The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
James B. Neilson (Propeller), collision, 2 Jun 1898

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Reversed the Locals.
Lake vessel men will remember that in December last the local steamboat inspector" at Duluth, Messrs. Monaghan and Chalk, suspended for a year the license of Capt. W.J. Hunt of the Rockefeller steamer NEILSON, on account of the sinking of a tug in Duluth-Superior harbor. The case was one of general interest, as steamboat captains to whom the facts were submitted were all of the opinion that a mistake had been made in taking Capt. Hunt's license from him. Hon. John D. Sloane of Dubuque, Ia., supervising inspector of the fifth district, has now reversed the ruling of the Duluth inspectors. His letter on the subject to Messrs. Monaghan and Chalk dated the 9th inst., goes into the case fully and is as follows:
"On Dec. 12, 1899, you suspended the license of Capt. William J. Hunt lot a period of one year, commencing Dec. 12, 1899, and ending Dec. 11, 1900, for alleged violation of that portion of Rule VI which refers to vessels being navigated in crowded channels or the vicinity of wharves with great caution. It appears that on the date of the alleged violation the steamer JAMES B. NEILSON entered the harbor at Duluth, Capt. W.J. Hunt in command, and was being assisted to her dock by the tug RECORD Capt. Wm. C. Burnett in command. That when the vessels had arrived at a point about 3,700 feet past the bend, or about opposite the new elevator, the NEILSON ran up on the stern of the RECORD, rolling her down so that she filled and sank. It is claimed by witnesses on the tug that the steamer NEILSON was being navigated at an excessive rate of speed, estimated at 11 miles an hour, but the witnesses of the NEILSON claim she was not running to exceed S miles an hour at the time the accident occurred.
"Under date of Dec. 10, 1899, I received from Capt. Wm. J. Hunt notice of appeal from the decision of the local board at Duluth; also a communication wherein he expressed himself as being satisfied with the manner in which the investigation was conducted by you, that he had no additional testimony to offer, and that he would abide by any decision I might arrive at, based upon the testimony submitted. On April 7, 1900, I visited Duluth and examined Mr. R. F. Barrows in the engine-room of the tug Record, in the presence of Capt. William J. Hunt and William C. Burnett, and it was practically demonstrated by the evidence that it was impossible for Mr. Barrows, the engineer, while on his knees in the act of oiling the machinery to even reach the lever when the throttle valve was open to its full capacity.
      "After a careful examination of the testimony I find that Capt. William J. Hunt, of the steamer JAMES B. NEILSON, exercised due precaution by stationing himself on the top of the pilot house, the mate on the forward turret, which position gave him an unobstructed view of the harbor and its surroundings. The captain asserts that the rate of speed of the NEILSON did not exceed 5 miles an hour at the time of the collision. This statement is corroborated by the mate, wheelsmen and chief engineer. The time of leaving the piers. as shown by the log of the NEILSON, was 5:20 a. m., and the time of the accident 5:45 a. m. and the distance as given on United States engineers' map of Nov. 17, 1899, is 8.970 feet, or 1.69 miles from piers to point where accident occurred, so that the average rate of speed was 4.05 miles an hour. In addition, the captain, wheelsman, chief engineer and oiler of the steamer NEILSON, who were on watch, all swear that the rate of speed was not increased after entering the harbor.
