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Toledo museum adds piece of Great Lakes history

Historic steamship pilothouse lands on Toledo’s shore

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    Stevedores guide the pilothouse from St. Mary’s Challenger off the M.V. Paul R. Tregurtha.

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    The Challenger’s pilothouse will be added to the collection at the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

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Stevedores guide the pilothouse from St. Mary’s Challenger off the M.V. Paul R. Tregurtha.

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When it sailed its last voyage as a steamship in 2013, the St. Mary’s Challenger was the oldest vessel on the Great Lakes.

When built 106 years earlier under a different name, it was part of the same Shenango Furnace Co. fleet that later included the Col. James M. Schoonmaker, now the crown jewel of the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo.

And now the pilothouse from that venerable vessel, which was converted to a barge between the 2013 and 2014 shipping seasons, is joining the collection at the Toledo museum and may become the focal point of a modest expansion project.

The piece arrived Friday aboard the M.V. Paul R. Tregurtha, the modern “Queen of the Lakes” — the lakes’ largest ship at 1,013 feet long.

The pilothouse, from which the officers of the St. Mary’s Challenger directed its operation, is planned to be part of the second floor of a 2,000-square-foot addition to the museum, said Christopher Gillcrist, president of the Great Lakes Historical Society, which operates the museum.

An elevator and other accommodations can be provided to make the pilothouse accessible to elderly and people with disabilities for whom access to the Schoonmaker is difficult, if not impossible, Mr. Gillcrist said. As part of the museum building, it would also be open year round, while the museum ship is closed during the colder months.

“We can’t make the Schoonmaker handicap-accessible — it’s never gonna happen,” he said. “But Challenger pilothouse accessibility doesn’t overburden the structure historically. It [the addition] also fills the need for a temporary exhibit hall, instead of using our community room for that purpose.”

Christened the S.S. William V. Snyder, the vessel that would become the Challenger was the first of six vessels built for Shenango Furnace Co. in the early 20th century; the Schoonmaker became that fleet’s flagship in 1911.

The Stewart Furnace Co. renamed the ship Elton Hoyt II after buying it in 1926, and it passed along in 1930 to the Interlake Steamship Co., which kept the Hoyt name until 1952, when it was changed to Alex D. Chisholm. The ship worked the iron-ore trade until 1966, when it was sold to Medusa Portland Cement.

Its conversion to a cement carrier — first Medusa Challenger, then Southdown Challenger, and finally St. Mary’s Challenger from 2005 onward — proved vital to the ship’s survival during ensuing years when smaller ore ships were cut up for scrap, supplanted by much bigger ships such as the Tregurtha and made surplus by steel-industry contraction.

In its later years, according to a vessel history on the maritime website, the Challenger did most of its work on Lake Michigan routes, but its history included making the first delivery to Medusa’s new Toledo cement dock in 1987.

In its final years, the Challenger was the last U.S.-flag freighter built before World War II still in service, the Boatnerd history states. Mr. Gillcrist noted that only freshwater vessels enjoy such longevity, because saltwater corrosion makes 30 years a long life for ocean-going freighters.

By 2013, operating the Challenger as a self-propelled vessel was deemed no longer economical, and plans were made to convert it to a barge, according to a Great Lakes museum statement.

During barge conversion the following winter at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., the ship’s pilothouse was saved and stored. After the Toledo museum was chosen to receive it, the pilothouse was loaded last month aboard the Tregurtha before it left Sturgeon Bay at the end of its winter lay-up.


The Challenger’s pilothouse will be added to the collection at the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

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The pilothouse was placed on the Tregurtha’s foredeck for its voyage to Toledo, which included stops in Escanaba, Mich., for loading iron-ore pellets for delivery to the Lakefront Dock in Oregon and for unloading at the latter facility.

Interlake Steamship, which owns the Tregurtha as well as being a past owner of the Challenger, provided the transportation to Toledo for free.

“It’s an important part of our history, and what the Great Lakes have done for American history,” said Mark Barker, Interlake’s president and a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society’s board.

“Manufacturing has grown up around the Great Lakes for a reason: access to raw materials and efficient water transportation,” Mr. Barker said, noting Interlake celebrated its corporate centennial in 2013.

The Tregurtha and its historic cargo arrived Friday morning at the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s general-cargo dock on the Maumee River — itself a rare upriver appearance by a “Thousand Footer,” because Toledo river terminals’ traffic is typically handled either by smaller lakers or ocean-going ships.

“It seemed like the natural thing to do,” said Jason Lowery, vice president of corporate development for Midwest Terminals of Toledo, which donated its work Friday unloading the pilothouse from the Tregurtha and will also store it at no cost until the planned museum expansion is ready.

“Early vessels” are of great significance to the Great Lakes and their maritime industry, so “it’s very important to help the museum any way we can,” Mr. Lowery said.

Mr. Gillcrist said the museum addition is expected to cost $600,000 to $800,000, which the Great Lakes Historical Society plans to finance with a donation drive.

City and port authority approvals will be needed for the project, which the society hopes to complete by the end of next year, he said.

Besides of its enhancement to the museum’s exhibits, Mr. Gillcrist said, the pilothouse will open up part of the museum’s interior to the river and boost its visibility to motorists passing nearby on the I-280 Veterans’ Glass City Skyway.

“It will be a real interesting addition, visually, to the building,” Mr. Gillcrist said, likening its eye-catching power to that of the bow, forward cabins, and pilothouse of the freighter Benson Ford on South Bass Island.

The Ford relic was placed in 1986 on a rocky outcrop and converted into a cottage. Its visibility from passing Put-in-Bay ferries made it an instant landmark.

Contact David Patch at: or 419-724-6094.

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