Lake freighter

Lake freighter

Lake freighters, or Lakers, are cargo vessels that ply the Great Lakes. The most well-known is the SS "Edmund Fitzgerald", the latest major vessel to be wrecked on the Lakes. These vessels are traditionally called boats, not ships. In the mid-20th century, 300 lakers worked the Lakes but by the early 21st century, there were fewer than 140 active lakers. ["Ship fans mourn scrapping of the Calumet",, Jim Nichols, Press News Service, December 30, 2007, accessed July 7, 2008] Visiting ocean-going vessels are called "salties." Due to their additional beam, very large salties are never seen inland of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Because the largest of the Soo Locks is larger than any Seaway lock, salties that can pass through the Seaway may travel anywhere in the Great Lakes. Because of their deeper draft, salties may accept partial loads on the Great Lakes, "topping off" when they have exited the Seaway. Similarly, the largest Lakers are confined to the Upper Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie) because they are too large to use the Seaway locks, beginning at the Welland Canal that bypasses the Niagara River.

Depending on their application, lakers may also be referred to by their type, such as "oreboats" (primarily for iron ore), "Straight Deckers" (no self-unloading gear), "bulkers" (carry bulk cargo), "sternenders" (all cabins aft), "self unloaders" (with self unloading gear), "longboats" (due to their slender appearance), or "lakeboats", among others.


Lakers are generally bulk carriers, that is they carry loads of rocks, salt or grain in large holds - not in containers. The earlier ships required unloading machinery at the docks but modern Lakers are self unloaders which allows them to unload faster and in more ports.

The most common cargoes on the Great Lakes are taconite, which is a type of iron ore; limestone, grain, salt, coal, cement, gypsum, sand, slag and potash. Much of the cargo supplies the steel mills for the auto industry which was centered around the Great Lakes, because of the ease of Lake transport. Other destinations include coal-fired power plants and stone docks, where limestone is unloaded for the construction industry.


The largest vessels on the lake are the 1000 footers (300 m). These vessels are between 1000 and 1013.5 feet (305 and 309 m) long, 105 feet (32 m) wide and of 56 feet (17 m) hull depth. They can carry as much 78,850 long tons of bulk cargo although their loading is dependent on lake water levels especially in the channels and ports. A dozen of these giant ships were built, all constructed between 1976 and 1981, and all are still in service today. The most powerful of these, the "Edwin H. Gott" [] , carries two Enterprise DMRV-16-4 diesel engines driving twin propellers and is rated at 19,500 brake horsepower, making the Gott the most powerful lake boat on the seaway. (14.5 MW). This allows a top speed of 16.7 mph (27 km/h). The "Paul R. Tregurtha" is the largest boat on the lakes, at 1013'6" and 68,000 gross ton capacity. The "Stewart J. Cort", which is not only the first 1000-footer to be put into service on the Lakes, but also the only one built in the traditional wheelhouse-forward Great Lakes style (although all accommodations are forward, and the stern deckhouse is occupied by self unloading equipment and the engines), is another notable vessel. The "Cort" started life in Mississippi, and was sailed as a much smaller vessel consisting of only the bow and stern sections (appropriately nicknamed "Stubby"), to Erie, Pennsylvania , where she was cut in half and an additional 800+ feet of hull were added. Another interesting 1000-footer is the "Presque Isle", an integrated tug and barge combination. The Presque Isle is the largest tug / barge composite in the world. All of the 1000-footers are United States vessels. The Canadian fleet needs to travel to and from its major cities along the St. Lawrence Seaway so the standard length for the Canadian vessels is around 730 feet (Seawaymax-size). The reason for this standard length, is the Welland Canal which bypasses Niagara Falls. The locks here are only about convert|800|ft|m long, and for safety reasons, the vessels must be at most convert|730|ft|m.

