Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The Development of Shipbuilding on the Great Lakes
Transactions of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1893, p. 252-60
Pankhurst, J. F., Author
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  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 40.71427 Longitude: -74.00597
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Chevalier De LaSalle and Father Hennepin, two French missionaries, have the historical honor of constructing the first white man’s craft whose keel touched the waters of our Great Lakes.

In 1678, they built a little schooner of ten tons burden on the present site of Kingston, Ontario, and navigated Lake Ontario as far up as Lewiston, near the mouth of the Niagara River. With this craft the shipbuilding on the North American chain of Lakes began. It was the First speck of a fleet of vessels that has grown to astonishing proportions, leaving a discernible line of perfecting changes, traceable through the shipbuilding industry all through the 215 years until the present day. To follow this line down and give you a general history of the development of shipbuilding on the Great Lakes, is the object of this paper.

LaSalle, wishing to continue his explorations westward on the Lakes, and being unable to get his craft up the Niagara River, built, in 1679, the Griffin at Cayuga Creek, six miles above the falls, on the Niagara River. The Griffin was schooner-rigged like the former boat, but much larger, being of 60 tons burden.

On the seventh day of August she left her birth-place for Mackinaw, with a crew of six persons all told, arriving at Detroit on the 10th,-a good three days’ work in unknown waters. She continued on to Mackinaw, and from there into Green Bay, where LaSalle left her to continue his way across to and down the Mississippi River. The little schooner, loaded with furs, started on her return trip; to this day she has never been heard from, and we here record the first marine disaster on the Lakes.

Very little is recorded of pioneer boatbuilding during the ensuing years, until, in 1755, we find that the English built at Oswego two sloops, the Ontario and Oswego, and these, with some schooners, whalers and galleys, brought up the St. Lawrence River, constituted the Lake Ontario fleet up to the time of the American Revolution.

(P. 253) In 1797, the first American boat was built for the Lakes; this was the small schooner Washington, which was built at Four Mile Creek, near Erie, Pa. The next, in 1798, was a thirty-two ton schooner built at Hanford’s Landing, three miles below Rochester, N. Y. In 1816, the combined tonnage of the vessels (all sail) at all Lake Erie ports and Detroit was 2,067 tons. In 1818, the Lake Ontario fleet consisted of 60 vessels, all small; one, a schooner of 100 tons register, attracted great attention on account of her size.

In 1814, the first brig was built; she was named the Union, was of 96 tons burden, and was laid up for a time because found too large for the requirements of that period. About the year ISOO, sail vessels appeared in the fur trade on Lake Superior-some flying American colors, others the British. The first American vessel launched on Lake Superior was the john Jacob Astor, built by Capt. G. W. ]ones, for the American Fur Company. Her frame, timbers and planks were shipped from Black River, Ohio, on the schooner Bridget. Her keel was laid at the head of the Soo Rapids, May 17, 1835, and the vessel launched on August first following.

This closes, for the present, our meager history of the introduction of sail vessels upon the Lakes; and we call your attention to the fact that, in the year 1818, when steam vessels were introduced, the combined carrying capacity of the fleet on these Lakes was about equal to two of our modern steel steamers. Looking backward, these were days of small boats; but, looking forward from the point of view of the tl'1en living owners, some of them were monsters of the deep.

The first steam vessel on the chain of Great Lakes was built in 1816-17, at Sacket's Harbor, N. Y., and was a side-wheel steamer, named Ontario, in honor of the lake that baptized her. She was 110 ft. long over all, 24 ft. wide, and 8 ft. 6 in. deep, measuring about 240 tons; she had a beam engine, 34-in. cylinder, and 48-in. stroke; she was built under a grant from the heirs of Robert Fulton, and, being the first steamboat built to navigate waters where there was a swell, marks an important era in shipbuilding. In river boatbuilding, the weight of the wheel alone kept the shaft in its bearing. This steamer was constructed in the same way, and the result was that, in her initial trip, the waves raised the wheels, throwing the shaft from its bearings, and demolishing the wooden wheel-houses. In a disabled condition, she was returned to port, her bearings corrected and damages repaired, after which she proved a successful vessel.

In 1818, another side-wheel steamer, named Sophia, of 75 tons burden, was built at the same yard. In this same year was built, at Black Rock, N. Y., (P. 254) now Buffalo, the side-wheeler Walk-in-the-Water. She was the first steam craft that pushed her bow through the waters above Lake Ontario, and we who reside on the shores of the lake of her life’s work hold her memory in reverence.

