“You Call That Damn Thing a Boat?”
MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, SHIPS THAT LOOKED LIKE NUCLEAR SUBMARINES WERE EVERYWHERE ON THE GREAT LAKES
But for the cabins and smokestacks on their sterns, you might almost think the vessels shown on these pages were advanced underwater craft. Like submarines, they have hulls streamlined to minimize the resistance of the water they plow through. That hull design was conceived in the 1870s and 1880s by the Scottish-born Great Lakes captain Alexander McDougall, who had begun his career at 16 as a deck hand and porter and worked his way up to the command of ships by the time he was 25. He combined innovative thinking with all the knowledge he had gathered on the Great Lakes to come up with a truly radical new kind of ship.
Because of their unique appearance, having rounded tops and riding low in the water, McDougall’s vessels were called “whale-backs.” Nearly four dozen of them plied the Great Lakes (and occasionally other waterways) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They typically carried bulk iron ore and wheat from ports on Lake Superior to manufacturing centers on the lower lakes and coal on the return journey. Before them, most of the bulk carriers on the lakes had been wooden schooners, which had very limited cargo space. Starting in the late 1860s, as increased shipping volumes created a need for bigger ships, iron vessels powered by coal-burning steam engines slowly became available, but their costs were often too high.
Captain McDougall envisioned a steel ship that could be built and operated as economically as any wooden one but would be better suited to handling bulk materials. His objective was to provide maximum cargo tonnage in a minimum depth of water along with improved stability in rough seas. The ship would be built from smooth plates and frames preformed at the rolling mill. The hull would have a convex top to let water roll off, straight sides, a conical bow, and a flat bottom, minimizing friction and letting the ship glide smoothly and rapidly through the sea. Cylindrical turrets would extend from the hull to support the cabin and working decks. As McDougall improved his idea during the 1880s, he devised hatches across the top deck to allow fast loading from chutes at ports and easy unloading by bucket conveyors.
After patenting his earliest design in 1881, McDougall built a number of models and took them to shipbuilders in hope of gaining financial backing, but the whaleback concept was too advanced. McDougall persevered and, at his own expense, built a prototype on land he owned in Duluth, Minnesota. Before it was sheathed, the steel frame emanating from the keel looked like the rib cage of a giant carcass. McDougall finished the 178-foot-long craft, with hatches across its top, as a nonpowered barge and named it the 101. According to one story, McDougall chose the name because he had been offered 10-to-1 odds against the craft’s success.
Upon completion, in June 1888, the 101 was launched and towed to a port near Duluth, where it took on a bulk load of 1,200 tons of iron ore bound for Cleveland. The vessel quickly came to be called a whaleback, but it also got another name, as McDougall explained in his autobiography: “I could not get anything from ship owners and from captains except comments such as: ‘She will roll over, having no masts to hold her up,’ or, ‘…Why, it looks more like a pig.’” Sailors took to calling whalebacks “pig boats.” The 101 made it to Cleveland without incident, but shipbuilders still weren’t ready to embrace the concept, so McDougall built a model for a whaleback that would be half again as big and he took the model to New York City.
There a group of businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller, agreed to back the concept. With their help, McDougall founded the American Steel Barge Company and began building a dry dock at West Superior, Wisconsin. While it was being built, he continued to operate the Duluth yard, which launched six more whalebacks (five barges and one steamer) before the company moved to West Superior in 1889. In 1890 the yard launched its first whaleback, and, over the next seven years, 34 followed. The strange-looking freighters began replacing wooden bulk-cargo ships on the lakes and occasionally showing up elsewhere.
One of the earliest, the Charles W. Wetmore , named after one of McDougalPs backers, became the first to travel beyond North America. In 1891 it carried 95,000 bushels of wheat down the St. Lawrence and across the Atlantic to Liverpool, proving the seaworthiness of the design. Later that year the Wetmore steamed around the Horn, carrying building materials for the new city of Everett, Washington. The City of Everett , launched in 1894 in Everett, became the only whaleback to circumnavigate the globe, but it was lost in 192.3 in the Gulf of Mexico en route from Cuba to New Orleans.