More common are lake boats in the 600 and 700 foot (183 and 213 m) classes, due to the limitations of the Welland Canal. These vessels vary greatly in configuration and cargo capacity, being capable of hauling between 10,000 and 40,000 tons per trip depending on the individual boat. The latest major vessel built for bulk cargoes on the lakes is the articulated tug/barge combo "Samuel De Champlain/Innovation". The convert|460|ft|m|sing=on barge "Innovation" and the convert|149|ft|m|sing=on tug "Samuel de Champlain" entered service in 2006 hauling cement for LaFarge, operated bt Andrie, Inc.

List of 1000-footers on the Lakes

* Bulk freighters (Self Unloaders)
**American Integrity (1000'x105')
**American Spirit (1004'x105')
**American Century (1000'x105')
**Edgar B. Speer (1004'x105')
**Edwin H. Gott (1004'x105')
**James R. Barker (1004'x105') "1st standard construction 1000 footer"
**Mesabi Miner (1004'x105')
**Paul R. Tregurtha (1013'6"x105') "Largest Vessel on Great Lakes"
**Stewart J. Cort (1000'x105') "1st convert|1000|ft|m|sing=on Boat on the Lakes"
**Burns Harbor (1000'x105')
**Indiana Harbor (1000'x105')
**Walter J. McCarthy Jr. (1000'x105')
*Tug/barge combination (ATB)
**Presque Isle tug and barge Presque Isle (1000'x104'7") "Only 1000' tug/barge unit"


Since these vessels all have to proceed through the locks of the Great Lakes Waterway they have features in common, and their appearance differs from similar sized ocean-going freighters. They are narrower and generally longer. An early variation of the type (designed by Alexander McDougall and built from 1887 through 1898) was the "whaleback" design, which featured significant tumblehome in the sides of the hull and a rounded bow, looking rather like the back of a whale (hence the name). The largest deep lock at the Soo is the Poe Lock which is 1,200 feet (370 m) long and 110 feet (34 m) wide. Because of size restrictions, thirty vessels on the lakes can only pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron using the Poe lock although none approaches the lock's size. Many Lakers are restricted to the Lakes, being unable to navigate the St Lawrence Seaway whose locks allow a maximum vessel size of 740 feet (226 m) in length or 78 feet (24 m) in breadth. Where the superstructure of an ordinary freighter used to have the bridge in the center of the vessel, lake freighters typically have the bridge and associated superstructure on the bow. Traditionally they had a second island, over the engine room in the stern. These dual cabined boats were constructed between 1869 and 1974. The "R.J. Hackett" premiered the style and the second "Algosoo" was the final vessel designed this way. More recently built lakers, like the CSL "Niagara", have a single large superstructure island right astern.

Lakers differ from most salties in having bluff bows instead of raked or clipper bows and rarely have bulbous bow extensions (Note: A few Canadian Lakers are fitted with ice-breaking bulbous bows). The narrow, raked bow of a saltie allows it more speed, while a bluff bow allows for more cargo capacity at a given draft, but pushes more water. Vessel speeds are not as important on the Lakes as on the ocean. The distance between ports is less than ocean trade, therefore cargo capacity is more important than speed. The Lake vessels are designed with the greatest box coefficient in order to maximize the vessels size in the many locks within the Great Lakes/St Lawrence Seaway system. Therefore, ship designers have favored bluff bows over streamlined bows. Following World War II, several ocean freighters and tankers were transported to the Great Lakes and converted to bulk carriers as a way to acquire ships cheaply. Several of them served well in the role and continue to sail today ("American Victory" (fmr. "Middletown"), "Lee A. Tregurtha", and a few others).

Another distinguishing feature of Lake vessels versus Ocean vessels is the cargo hatch configuration. On the Lake vessels, the hatches are traditionally spaced 24 feet (7.8m) apart. This configuration was needed to match the hatches to the loading facilities. At the turn of the 19th century, most ore loading facilities had loading chutes spaced every 12 feet (3.8m). The ship designers used this pattern for their hatch configuration. This pattern continues today, even with modern Lake vessels. A Lake vessel has many more hatches than an Ocean vessel of equal length.