The Walk-in-the-Water was 332 tons burden, and was driven by a low pressure engine, brought from Albany, a distance of 300 miles, by team.

She left her moorings, on her first trip, in August, 1819, arriving safely at Detroit on the 22d. She continued in trade between Black Rock and Detroit until November, 1821, when her career was ended on the beach at Buffalo. She made the round trip between the ports named in nine or ten days. Her machinery was strong enough to carry her along 6 or 7 miles an hour in quiet water; but, when leaving Black Rock against the current, auxiliary power had to be used to assist her, in the shape of a “horned breeze,”- teams of oxen.

In 1825, the first high-pressure engine on the Lakes was placed in a steamer built at Black Rock, and called the Pioneer. The engine was built at Pittsburgh, and hauled to the hull in wagons. The Pioneer was a side-wheeler of 230 tons.

Screw Steamers

The Great Lakes can boast of floating the first screw steamer ever built for business use. This was the Vandalia, 138 tons burden, built at Oswego, N. Y., under a contract made in New York city, in 1840, between James Van Cleve, of Lewiston, N. Y., and Mr. Ericsson, the inventor. Through the kindness of her old engineers, James Moore and William Laland, we are enabled to furnish the following description. Her initial trip was made in November, 1841. She was sloop-rigged and carried sail, as has been the custom of steam vessels on the Lakes, until within the last ten years. Her length over all was 85 ft., width of beam, 25 ft., and depth of hold, 11 feet.

She had a two-cylinder vertical engine, with cylinders on a base plate, placed on a timber bed on top of the main keelson. The piston-rods worked out of the top-head of cylinders on cross-heads that were guided by fore and aft guides, and had arms extending athwartships on each side to pins to which the top ends of connecting-rods attached.

Thus, each cylinder had one cross-head and two connecting-rods, each rod connecting to a crank on each of the crank-shafts; the crank~shafts had two cranks, each set at 90 degrees, and were also connected to each other by means of spur-gears, for the purpose of preventing uneven strains on the cross-heads.

(P. 255) In 1842, she was taken through the Welland Canal to Buffalo, and, in 1846, we find her again in Oswego, where she was enlarged to 200 tons, and rechristened the Milwaukee. The firm of Hollister Brothers, of Buffalo, were so favorably impressed with the Vandalia when she visited their port, in 1842, that they had built for them, during the same year, two screw-steamers, the Samson, 250 tons, and the Hercules, 275 tons.

Mr. A. H. Brown, the first engineer employed on the Samson, and who assisted in her building, informs us that the machinery of these two propellers were duplicates, and were built in the State Prison, Auburn, N. Y., by Dennis, Wood & Russell, contractors.

The engines had two cylinders, each I4 in. in diameter, by 28-in. stroke, and were built after the general style of those of the Vandalia. The Samson was built at Perrysburg, Ohio, by William S. Hubbell, and the Hercules was built in Buffalo, by the old firm of Banta & Bidwell. This yard was afterwards operated by Mason & Bidwell, and is now occupied by the Union Dry Dock Company.

These propellers, like the Vandalia, had each two Ericsson wheels, six feet six inches in diameter, and the buckets, of boiler iron, were eight in number on each wheel. Afterward, half of the buckets were taken off which improved the steamers, their average, in moderate weather, being seven and a half miles per hour, which, in those days, was considered fast time.

In the year 1843, copper was discovered on the shores of Lake Superior, which brought about a traffic in passengers, miners’ supplies, and copper-ore. This created a demand for boats, and, in 1845, the first screw-steamer was built on Lake Superior-the Independence, 200 tons burden.

From this period on, until the opening of the Soo canal in 1855, a number of crafts, perhaps 15 to 20, were hauled over the portage, from Soo River to the waters of the Lake above. Among these were the steamers ]ulia Palmer (1846), Baltimore and Sam Ward, and screw-steamers Manhattan, Monticello and Peninsula. On the growth of traffic between Lake Superior and the waters below depended the demand for new tonnage, and this can best be illustrated by a bit of history, which will serve to show the primal movement that has led to the demand for such carriers as now navigate the Lakes. In 1844, Mr. Sheldon McKnight, with an old, gray horse and a cart, transferred all this freight, up and down, over the unnavigable mile at the Soo rapids, and was far from being worked to death.

In 1846, he took a partner, built a little warehouse and augmented his power by adding two double teams. In 1848, two more double teams were (P. 256) required. in 1850, a tramway was built, and cars put on which were operated by horses. By this road the freight was moved until the opening of the Soo canal in 1855.

