Chapter 5: War and Peace

The events of 1914 were troubling yet distant to most Americans. Mexico was locked in political turmoil, and the unrest was bubbling across the border into Texas and the new state of Arizona. At home, people fortunate enough to have jobs were grappling with a new federal income tax while thousands of the less fortunate were joining Jacob Coxey as he led his second "army" of unemployed men in a march on Washington, D.C. In the midst of these troubling times came news June 28 that a Serbian assassin had shot the archduke and duchess of Austria. Over the summer, the tangled web of Europe's military alliances inexorably drew the continent into war. As the situation worsened, President Woodrow Wilson resolutely declared the United States would remain neutral in the conflict.

As the European powers slaughtered a generation of their young men, the United States remained largely unaffected, although the nation's sympathy increasingly was on the side of Britain and France after German submarines began attacking ships on the high seas. By 1916, however, American industries began experiencing strong demand for their goods because of the war. As industrial production grew, increasing demands were made for cargo hauled by Great Lakes ships.

Pittsburgh Steamship Company's HENRY PHIPPS inaugurated the busy 1916 navigation season April 17 on Lake Michigan. Other ships quickly joined in, and the combined lake fleets carried 8.4 million tons of iron ore in May -- the most ever in a single month. They promptly topped that record by carrying 9 million tons in June. The rapid pace continued until September 1, when a nationwide rail car shortage began causing delays in moving ore from the mines to the loading docks and from the lower lake docks to the steel mills. By the end of the season, lake fleets had carried 64.7 million tons of ore, well above the previous seasonal record of 49 million tons set three years earlier.

Led by Harry Coulby, the Pittsburgh Steamship Company continued to increase its tonnage capacity by building ships that not only were longer and wider, but which also were easier to unload. The fleet sold half a dozen small steamers over 1914 and 1915. Their tonnage was replaced in 1916 when the fleet made a major purchase of vessels from the famous Hawgood fleet, which was being broken up and sold off. The Pittsburgh fleet snapped up six ships, which were renamed E.C. COLLINS, A.H. FERBERT, JOHN H. McLEAN, PENTECOST MITCHELL, R.R. RICHARDSON and MacGILVARY SHIRAS. The vessels were relatively short -- all were 430 to 440 feet long. But they were fast, reasonably new and, considering the sudden industrial demand prompted by the war, available at the right time.

The fleet's most notable additions in 1916, however, were the new D.G. KERR and WILLIAM A. McGONAGLE. These were big, brawny ships: 600 feet long overall and 60 feet abeam. From bow to stern, they were the Great Lakes freighter at its zenith.

The McGONAGLE was built by Great Lake Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan. Its hull was made of hundreds of the finest inch-thick steel plates, held together by pneumatically driven steel rivets. On the ship's forward end, most of the deckhands, deckwatch and wheelsmen lived in the forecastle, while the mates shared cabins in the stout steel deckhouse. Many earlier vessels had large, rectangular windows on the deckhouse, which proved susceptible to storm damage. New ships like the McGONAGLE had portholes, which were stronger than windows and could be secured from inside with watertight steel covers. Atop the deckhouse, the pilothouse was paneled in oak, with windows on all sides offering a 360-degree view. No detail was too small for the shipbuilders' attention: The threshold between the single owner's cabin and the captain's bathroom was covered with a sheet of brass. Tiny tacks hammered into the brass formed a diamond surrounding the letter P -- symbolic of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company.

From outward appearances, the ship's stern was dominated by the white, steel deckhouse that sat on the spar deck aft of the cargo hatches. Inside were the galley, an oak-paneled dining room for the officers, a smaller messroom for the other men, and cabins for the chief engineer, assistant engineers, firemen, oilers, steward and porters. But the stern was really dominated by the boiler room and the adjoining engine room, which housed the 2,200 horsepower triple expansion steam engine -- the most powerful of any engine in the fleet.

Engine "room" and boiler "room" were really misnomers, for these spaces were really cathedrals to the latest technology in marine engineering. The engine room was an open compartment extending from the very bottom of the ship up to the spar deck and on through the center of the deckhouse to a set of skylights on the structure's roof. A person standing on the bottom of the hull -- in what was called the crank room, where the propeller shaft whirled around seventy times a minute -- looked up through the equivalent of a four-story building to the skylights.