The shallow draft imposed by the rivers (typically dredged to about 28 feet (8.5m) by the United States Army Corps of Engineers) restricts the cargo capacity of Lakers, but that is partially recovered by their extra length and box design. Since Great Lakes waves never achieve the great length or period of ocean waves, particularly compared to the waves' height, ships are in less danger of being suspended between two waves and breaking, so the ratio between the ship's length, beam and its depth can be a bit larger than that of an ocean-going ship. The Lake vessels generally have a 10:1 length to beam ratio, whereas the Ocean Vessels are typically 7:1. The dimension of locks is the determining factor in Lake vessel construction.


Since the freshwater lakes are less corrosive to ships than the salt water of the oceans, many of the Lakers remain in service for long periods and the fleet has a much higher average age than the ocean-going fleet. Boats older than 50 years are not unusual, and account for more than half of the fleet.Fact|date=February 2007 The "St. Mary's Challenger", built in 1906 as the "William P Snyder" (552 ft), is currently the oldest boat in active duty on the Lakes. She is managed by HMC Ship Management, LTD. and owned by St. Mary's Cement, a subsidiary of Votorantim Cimentos. The "E.M. Ford" had the one of the longest careers, having been built in 1898 (as the "Presque Isle" - 428 feet) and still sailing the lakes 98 years later in 1996. In 2007 she was still afloat as a stationary transfer vessel at a riverside cement silo in Saginaw. As of 2008 it is offical that she will go to the scrappers in May 2009. The "J.B. Ford", built in 1904, last sailed in 1985 and in 2007 served in the same capacity as the E.M. at a different cement silo in Superior, Wisconsin. Several decorated World War II veteran ships are still in active, although civilian, use such as the tankers "Chiwawa" and "Neshanic", now the bulk freighters "Lee A. Tregurtha" and "American Victory", respectively, and the Landing Craft Tank 203, now the working vessel "Outer Island".

Famous boats

The most famous laker was the SS "Edmund Fitzgerald" (popularized by Gordon Lightfoot's song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in 1976), which sank on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. The "Fitz" was the first boat with a length of convert|729|ft|m and the flagship of the Columbia Steamship Division of Oglebay Norton Co. The MV "Stewart J Cort" was the first of the convert|1000|ft|m|sing=on oreboats.

The first laker with self-unloading equipment was the "Hennepin" (formerly the "George H Dyer") a small wooden laker that was refitted with the equipment in 1902 The first laker built as a self-unloader was the "Wyandotte" launched in 1908. Before these, all boats were unloaded with shoreside equipment. Self-unloading equipment worked well for cargos that could "flow" out of the holds onto belts, such as coal and limestone. It did not work well for grain, which flowed too readily and would spill off the conveyors, or iron ore, which wouldn't flow well and would hang up in the hold. Because the predominant cargo for lakers was iron ore, self-unloaders did not become common until higher grade ores were depleted and taconite pellets were developed in the 1970s. Steam power first appeared in the 1860s and became the standard source of power for over a century. The Canadian grainboat "Feux Follets" of 1966 was the last laker to be built with a steam turbine and thus was the last steamer built on the lakes. Ford Motor Company's "Henry Ford 2nd" and "Benson Ford" of 1925 were the first lakeboats with diesel engines. Diesel powerplants did not become standard until the 1970s. The last active ships of 1920s vintage, and the oldest ships still operating in non-specialized bulk trades is the motor vessels "Maumee" of Lower Lakes Transportation. She was built as the "William G Clyde" for US Steel. The "ST Crapo", inactive since 1996, was built to haul cement for Huron Cement Co. back in 1927 and was the second ship of that design, the first being the "John G Boardman" of the same company. The Crapo was the last coal burning freighter on the Great Lakes.

