The Pulpwood Fleet – Summer 1954
The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Carl C. Hanks
Back in 1923, a little blunt-nosed steambarge, the Schnowden, skippered by a young master mariner of Norse ancestry, plodded the Great Lakes from the St. Mary’s River down, with loads of pulpwood and logs. The little steamer was the pioneer of the only real pulpwood fleet on the Lakes. Her skipper was Captain John Roen.
Besides development of this fleet, the intervening years have seen Captain Roen establish himself as a successful shipyard operator, and make good on one of the most daring and unusual pieces of ship salvaging on record, in the recovery of the freighter George M. Humphrey from an exposed position on the bottom of the Strait of Mackinac. But both these achievements make stories in themselves.
It is about the little Schnowden and her “descendants” that we are concerned, for it was her comings and goings with her 80-cord cargoes of wood that “laid the keel” for the present eight-ship fleet of the Roen Steamship Company.
The Schnowden hauled her loads from cuttings along the shores of the St. Mary’s River – Drummond Island at its lower end, Sugar Island, Neebish Island, further up the deeply channeled river that leads to the Soo locks and Lake Superior. Sometimes she would pick up a cargo at St. Ignace or Misery Bay or in the Cheneaux Islands group. These cargoes would go to Manistee, well up Lake Michigan’s eastern shore to Alpena on Lake Huron, down to Bay City or even to Detroit.
The Schnowden made money for her skipper and, in a few years, Captain Roen built a wooden freighter, a beamy little steamer with deckhouses aft, and having the same cargo capacity as the Schnowden. He named her the Marquis Roen. The new steamer had a more powerful engine and was able to tow a barge, which could carry about 400 cords.
Captain Roen drove his little wooden ships and they made him money despite the fact that they were slow, desperately slow. Cargo-handling also was slow in those days. It had to be loaded and unloaded manually by the crews and shore gangs. The crews had other troubles as well, with ‘six on and six off’ watches, and the refrigeration of shipboard supplies a real problem. Ice was hard to get, and it would be gone before the plodding vessels could come down from northern “dogholes” to lower lake ports.
But there were good seamen running those little vessels; some still work for the purposeful Norseman who specializes in pulpwood hauling. Age finally caught up with the Schnowden, and the Interlaken’s ancient timbers gave up under the belaboring of a Lake Michigan storm in 1936. What is left of the hull of the Marquis Roen lies abandoned in a Bay City backwater.
But before they went, the Roen fleet had had its additions. The tug John Roen, with the lines of an ocean-goer and a 650-horsepower steam engine in her belly, was in service after some conversion work at Sturgeon Bay, for the Roen had been the United States Engineers’ tug Lament working out of Chicago.
Business was expanding, some of the pulpwood had to be freighted clear down to North Tonawanda, New York, beyond the eastern end of Lake Erie, and Captain Roen had to have bigger carriers. He now had a brute of a tug that could take rugged going. He needed a couple of beamy barges that could load a lot of wood and ride deep.
He found one in the Transport that had spent many years as a carferry on the Detroit River. Taking the engines out of her iron hull, he had a barge that would carry 1,000 cords. He bought the condemned sidewheel Lake Michigan passenger steamer City of St. Joseph. tore off her superstructure and paddle boxes, and had his second barge.
The Roen went to work with her barges, and the tow was big enough to brave robust Lake Superior with her wilderness shores and with their added pulpwood cargoes. It was soon found that business warranted further equipment, so Captain Roen added the John Roen, Jr., a 360-horsepower tug, which had been the James R. Sinclair of the Great Lakes Towing Company fleet at Chicago.
He also bought the hull of the worn out passenger steamer City of Saugatuck, once a Detroit and Cleveland ship on the Mackinac run. Converting her to a barge and naming her Leona, he thus had three sizable carriers.
But Lake Superior was to deal the pulpwood fleet a body blow. The John Roen, with the City of St. Joseph and Transport in tow, was caught by an early autumn gale. The St. Joseph sank and the Transport crashed full on a rocky ledge near Copper Harbor. The wife of the St. Joseph’s captain was lost, the only casualty among the two crews.