To enter, the engine room crew -- men from the forward end generally weren't welcome unless invited by the chief engineer -- passed through a watertight door in the rear of the deckhouse. They descended a steel companionway to a deck housing the black, oily steering engine that translated the turns of the ship's steering wheel 600 feet away into movements of the rudder. On this deck, on both the port and starboard side of the ship, were the engine room gangways -- steel Dutch doors in the side of the hull that could be opened for loading parts or for ventilation while under way and bolted shut during foul weather. Descending another companionway brought men to the main engine room level. At this point they were below the ship's waterline, in a purely mechanical world permeated by the soft, pungent smell of warm oil. The room was kept meticulously clean, and all parts and tools were carefully stowed. A small desk provided a place for the chief to keep his log and attend to paperwork. Nearby was a brass engine room telegraph or Chadburn that relayed commands from the pilothouse to the engine room. Behind the desk were a rack for tools, a telephone station for communicating with the pilothouse and the switchboard that provided direct current electrical power throughout the ship. Small auxiliary pumps and motors were positioned around the engine room.

Dominating the engine room was the towering triple expansion engine -- so named because steam entering the engine passed through three cylinders, driving the massive pistons up and down and expanding in each cylinder as it cooled and lost strength. The engine stood on steel legs, which supported the cylinder chamber at the top. Extending down from each cylinder was a piston rod and then a connecting rod that attached to a crank, which in turn connected to the propeller shaft one level below the main engine room. As the pistons pumped up and down, they worked the piston rods and connecting rods, which spun the crank and turned the shaft. At full speed, the engine was a noisy but smooth-running symphony of moving parts. While an assistant engineer attended to the gauges and throttle on the side of the engine, an oiler walked on a steel grate catwalk among the flashing rods, flicking his hand onto moving parts to feel for heat, and deftly squirting oil from a long-necked oil can. Engine rooms were noisy and hot, and men on watch took every opportunity to stand for a minute or two beneath the ventilators that scooped in air above the stern cabin and funneled it below deck.

Passing through another bulkhead brought the engine room crew into the gloomy recesses of the boiler room. When launched, the McGONAGLE had three Scotch boilers. On each watch, two or three firemen shoveled coal from the bunker at the rear of the boiler room into the roaring furnaces beneath each boiler. It was dirty, exhausting work in a part of the ship where temperatures commonly exceeded 100 degrees. Firemen had to carefully tend their fires to ensure steady boiler pressure at all times. On each watch they used long steel rakes and slice bars to wing the live coals over to one side of the furnace and pull the burned-out cinders or "clinkers" out the furnace door and onto the boiler room floor. There they were doused with water and washed overboard through a special water-powered chute. For thousands of young men, their first job aboard a Pittsburgh ship was as a fireman. For most, the backbreaking work was powerful incentive to move up in rank or to seek employment ashore.

As the McGONAGLE, KERR and other ships of the Pittsburgh fleet prepared for the 1917 season, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6. Demand for iron ore continued at unprecedented levels, and Great Lakes shipping responded with unprecedented effort. Spring was slow in coming to the lakes that year. Ice on Lake Superior was so thick no ore could be shipped in April and the ore ports were closed for days at a time in May. Nearly 100 ships were icebound in Whitefish Bay on May 4, and floating ice remained a menace on the lake until the end of June. To make matters worse, numerous small lakers had been "sold saltwater" over the previous two years, and sent to the Atlantic Coast through the St. Lawrence River canals to meet the heavy demand for oceangoing ships. To ensure all vital cargoes were carried -- and stave off the possibility of government intervention -- the Lake Carriers' Association assumed the role of overseeing vessel movement among its members. When necessary, the Association ordered individual ships to deviate from their normal duties to carry cargoes deemed vital to the war effort.

To meet their contract commitments for iron ore, lake fleets pressed every ship and barge into service, carrying 10 million tons in July. The Pittsburgh fleet received timely help in the form of four new ships: D.M. CLEMSON, EUGENE W. PARGNY, HOMER D. WILLIAMS and AUGUST ZEISING -- all nearly identical to the KERR and McGONAGLE. The fleet used its array of big ships to maximum advantage, setting numerous cargo records in the process. D.G. KERR carried the biggest cargo ever on the Great Lakes when it loaded 13,732 tons of ore September 26 at Escanaba for delivery to South Chicago. On its next trip it carried 13,476 tons. EUGENE W. PARGNY hauled a massive 13,485 tons from Duluth to Gary, but was beaten by A.H. FERBERT, which managed to carry 13,503 tons on the same route. With help from U.S. Steel's railroads, Pittsburgh ships also worked at reducing the amount of time they spent in port -- one of the most important factors in determining how much tonnage a ship could carry in a season. The Duluth and Iron Range Railway dock in Two Harbors loaded 12,032 tons of ore into the THOMAS LYNCH in just two hours and five minutes. The Duluth, Missabe and Northern in Duluth put a similar-sized cargo aboard GEORGE F. BAKER in two hours and fifteen minutes. Big cargoes and prompt attention at the docks enabled the WILLIAM B. SCHILLER to carry 414,683 tons over the course of the season. It was Great Lakes shipping at a level unimaginable just a decade earlier. Communicating with the hundreds of ships nosing about the lakes wasn't easy in these days when wireless sets aboard freighters were cumbersome rarities. Shipmasters did most of their talking using their vessels' steam whistles. When ships met in a narrow waterway or on the open lakes, their masters let each other know how they intended to maneuver by blowing government-prescribed passing signals. When a tug was helping a ship in port, the master of each vessel used whistle signals to order changes in speed and direction. Ships also used whistle signals to send and receive messages from docks, communicate with barges and to identify themselves when passing shore-based reporting stations.