During the last season’s use of the tramway it was operated day and night, porting over, at times, 300 or 400 tons in 24 hours.

In 1855, the year the canal was opened, there passed through it 106,296 registered tons of freight, and the freight movement has increased largely every year since. About the time here mentioned, the side-wheel steamer had touched its high-water mark of popularity and had begun to decline as a freight carrier before its young rival, the screw steamer.

Activity in shipbuilding, which had been constantly increasing since 1816, had now grown to respectable proportions. In the two years of 1855 and 1856, there were built upon the Lakes 18 side-wheel steamers, with an aggregate capacity of 11, 326 tons, and 40 screw steamers, with an aggregate carrying capacity of 22,607 tons. No important side-wheel steamer has since been built for the Lakes, except for passenger service.

The Peerless was a fair type of the passenger and package freight carrier on the Lakes in 1872. She was a one-screw wooden steamer, 225 ft. long, 38 ft. beam. and I4 ft. deep, of 1,200 gross tonnage. Her power consisted of a low-pressure engine, with 42-in. cylinder, and 46-in. stroke, and two boilers 92 in. in diameter by 20 ft. long. She developed a speed of 11 miles per hour.

Iron-ore became a factor in Lake transportation early in the sixties, and coarse freight carriers were built to meet this demand. Few carried more than 600 gross tons, and they consisted of both. steam and sailing crafts. But, as the mighty avalanche of iron-ore, grain, and coal began to crowd upon the docks, larger and better tonnage and power swung into line ready to receive it. This was brought about by the compound engine.

As early as 1863, Mr. Lay introduced a two-cylinder engine, one cylinder above the other, which was known as a “Steeple compound.” This reduced the cost of fuel, per indicated horse-power, go per cent. below the condensing engine. A But the cylinders were improperly proportioned, which made it very difficult to work them, in getting to or from the dock, by reason of the liability of the engine to get on a center. Because of this defect, it took time to convince shipowners of the practicability of the compound engine. And this was not successfully done until 1873, when the first fore-and-aft compound engine was put in the steamer Egyptian. The cranks were set diametrically opposite to each other; only one piston-valve was used, which distributed steam to both (P. 257) cylinders. This design of engine proved a perfect success (with the exception of the valve), because it could be well balanced, which was quite a factor in our wooden ships. The machinery in Lake ships being placed as near the stern as possible, for the convenience 'of handling freight quickly, an unbalanced engine causes much vibration, which is increased in proportion to the length of the ship, thus delaying, for some years, the building of vessels of larger carrying capacity.

The setting of the cranks at opposite points proved so successful that this change was introduced into most large ships on the Lakes. This was done by merely taking out the shaft and turning one crank around opposite the other. The vibration having been now overcome, larger ships were built each succeeding year, until the scantling had to be increased so much that they proved unsatisfactory carriers. This culminated in building iron steamships.

The Onoko (Welcome), one of the first of these, was built in Cleveland, in 1881. Her dimensions were, length of keel, 287 ft.; length over all, 307 ft.; beam, 30 ft.; depth, moulded, 24 ft.; gross tonnage, 2,164 tons; net tonnage, 1,933 tons. She was propelled by a compound engine having cylinders 30 in. and 56 in., and a 48-in. stroke. She had two fire-box boilers 8 ft. 8 in. in diameter, and 18 ft. long. She was schooner-rigged, with four masts.

Her deck-plan was especially designed for handling coarse freight with quick dispatch, which, at that time, meant one day for loading, and three days for unloading, either coal or iron-ore. With grain she could be loaded in six hours, and unloaded in 10 hours.

The President of the Mutual Transportation Company, having advanced ideas on the transportation of iron ore, had built, in 1886, three steel steamships of the following dimensions :--
Single screw:
Diameter, 14 ft.
Pitch, 16 ft.
Length of keel, 292 feet.
Length over all, 312 “
Width of beam, 40 “
Depth moulded, 24 “ 6 in.
Capacity of water-bottom, 800 tons.
Coefficient of fineness, 0.81

The spar-deck had eight cargo hatches, spaced 24 ft. center to center, 8 ft. in width, fore and aft, and 30 ft. long athwartships. The main-deck had eight hatches, spaced the same as above, 8 ft. wide, fore and aft, and 16 ft. (P. 258)long athwartships. The houses to accommodate the officers and crew were placed at each end-of the ship; the propelling machinery was well aft, with the boilers on the main-deck forward of the engines. The deck-house on the spar-deck was over the machinery space, forming the dining-room, galley, pantry, etc., while the pilot-house, chart-room, and officers’ quarters, were located as far forward as possible.

