Live Chat With Al Miller - Author of Tin Stackers
Transcript from October 15

Boatnerd:
Good evening and thank you for logging on. I am Boatnerd AKA Neil Schultheiss and I will be the moderator for tonight's live chat.

Our guest tonight is Al Miller, author of Tin Stackers The History of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company. If you have any questions you would like to ask the author tonight, please click on the link below.

It is now my pleasure to welcome Al Miller. -- Good evening Al and thank you for joining us tonight.
I have to tell you Al, I think Tin Stackers is one of the best books to come out in a long time and I really enjoyed reading it.

Boatnerd:
The first question I would like to ask is Why did you write 'Tin Stackers?'
Al:
After writing several journal articles about Great Lakes history since 1987, I was looking for a large, serious project. Pat Labadie, head of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center in Duluth, suggested I do a book about the history of USS Great Lakes Fleet. The idea of doing a book was a daunting prospect, but I decided to try to write the kind of 'boatnerd' book that I would enjoy reading.
Boatnerd:
How long did it take you to write it?
Al:
I started interviewing people and doing research in January 1996. I did most of the writing during the summer of '97. Wayne State University Press decided to take the book early in 1998. That spring I was getting the photos together, proofreading and working with an editor. I was finally done with it early in 1999. It wasn't constant work. There were long periods where I was just waiting to get the manuscript back from the press.
Boatnerd:
How did you do the research?
Al:
A lot of retired Pittsburgh sailors live in the Duluth area, so I started by interviewing them. I did some work at the Library of Congress, and I obtained quite a bit of photocopied material from the Great Lakes Historical Society and the Center for Archival Studies at Bowling Green State University. Most of the work, however, took place at Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center in Duluth. It has quite a bit of material that's been donated by U.S. Steel over the years.
Boatnerd:
Did you also interview some people for the book?
Al:
Yes. I talked to about a dozen retirees, both in person and over the phone. Everyone was very gracious and helpful. They really filled in the gaps in my knowledge with information I've never seen or heard. I also had a lot of interview notes that I had saved from years past when I covered shipping for the Duluth News-Tribune
Boatnerd:
How did you find a publisher?
Al:
I knew Wayne State University Press had a line of books about the Great Lakes. After a brief flirtation with a local publisher, I contacted WSUP, and they were interested right away. Most university presses specialize in different topics, so it was mainly just a matter of sending the right kind of manuscript to the right publisher.
Boatnerd:
What was the coolest thing you learned?
Al:
Man, there was so much cool stuff. If I had to name just one thing, I'd say it was talking to the retired guys and learning what life was like on the boats, how they learned their trade and progressed in rank.
Boatnerd:
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
Al:
Mostly the procedural stuff. Writing up footnotes was tough because the style is so picky. Doing an index was pretty tedious. Getting written permission from all the people I interviewed and all the places that provided photos also time-consuming. Writing a book involves a lot work that doesn't have much to do with writing.
Boatnerd:
How did you select the photos for the book?
Al:
I thought that would be the easiest thing in the world, so I saved it until last. You know, just spend a day looking through boat pics and choosing my 50 favorites. What a mistake. It was really tough. First, I needed to choose photos that illustrated important parts of the book: what certain types of ships look like; certain wrecks; ships involved in specific tasks, like loading or unloading. That was hard. I looked at thousands of photos and it's hard to narrow that many down to just 50, which was the number that WSUP wanted to work with. Then I had to get the photos copied, and obtain and pay for publishing rights. All that took about two months of pretty much nonstop work in the spring of 1998.
Boatnerd:
You described the McGonagle at some length. Why? Were you ever aboard it?
Al:
The William A. McGonagle is one of my favorite boats. To me, it was the quintessential Great Lakes boat: A 600-foot straight-decker with a triple expansion engine. A friend and I managed to travel aboard it was guests in the early '80s on one of its runs from Duluth to Buffalo when it belonged to the Kinsman fleet. They gave us pretty much the run of the boat, and the guys aboard were only too happy to share their knowledge with us.
Boatnerd:
How long have you been a boatwatcher?
Al:
I first got interested in the boats in 1970 when I took a vacation with my parents to the Soo and Mackinac Island. After we got back home, I went to the public library and checked out every book it had about the Great Lakes. I've been hooked ever since. I moved to Duluth in 1982 and I've pursued it pretty vigorously since then.
Boatnerd:
What's your favorite boat?
Al:
Geez, can I only name one?

Definitely the Charles M. Beeghly. It was the first boat I ever saw up close because, when I was a kid on vacation, our Soo Locks tour boat locked through with the Beeghly. We were so close you could hear the Chadburn bells in the pilothouse.

A close second would be the late, great William A. McGonagle. I've always prefered the older straight-deckers. It was a beautiful boat -- triple expansion engine, all the cabins paneled in oak; tiny pilothouse.

Boatnerd:
What's your favorite book about the boats?
Al:
Anything by Dwight Boyer, but especially his "Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes." He knew and talked to a lot of the old sailors who are long gone now, so he had really good information about the early days. And he was such a good story-teller; writing with such eloquence and, when appropriate, humor.
Boatnerd:
Have you written other works?
Al:
I've written quite a few articles for the "Nor'Easter," which is published by the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association in Duluth. Several of those articles also have appeared in Inland Seas. I've also written articles for Minnesota History and American Neptune. Those were all historical articles. I also wrote an article about tugboats in Duluth for Minnesota Monthly, which is a magazine put out by public radio in the Twin Cities. When I wrote for the Duluth News-Tribune, I also did occasional fun articles, like ones about tugboats, ore boat cooks and the vanishing triple expansion engine (that was in the mid-'80s. They have since vanished).
Boatnerd:
Are there any plans to write more? When will see the next book by Al Miller?
Al:
Writing about the boats is a hobby for me, but it's also hard work, so I try to keep it from getting too demanding. But I definitely will write more articles. I've got a couple in the works now. The problem is that the research is so time-consuming that the more complex articles take months or years to do. I'd like to take a shot at another book, but I've got to come up with a decent topic first.
Boatnerd:
We just had a question come in from Mike Luly of Atlanta

Mike Luly of Atlanta writes:
Hi Al- Loved the book. In Chapter 8 you wrote about the first 50 years of Pittsburgh Steam and at the summed up the almost next 50 years. What is your position on the next century for GLF?

Al:
I think the fleet will get smaller. It's already indicated that it will get rid of the older boats in the next few years. I doubt we'll see new boats any time soon. I wouldn't be surprised if the next generation of boats someday has an extremely small crew, much like some of the new salties.

Al:
I should thank Mike publicly for the contribution he made to the Marine Museum of information about the 1905 storm. It really enabled me to add a lot to the book.

Boatnerd:
Thank you Al and thank you Mike

If there are no more questions I will end by saying that Tin Stackers The History of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company is available at knowyourships.com or your local book seller. Please see the main Tin Stackers page for complete details.

This concludes our live chat. I would again like to thank Al Miller for talking the time to talk with us tonight. A transcript of this chat will be available on the Tin Stackers site later tonight.

If you click on the "Exit Live Chat" button below you will have the option to click on a link to the Public Chat Room. 

Thank you for joining us tonight, I hope to offer similar programming in the near future.

Good night, Neil

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