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National Museum of the Great Lakes marks bicentennial of steam power on Great Lakes

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    The MV Hon. James L. Oberstar approaches for its rendezvous with the mailboat J.W. Westcott II to receive a cake from the National Museum of the Great Lakes commemorating the 200th anniversary of steam power's introduction on the upper lakes.

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    Don Wallace of Maumee, representing the National Museum of the Great Lakes, and Bill Redding, captain of the mailboat J.W. Westcott II, prepare to deliver the museum's cake marking the 200th anniversary of steam propulsion's arrival on Lake Erie to the lake freighter MV Hon. James L. Oberstar.

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DETROIT — A lake freighter that was among the last steamships built for Great Lakes service received a cake Friday marking the 200th anniversary of steam propulsion’s advent on Lake Erie.

“Of all the possible vessels, this one is very appropriate,” Bill Redding, the captain Friday morning of the mailboat J.W. Westcott II, said before delivering the ceremonial cake to the M.V. Hon. James L. Oberstar as it sailed the Detroit River with taconite ore destined for AK Steel in Dearborn, Mich.

WATCH: Cake is delivered to the M.V. Hon. James L. Obersta

The cake provided by the National Museum of the Great Lakes celebrates the August, 1818, arrival in Detroit of the steamship Walk-in-the-Water, the first ship not reliant on fickle wind to transit Lake Erie.

The anniversary calls attention to “a lot of the history of boating on the Great Lakes, which was and is very important to the economy of the area,” said Don Wallace of Maumee, a volunteer with the Toledo museum who took the cake up to the Westcott dock in Detroit and out onto the river for final delivery.

For the Oberstar’s crew, which had been informed just that morning that the vessel would be the ceremonial cake’s recipient, the occasion was much more prosaic.

“You can never say ‘no’ to cake,” Karly Duquella, the ship’s second mate, said with a smile after hoisting a box containing the cake up to his vessel’s deck. He hustled it aft to the ship’s galley soon thereafter.

Although it had two masts to provide backup propulsion in case its engine failed, the Walk-in-the-Water was registered as a sidewheel steamer.

It was built in 1818 in Black Rock, N.Y. — now part of Buffalo — and normally ran a regular schedule between Buffalo and Detroit, although in 1820 it also sailed to Mackinac Island, making it the first steam-powered vessel to sail on Lake Huron.

A storm in 1821 drove the ship ashore, causing a total loss off the vessel, although all aboard survived.

Steam propulsion “provided the beginning of more reliable transportation on the lakes” compared to sailing vessels “that were propelled by the unpredictable wind,” the Great Lakes museum wrote in a historical summary.

Steam power also allowed ships to become much larger; the largest sailing ship ever on the Great Lakes, built in 1902, was 342 feet long, while just nine years later the Col. James M. Schoonmaker — now moored in Toledo as a museum — was launched at 618 feet long, and later steamships were bigger still.

Among the last was what is now the Oberstar, christened in 1959 as the Shenango II with an original length of 710 feet and powered by an oil-fired steam turbine engine. It was later lengthened to 806 feet after being sold to Interlake Steamship Co. and renamed the Charles M. Beeghly.

Sailing vessels continued to be built long after the Walk-in-the-Water’s appearance because the steam engines and boilers were expensive, heavy, and in the early years prone to catastrophic explosions.

“It would take another 72 years for steamships to outnumber sailing vessels on the Great Lakes,” the museum noted.

Diesel internal-combustion engines became steam’s main competitor during the 20th century. Diesel power now overwhelmingly dominates the United States’ laker fleet and is exclusively used by the Canadians.

“Clean air regulations helped in this process as coal-fired steam engines were seen as significant polluters,” according to the museum’s historical summary.

Among vessels converted from steam power to diesel was the Beeghly, into which Interlake Steamship installed diesel engines in 2009. That was two years before it renamed the ship in honor of Mr. Oberstar, who retired from Congress that year after representing the Duluth, Minn. area for 36 years. Mr. Oberstar died in 2014.

One of the lakes’ remaining handful of steam-turbine ships is a regular caller to Toledo.

The 1942-built steamship Alpena, the oldest of its kind still in service, routinely hauls Michigan cement to the LaFarge dock just downriver from Toledo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge.

And despite its age and the recent conversions of similar vessels to barges, operator Inland Lakes Management repaired the Alpena after a multi-million-dollar electrical fire at a Wisconsin shipyard in late 2015 heavily damaged one end of the ship.

The Alpena’s continued operation means there are likely at least a few more years of steam propulsion to go as the history of commercial Great Lakes vessels passes its bicentennial.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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