The classic design of cabins fore-and-aft with open decks over the hold started with the convert|208|ft|m|sing=on long "R.J. Hackett", designed and built by Elihu Peck in 1869. The first iron-hulled laker was the "Brunswick", launched at Detroit in 1881. The "Brunswick" sank after a collision later that year and was apparently little known. Many follow the lead of the contemporary Cleveland press and credit the "Onoko" as the first iron-hulled laker, launched in 1882. The "Onoko’s" higher center section did become a standard for later lakers. At convert|302|ft|m, the "Onoko" was the first bulk carrier to hold the unofficial title of “Queen of the Lakes” (longest vessel on the lakes). The SS "Carl D. Bradley" (1927 – 640 feet) held the title for 22 years, longer than any other laker of the classic design.

Currently that title is held by the modern stern-ender "Paul R Tregurtha". Launched in 1981 as the "William J Delancy", and measuring convert|1013.5|ft|m, the "Paul R Tregurtha" has held the title for 25 years. The "Bradley" is also known for breaking her back and foundering in a Lake Michigan storm in 1958. There were only two survivors. The "Wilfred Sykes" (1949 – 678 feet) is considered to be the first of the modern lakers, and when converted to a self-unloader in 1975 was the first to have the equipment mounted aft. Since then all self-unloading equipment has been mounted aft. The "Algoisle" (formerly the "Silver Isle") (1962 – 715.9 feet) was the first modern laker built with all cabins aft (a “stern-ender”), following the lead of ocean-going bulk carriers and reprising a century old form used by little river steam barges and the whalebacks. The "Stewart Cort" (1971) was the first 1,000 footer and the only “footer” built in the classic cabins-fore-and-aft style. The "Algosoo" (1974 – 730 feet) was the last laker built in the classic style.

Also of note is the steamer "Edward L. Ryerson", widely known for her artistic design and being the only remaining straight-decked (without self unloading machinery) freighter still in active service on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes (the only other U.S. straight decker still listed in semi-active service, the "John Sherwin", had not sailed in years and was recently declared unseaworthy due to hull damage - currently relegated to use for storage in Chicago) But will be put back into service in 2010 after coversion to a self unloader and repowered. In the summer of 2006, the Ryerson was fitted out and put into service following a long-term lay-up that began in 1998. The Ryerson has been meticulously maintained, and was often used as a museum boat for tours. She was put back into service due to a lack of reliable hulls on the Lakes, and a need for more tonnage. (The Canadian fleet retains a number of active straight-deckers for use in transporting grain, which is not well suited for self-unloading equipment. Most US grain is currently transported by rail.)

In film, the "W.W. Holloway" (since scrapped) is famous for being the lake freighter that the Blues Brothers jump their 1974 Dodge over when Elwood jumps the open 95th Street Draw Bridge.

Museum ships and boats


The "William G. Mather", a laker built in 1925 and a former flagship for the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, has been turned into a maritime museum and is open to the public in Cleveland, Ohio in the North Coast Harbor.


The "William A Irvin" was named for the president of U.S. Steel at the time of her launching and served as the flagship of US Steel's Great Lakes fleet from her launch in 1938 to 1975. She was the first laker to incorporate welding in her design and is open for tours at the Great Lakes Floating Maritime Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. Moored nearby is the former USCGC "Sundew", a former Coast Guard buoy tender commissioned in 1944. Another museum ship, the "Meteor", is the last surviving ship of the "whaleback" design, and is a museum in Superior, Wisconsin, which was the location of the American Steel Barge Company, where the whalebacks were built.


