit was taken off and on November 4, 1980, she was again removed from documentation.

At that point the official records end, but inquiry shows that the old vessel was towed down the River, eastward through Pelee Passage, to an estate on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. There she was scuttled in shallow water to protect the beach from erosion where she is still doing useful work.

Reflecting on the Frontier’s history and events since 1910, I have finally come to this conclusion: If someone then were to have shown us the scenario for Sault Ste. Marie and the world for the next thirty years, no one would have believed it!

Among the things I learned in writing this historical sketch, the lesson most prominent in my mind regards the historian’s task: how much harder it is than that of the newspaper reporter. I am indebted for guidance and assistance to more individuals and institutions than I can name here. In addition to the persons cited in the article, I must mention Laurence E. Burke, of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society; Thomas B. Piper, of BASF Wyandotte Corp., Detroit; William R. Roesch, president of U. S. Steel Corp.; Carlton E. Tripp and Richard Suehrstadt, both of Marine Consultants & Designers, Inc.; Jane Jarvis of the Sault Evening News; Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Wright of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Leonard Lindquist, manager of “the store” at Sault Ste. Marie; Thomas Manse, of Sault Ste. Marie Historical Sites, Inc.; and George McBride, of Nicholson Terminal & Dock Co., Detroit.

Among the archives and libraries that made their facilities available were those of The Great Lakes Historical Society, Vermilion, Ohio; the Center for Archival Studies of Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio; Lake Superior State College, Sault Ste. Marie; The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio; Bayliss Library, Sault Ste. Marie; and the public libraries of Buffalo, New York, Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Lake Carriers’ Association, and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers were also very helpful.

Among the historical works in which I have found information are two books by Walter Havighurst: Three Flags at the Straits and Vein of Iron; also two by Harlan Hatcher: The Western Reserve and A Century of Iron and Men ; The Cuyahoga, by William Donohue Ellis; Cleveland: the Making of a City, by William Ganson Rose; River of Destiny: the St. Marys, by Joseph E. and Estelle Bayliss in collaboration with Milo M. Quaife; and Freshwater Whales, by Richard J. Wright. In addition, special thanks are due to John O. Greenwood, publisher of Greenwood’s Guide to Great Lakes Shipping, who is also Vice President, Marine, of Pickands Mather & Co.

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About the Author: Steven A. Blossom, now an Assistant Editor of INLAND SEAS®, was formerly the Marine Editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. He began his career as a reporter with The Fremont Daily News, Fremont, Ohio, which he joined in 1937, after graduating from Williams College, at Williamstown, Massachusetts. One year later he became an Editorial Staff member at The Plain Dealer, and in 1962 was appointed their Marine Editor, fulfilling this responsibility until his retirement in September 1980.

Serving in the U. S. Army from 1941-1945, as First Lieutenant Fourth Cavalry Regiment, Mr. Blossom earned five campaign stars, and a Bronze Star with V (for valor). As Marine Editor, for accuracy in reporting, he received many awards for the reporting of maritime news to the general public; from the U.S. Coast Guard for assisting them in furthering their ‘aims and functions“; and from the Propeller Club of the United States, the American Merchant Marine Writers Award for 1971.

From his article it is evident that Mr. Blossom still maintains his interest in the maritime history of our Great Lakes area, also the importance of its preservation through the printed word.


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