Captain Roen set out to find other barges for the business was there. He got a big one when he acquired the big steel carferry Maidand No. 1 laid up at Ashtabula. About the same time he bought another ship leaving the carferry service, the Pere Marquette 19, which he converted and renamed the Hilda.
Another tug also joined the fleet, the John Roen III, once the Illinois, a Chicago steam fireboat. When she went into Roen service she had a fine 840-horsepower Diesel engine in her. Thus the pulpwood fleet continued to expand, although the little Roen Jr., dropped out by sale as did the barge Leona, the latter to a Green Bay outfit which renamed her the Normill.
After raising the Humphrey in 1944, and subsequently selling her at a handsome profit, Captain Roen had money enough to get what towboat men generally believe is one of the two finest tugs on the Great Lakes – the John Roen IV.
Originally an Army tug, the Roen IV had an extensive rebuilding job before going into service with a 1,000 horsepower Diesel engine. She is conservatively worth a good $ 500,000, and there was work for her at once, for Captain Roen had been buying more hulls. One was the laid up car ferry Marquette & Bessemer No. 1, which he renamed the Lillian. The other was the big barge Resolute, which he bought from the Filer Fiber Company of Manistee, Michigan. The Resolute originally had been the Pittsburgh Steamship Company’s Manda, then was sold to the Great Lakes Towing Company for a salvage lighter at the Soo.
These carferry hulls carry approximately 2,000 cords of pulpwood each, a far cry from the days of the Marquis Roen and the Interlaken, with their combined maximum trip load of 480 cords.
The fleet’s only steam tug, the big, faithful John Roen, furled her fleet flag through sale at the time the captain purchased the United States Engineers tug Cumberland. A major rebuilding job was done to the 135- foot tug. Diesel engines of 1,600 horsepower were installed and she became the other “Lakes finest” – the John Roen V.
Two years ago, the final barge was added to the present fleet when Captain Roen bought the LST 1006 in Texas, brought her to the Lakes, took out her engines, named her Solveig and put her in the pulpwood trade, although she did carry a few cargoes of iron ore.
And mention of these non-pulpwood cargoes reminds that other barges in the fleet have, on occasion, been known to handle some particular cargo for which their structure particularly fitted them. For instance, back about three years, the Hilda loaded 15-ton lock gates at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and freighted them safely, albeit gingerly with a keen eye to the weather, to the United States ship canal at the Soo.
The wood which the Roen fleet has been handling for the past three years has approximated 100,000 cords a season or better. These totals have been run up without the barge Resolute which, with the Roen III, handles a coal carrying contract between Toledo and the Ford Motor plant at River Rouge, Michigan.
There’s another factor in the pulpwood fleet’s operations that plays an important part in running up the high total of cargoes. It has come so far from the old hand-handling days. Each barge has its own whirlie crane, and at locations where they can unload directly into the water, they clear cargo faster than any other boats on the Great Lakes. The fleet’s record was hung up by the barge Maitland No. 1, which unloaded 2,100 cords in 16 hours.
However, most of the wood goes to Green Bay, Wisconsin, Muskegon, Michigan, Erie, Pennsylvania, and North Tonawanda, New York, and is unloaded from barges to flatcars for interior points.
An overwhelming percentage of the men manning the Roen ships – there are eight men on each barge, and 13 on each tug – come from Door County, Wisconsin, with most of these from Sturgeon Bay, and there is an exceptional spirit of pride in the fleet among the crews, a pride they share with the fleet’s ‘Cold man.”
Captain Roen, busy as are his ships, sees to it that at least one of his big tugs takes time off to compete in the International Tugboat Race, held each year in the Detroit River. In fact he is always in her pilot house. The Roen III finished second in the races of 1950 and 1951.
In 1952, the Roen V, her big Diesels stamping out an average of 16 miles an hour over the four-mile course, won the race, and in 1953 the persistent Roen III took the honors.
In 1952 and 1953, the pulpwood fleet ended the season with better than $1,000,000 earned. Thus has a persistent skipper, who earned his original master’s license some 30 years ago, built the Great Lakes’ only pulpwood fleet from one small wooden steamboat.
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About the Author: Carl C. Hanks is the Editor, East Hartford Gazette, East Hartford, Connecticut.