The "City of Milwaukee", a railroad ferry of the Grand Trunk Milwaukee Car Ferry Company. Built in 1931 to replace a previous ferry, the "SS Milwaukee", lost in 1929 with all hands. She sailed for this company for 40 years and another 5 for the Ann Arbor Railroad before laying up in Frankfort in 1982. She sat there until being sold for a museum. Later moved to her present berth in Manistee, she is open for tours as the last unmodified classic railroad ferry. (The older paddlewheel steam railroad ferries "Lansdowne", built in 1884, was modified to support a restaurant in antique railcars in Erie, Pa; and the "Huron", built in 1875, was stripped of her cabins and sank at a pier in Detroit. The hull of the Landowne was raised and towed to Buffalo. The mayor and daily newspaper have inveighed against the Lansdowne, calling it an eyesore. She has since been srcapped.

Manitoulin Island

The SS "Norisle" is a museum ship berthed permanently at the Manitowaning Heritage Complex. She is one of three surviving running mates, the others being the "Norgoma" and the "Normac". She was built in 1946, the first ship built in post-WW II Canada, using engines intended for a Royal Canadian destroyer. "Norisle" ran until 1974 when she was replaced by the MS "Chi-Cheemaun". Plans call for sinking the "Norisle" as a tourist dive site. A group, Friends of The Norisle, some 200 strong, has formed to lobby against this loss of history.


The "Milwaukee Clipper", another passenger steamer. Built in 1904, she served as a passenger/package freighter for the Pennsylvania Railroad marine division called the Anchor Line as the Stmr. "Juniata". In 1940, after several years in layup, she was sold and converted to an excursion steamer between Muskegon & Milwaukee. Laid up in the 1970s, she lingered for 30 years before returning to Muskegon as a museum. Also in Muskegon is the USCGC "McLane", a 1920s vintage Coast Guard cutter used to combat the rum-runners in Detroit during Prohibition.


The SS "Keewatin", a former Canadian Pacific passenger liner. Built in Scotland in 1907, the boat steamed between Fort William, Ontario and Port McNicoll for over 50 years until being sold for scrap in 1967. Saved from the wrecker's torch, the Keewatin was towed to Saugatuck, Michigan use as a museum in 1968. She is the last unmodified Great Lakes passenger liner in existence and a wonderful example of Edwardian luxury. "Keewatin" is one of the world's last coal-fired steamships. A Toronto Star article (June 24-07) documents a Canadian effort to see the venerable steamer returned to Dominion waters as a museum ship at Port McNicoll.

Sault Ste. Marie, Mi

The "Valley Camp" was built in 1917 and served the National Steel Corporation, the Republic Steel Corporation, and Wilson Transit Co. during her 1917-1966 working life. She became a museum ship on the waterfront of the 'American Soo', east of the Soo Locks, in 1968.

Sault Ste. Marie, ON

The MS "Norgoma", berthed in the Canadian Soo, was built as a steamer carrying freight and passengers in 1950. She ran from Owen Sound to Sault Ste. Marie from 1950 to 1963 on the so-called Turkey Trail. In 1963, the Norgoma was converted to a car ferry, her former role taken over by trucks, buses and automobiles. She ran between Tobermory to Manitoulin Island. At this time, the "Norgoma" was converted to diesel power. She became a museum ship in 1980. See:



Failed museum attempts

Several other lakers almost became museums, but due to funding, political opposition or other causes, were sent to the scrapyard.