By this arrangement, all of the deck forward of the boiler-room and abaft the forward deck-house was left clear space for loading and unloading cargo. The machinery for each ship consisted of one triple-expansion engine, cylinders 24 in., 38 in., and 61 in. diameter, by 42-in. stroke. There were two Scotch boilers, 14 ft. in diameter by 12 ft. long, with Adamson furnaces. These were the first triple-expansion engines introduced upon the Lakes. By them the indicated water-consumption was reduced to less than 13 lbs.

The company has demonstrated that the movement of a gross ton of ore for a hundred miles costs less than one cent for fuel. These ships carry 2,800 gross tons of ore, at a speed of thirteen miles per hour, making more than double the number of trips of the old wooden boats, and carrying three times as much at a trip. They can be loaded, under favorable circumstances, in two hours, and unloaded in ten hours. In one season, one of these ships carried 39 cargoes of iron-ore from Escanaba to Ashtabula.

The success of the large steel ships has revolutionized the moving and handling of ore, and as they are also well adapted for the carrying of grain and coal, quite a large number have been built for the Lake trade. The building of large, wooden boats is very much limited now, and the shipyards are turning their attention almost entirely to steel construction. To bring the increase of tonnage and the reduction of freight rates on the Lakes conveniently before the eye, we append here two tables.

Increase of Tonnage on the Lakes
1,624Sail345, 897
(P. 259)
18866Steel vessels6,459Value: $694,000
189189Steel vessels127,634Value: $14,502,500

One-quarter of the entire merchant marine of this country is built, owned and operated on the Great Lakes, and there is more large steam tonnage here than in all other parts of the United States. The cause of the demand for large Lake steamers is cheap transportation.

Below we show a comparison, by years, of the average cost to the shipper, between the railroads of the United States and the ships of the Great Lakes.

Railroad CentsLake Cents
1887Cost per ton per mile,.974.23
1888do do---.15
1889do do.922.15
1890do do.941.13

While Lake freights were comparatively low in 1887, yet they have been gradually lowered by the advent of the large steel carriers and the increased freight seeking cheap water transportation at the Lake ports. The large economical freight carrier has come to stay, and is revolutionizing traffic in the Northwest.

Large and stately ships to capture the passenger traffic on the Lakes will soon follow, and are even now being built, and their success is foreshadowed as clearly as it was with the freighters ten years ago.

There is now being built at Cleveland, for the Northern Steamship Company, a line of through passenger steamers to ply between Buffalo and Duluth. The first, named North America, is 384 ft. over all, 360 ft. waterline, 44 ft. beam, and 25 ft. moulded depth. Displacement, at 14 1/2 ft. draft, 4,300 tons. Estimated speed, twenty statute miles per hour.

She has twin-screws 13 ft. in diameter, by 19 ft. pitch, operated by quadruple-expansion engines, having cylinders 25 in., 36 in., 51 1/2 in., and 74 in., by 42-in. stroke, indicating 7,000 H.P. Steam is supplied by 28 Belleville water-tube boilers, in three water-tight compartments, distributed, 10 forward, 8 in middle, and 10 in after chamber, with one 8 ft. funnel to each group.

These ships, making but three stops in their journey of 1,000 miles, and meeting their schedule engagements as regularly as a railway train, spacious, comfortable to luxuriousness, highly decorated, and, above all, strong and seaworthy, are the fitting present climax to the steady, buffeting, determined and progressive spirit of the shipbuilders on the Great Lakes of America, for (P. 260) the past hundred years, and we close this paper with Captain William Bates' tribute to ships and their builders.

“The building of ships excites the energies of entire communities. Throughout the wide range of human industry we shall search in vain for a physical employment better calculated than shipbuilding to arouse the emotions of men, to lift up, broaden and enlarge the minds of nations. There is a community of interest, of pride and ambition, of admiration and patriotism clustering around the building of ships, that defies descriptive expression; that is as deep as human sympathy, as wonderful as the career of man, and wider than the boundaries of civilized life.

It is because the successful ship is a trial of the finite with the infinite, a measuring of man’s capacity with the omnipotence of Deity, that we glory in the thought of ships. It is because by skill and labor, using the grand materials provided by nature, a human prodigy, built to ride the seas, can defy the ocean and its angry waves, that we laud and cheer the noble ship.”

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The Development of Shipbuilding on the Great Lakes