When the 1893 Chicago world’s fair, known as the Columbian Exposition, was being planned as a celebration of the achievements of modern society in the arts, science, and technology, McDougall recognized a prime chance to publicize his unlikely design. He conceived a passenger whaleback as an elaborate ferryboat to carry visitors the six miles between downtown Chicago and the fairgrounds at Jackson Park. Its hull would contain compartments for freight or baggage, and its turrets would support a multiple-deck passenger compartment. The one-of-a-kind ship was built in 1892 at the West Superior yards in less than three months and named the Christopher Columbus . It had a ballast capacity of 4,000 tons and was built for 5,000 passengers but actually carried 7,500 people on its inaugural trip from West Superior into the lake and back.
When the Christopher Columbus arrived at the fair, on May 18, 1893, it was received with great enthusiasm. A souvenir booklet proclaimed it the greatest marine wonder of its time. Stretching 362 feet long and 42 feet wide at the beam, it could attain 17 knots, driven by two coal-burning triple-expansion steam engines producing 2,600 horsepower. Its low-riding hull carried 730 tons of water ballast in nine compartments. Seven cylindrical turrets supported its multilevel deck structure, and staircases inside the turrets provided access between decks and hull.
It was a spectacular hit with the fairgoers, transporting 1.7 million people during the exposition. When the fair was over, the Christopher Columbus went into regular passenger service on the 9o-mile run between Chicago and Milwaukee. It was retired in 1931 and scrapped in 1936, but two of its anchors, specially designed by McDougall, survived and can be seen today at the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia. They are as unorthodox as the whaleback design itself, with an odd-looking triangular shape.
With the Christopher Columbus such a success, McDougall drew up plans for a whaleback warship and presented them to the Secretary of the Navy. The Navy set up a commission to examine the scheme, but the commission rejected it, arguing that the ship’s guns would have to ride too low in the water to be aimed effectively in rough seas.
Lake Superior was a graveyard for ships in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some driven onto rocks, some foundering in violent storms, and some sinking after colliding with other ships. The whalebacks were no exception, and the wreck of the Thomas Wilson , in 1902, was the most poignant loss. The Wilson was one of the largest whalebacks, 308 feet long with a 38-foot beam and a zy-foot draft. It entered service in 1892, hauling wheat from Duluth to Buffalo and coal on the return trip. On June 7, 1902, it was leaving Duluth with a load of iron ore when it was rammed amidships by a wooden ship, the George G. Hadley , that had made a turn and couldn’t stop. The Wilson sank within minutes, taking nine crew members with it. It came to rest in 70 feet of water, with its stern spar still protruding above the surface. The shallowness of the water and the wreck’s proximity to shore led to a number of salvage attempts, but they all failed. In the 1970s, a team of scuba divers recovered the Wilson ’s anchors, entered its hull through the hatches, and collected a number of artifacts that are now displayed at the S.S. Meteor Whaleback Ship and Maritime Museum, in Superior, Wisconsin. The ship’s anchors, one of them of the odd triangular type, are at the Canal Park Marine Museum in Duluth.
The Meteor Museum is home to the longest-lived whaleback of all. The Meteor was launched at West Superior as the Frank Rockefeller in 1896. It was renamed the South Park in 192.8, and a few years later, suitably refitted, it began carrying automobiles. In 1942. it ran onto rocks during a bad storm on Lake Michigan. The next year it was recovered, rebuilt as a tanker, and given its final name. It was retired in 1969, and in 1972. it was permanently berthed at Superior, where it now not only is a museum but is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Alexander McDougall died in 192.3, when he was 78, some 25 years after his last whaleback had been launched. A few were still in service, but except for the Meteor , they all are gone now, fallen to the sea or the scrapyard. By the turn of the century, much larger cargo ships were needed on the Great Lakes; the whaleback, with its rounded decks and other eccentricities, couldn’t be scaled up for them. The new bulk carriers were several times the size of the largest of McDougall’s ships.
Fortunately for us, the preservation of the Meteor makes it still possible to step back in time and board a nineteenth-century whaleback. Guided tours are available daily from mid-May to mid-October, so that anyone can experience what more than a century ago led grave and responsible captains to exclaim, “You call that damn thing a boat?”