*"Lewis G Harriman" - a 1923 purpose-built cement carrier, the first of her kind, that sailed from her launch until 1980. Used as a storage barge until 2003, a group tried to save her but bad communications within the company saw the ship sold for scrap in 2004 and destroyed in Sault Ste. Marie. The majority of the hull was fed to the Algoma Steel Mill but the fo'c'sle was saved as a summer cottage at Detour, Michigan.
*SS "Niagara" - 1897 built freighter, later converted to a sand-sucker. Scrapped in 1997 by Liberty Iron & Metal of Erie, Pennsylvania after a failed attempt to convert her into a museum in Erie, she had been saved from the scrapyard 11 years earlier.
*"John Ericsson" - The second-to-last whaleback freighter. The "Ericsson" was scrapped in 1969 in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. Politics, as was the case with the "Canadiana", played a central role in the loss of the ship.
* Three-masted schooner "J.T. Wing" - Last commercial sailing ship on the Great Lakes, used briefly in the lumber trade on the Great Lakes. She served as a training vessel before being grounded on Belle Isle in 1949. She was used as a museum ship, before being burned before a crowd of 6000 in 1956.
* Three masted schooner "Alvin Clark" - Built in 1846 for the lumber trade, she sank in Green Bay in 1864. She was raised in 1965 and taken to Menominee as a museum. After being severely neglected for a number of years, she was dismantled in 1998.
*SS "Seaway Queen" - The Canadian straight decker Seaway Queen, formerly owned by Upper Lakes Shipping was involved in an attempt to save her as a museum. Dock space was arranged, but due to an accounting error, the ship was lost to the scrappers at Alang, India in 2004.

Possible future museum potential

*"Normac" - 1902 built fire tug converted into passenger/packet steamer for the Owen Sound Transportation Company Ltd. Larger running mates "Norisle" and "Norgoma" have been converted into museum ships. After a stint as a floating restaurant in Toronto that was terminated when accidentally rammed by a ferry, the Normac was towed to Port Dalhousie, Ontario, where she serves as the floating cocktail lounge "Big Kahuna."
*"Imperial Sarnia" - 1948 built steam tanker. The "Imperial Sarnia" is ending her days as the dead bunkering vessel "Provmar Terminal II" in Hamilton, Ontario. While some freighters, such as Great Lakes bulk carriers, Liberty and Victory ships, have survived as museum ships, no conventional tankers have. The tanker museum ships that do exist, the "Falls of Clyde" and the "Meteor", are known for being examples of unique vessel designs: an iron sailing ship and a whaleback, respectively.
*"Cement Steamers" - The cement fleet of steamers is rapidly being supplanted by tug/barge combinations like the "Integrity" and "Innovation". Among these are the "E M Ford" (1898), the "J B Ford" (1904), the "St. Marys Challenger" (1906), "S T Crapo" (1927), the "J.A.W. Iglehart" (1936), "Alpena" (1942), and the "Paul H Townsend" (1945.)
*"Arthur M Anderson" launched in 1952, is still running. She is famous for having had the last contact with the "Edmund Fitzgerald" before the latter sank. She was also the first would-be rescue vessel to search for the "Fitzgerald".
*" Lansdowne" – The paddlewheel steam railroad ferry "Lansdowne", built in 1884, was modified to support a restaurant in antique railcars and the Huron, built in 1875, sank at a pier in Erie, Pennsylvania. The hull was raised but little other information as to the future of the vessel has been forthcoming. The hulk was towed to Buffalo, New York in July 2006. The mayor of Buffalo in the winter of 2008 has called it an eyesore and is calling for its removal. The Lansdowne is being scrapped at this writing, July 2008.

Museum or historic ships at risk

A number of historic museum ships face uncertain futures.

*The aforementioned "E M Ford", cement steamer, is as of August 2008, slated for scrapping at the end of the year or the beginning of 2009 according to press reports. She may face the same fate as the lost Lewis G Harriman.

*There is a campaign to draw the public's attention to the need to renovate the whaleback tanker ship "Meteor" in Superior, Wisconsin.

*Perhaps best-known among ships at risk is Toledo's "Willis B Boyer." The future of the "Boyer" has taken a turn for the better with the port authority taking ownership, providing payment for the ship's caretaker in the Spring of 2007. The "Toledo Blade" and other local media outlets have provided editorial support.

*"SS Norisle" at Manitoulin Island. Plans call for the ship to be towed and scuttled as a dive site. The "Friends of the Norisle" have formed to oppose this loss. Supportive articles and letters to the editor have appeared in the "Manitoulin Expositor" newspaper.


External links

* [ Great Lakes shipping news & photos]
* [ "Valley Camp" website]

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