"The after ballast tank only being filled, leaving . three empty, de-pressed the stern of the NEILSON, which resulted in elevating the steamer's high and protruding overhang, peculiar to this type of vessel (whaleback) at the end, to a distance above the water variously estimated by Capt. Hunt and by Capt. Burnett at 18 to 25 feet, being at least 15 feet above the deck or stern of the Record. Under these conditions, Capt. Hunt swears he was unable to see the Record from his station on top of the pilot house. The mate also states that the position of the Record was not visible and that he could not see the Record when dead-ahead, also asserts that the Record dropped back under the bow of the NEILSON 40 feet, when he discovered the position of the tug, he immediately passed word to the captain to go slow and give her a turn back, and from the movement of the boat the engines must have been reversed. The statements of the engineer and oiler show that the engines were stopped and backed strong, about five or six revolutions. At no time was the NEILSON signaled to check her speed. Capt Burnett of the tug RECORD states that the NEILSON was increasing her speed from the time she passed the Ohio coal dock to time of accident; consequently it was necessary for him to increase his speed in order to keep out of the way of the NEILSON. The distance from the Ohio coal dock to the point where the accident occurred is 3,700 feet, taken from United States engineers' map, or 7/10 of a mile. At a constant rate of speed of 11 miles an hour, the time required to make this distance would be 3.81 minutes, time sufficient to have either checked the speed of the NEILSON, or to have Dropped back with the line dragging,' which maneuver Capt. Burnett contemplated executing if the NEILSON ignored the signal to check in passing a dredge in the channel. Instead of giving the NEILSON a check signal, or throwing his wheel hard over one way or the other, avoiding the direct course of the NEILSON and again shifting the wheel to bring the tug parallel to and outside of the path of the steamer. which action would have obviated the danger, Capt. Burnett made no effort whatever to determine the position of the NEILSON. Said action can only be justified by the fact that he did not consider the rate of speed at all dangerous. He admits that there was an unobstructed view from the pilot house of the tug Record aft, that he could not see over the bow or forward turret of the NEILSON; that the captain of the NEILSON would not be able to see the tug if he stood in the center of the pilot house (pilot house of the NEILSON estimated to be 10 to 12 feet athwartships and 250 to 380 feet aft); that he did not even look aft to ascertain the position of the steamer or to locate the captain; that he knew it was his privilege to check the steamer by signals or whistles, and that, in fact, it was his intention to do so, on account of a dredge some distance ahead, which they were not allowed to pass at a speed exceeding six miles per hour. Quoting his exact words: 'I intended to check her down, and if the steamboat would not check down I would have dropped back with the line dragging so as to show the man on the dredge I was not to blame'; and further that the engines were being operated to their full capacity, throttle valve wide open, the speed of tug being about 11 miles an hour, which statement is corroborated by the engineer. I am of the opinion that had the throttle been open to its fullest capacity at any time, Capt. Burnett's attention would have been directed to it, as was that of the mate of the NEILSON who noticed the tug's exhaust suddenly increase in intensity, and in looking over the bow of the NEILSON saw the tug under the bow, demonstrating the fact that the throttle was not opened wide until the engineer, who was on his knees in the engine room oiling the machinery, felt the shock of the collision, the first indication to those on the Record that the line was slack. He immediately sprung to his feet, looked out and discovered that the NEILSON had lapped on the stern of the RECORD. Engineer R. F. Barrows of the tug RECORD in his examination before you on Oct. 10, 1899 positively asserted: 'When I was on my knees I had my hand on the throttle and she was wide open and working all right.' On April 7, 1900. Mr. Barrows swore that it was impossible for him to reach the throttle when same was wide open and he on his knees, which latter evidence is corroborated in a conclusive manner by the experiment relative thereto mentioned in a former part of this report.
      "The only person connected with the tug who watched the tow line (50 feet in length) was the engineer on watch. He also admits it is the privilege of the tug man to blow check whistles to the steamboat in tow. and in addition considers the whaleback the most dangerous type of steamer to handle. If the speed was the cause of the accident Capt. Burnett was, in my opinion, entirely at fault for not even attempting to control, as he asserts, excessive speed, of which the tug master is supposed to be the judge, such being the practice by an unwritten common law in vogue ever since the use of tugs in this capacity became prevalent on the great lakes; but in my opinion the accident was not caused by excessive speed, but was caused by the throttle valve closing automatically while the engineer was on his knees oiling the machinery. permitting the Record to drop back under the bow of the NEILSON.
"From the evidence submitted I fail to discover wherein Capt. Wm. J. Hunt is guilty of violating any of the laws, rules or regulations governing navigation, and I therefore reverse your decision by which the license of William J. Hunt as master and pilot was suspended for a period of one year, commencing Dec. 12 1899, and ending Dec. 11, 1900."
      The Marine Review
      April 19, 1900

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Reason: collision
Remarks: Damage slight
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  • Minnesota, United States
    Latitude: 46.78327 Longitude: -92.10658
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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James B. Neilson (Propeller), collision, 2 Jun 1898