The Lake Carriers' Association published a lengthy manual listing the long and short whistle blasts that identified each fleet and every individual ship. The signals were essential because so many ships were nearly identical in appearance and indistinguishable from a distance. The Pittsburgh Steamship Company used these signals extensively to speed the movement of its vessels as they arrived and departed ports around the lakes. The fleet's identification signal was a long blast, followed by two short blasts and a long blast. There also were signals to identify each of the four classes the fleet used to rate ships by size. Then, each ship had an individual signal. JAMES A. FARRELL, for instance, identified itself with a long blast, a short and a long; WILLIAM A. McGONAGLE's signal was a short and three long. To identify itself, a Pittsburgh ship blew its fleet signal, waited five seconds, blew its class signal, waited another five seconds, then blew its individual signal.

The fleet's regulations required extensive use of whistle signals. Each ship had to signal as it passed Mackinaw City, Michigan. A ship reporter stationed midway between the lighthouse and the car ferry dock noted the time each vessel passed and telegraphed the information to the fleet's dispatch office. It was the best way to time the arrival of ships at various docks and to keep track of vessels so none went unnoticed if wrecked or disabled. As a Tin Stacker approached Two Harbors, it sounded its identification signal. If the ore dock whistle responded with a single long blast, the ship entered port to load. If the dock responded with one short and one long, the ship proceeded to Duluth. Two long blasts meant the ship hould set course for Superior. When an approaching steamer sounded its identification signal at South Chicago, the steel mill dock responded by repeating the signal, then added one blast if the ship was to unload in the north slip or two if it were scheduled for the south slip. Three blasts required the ship to wait for orders while four meant it should proceed to the U.S. Steel mill in Gary. If a steamer approaching a port was scheduled to pick up a barge, it would identify itself. If a barge was ready, it answered with its own name. If not ready, a tug or the dock blew the steamer's fleet, class and name signals and added three long blasts if the steamer was to wait or four short blasts if it was to proceed without the barge. It was an effective if complex -- and noisy -- system of communication.

The incredible demand for iron ore and other cargoes continued into 1918, and the D.G. KERR continued its record-breaking pace. It carried 14,084 tons of limestone out of Calcite, Michigan, on September 3 -- again setting the mark for the largest cargo ever carried. Six weeks later it loaded 478,000 bushels of wheat in Duluth -- the largest wheat cargo ever carried on the lakes. With unprecedented demand for cargo came unprecedented demand for sailors. That brought a return of labor unrest to the lakes. To stave off trouble, lake fleets gave sailors several sizeable wage increases in 1917 and 1918. In 1917, at government direction, the Lake Carriers' Association also eliminated its disputed continuous record discharge books. It issued new ones the following year, but these lacked the "discharge and opinion" section that so many sailors found objectionable. After an armistice was declared in Europe on November 11, 1918, the Lake Carriers' Association reflected on the role Great Lakes shipping played in the Great War. "It is known now of what vital importance to the almost famished people of England and France were the successful efforts in bringing down the wheat during those bitterly cold and stormy days of December one year ago; likewise it is known now that the preponderance of American steel was of telling effect in bringing about the preliminary peace."

Although more than 61 million tons of iron ore was carried in 1918, the navigation season was the shortest on record, lasting just seven months and six days. It was a harbinger of the trouble that lay ahead. As the nation adjusted to peace, industrial production fell sharply. Strikes by workers at ore and coal docks slowed Great Lakes shipping. Many ships didn't sail until midsummer in 1919 while others ended their seasons early. The Pittsburgh fleet handled much of the 47 million tons of ore shipped that season. Many ships from other fleets hauled coal on their upbound journeys and came back down light -- a curious reversal from the usual practice.

By 1920 the nation was in the throes of a recession. The Pittsburgh fleet didn't have all seventy-eight of its steamers under way until late May, and ore shipments were finished before the end of November. Unneeded ore piled up on Lake Erie docks, and a strike by railroad yardmen at the season's height delayed seventy to 100 ships a day. The following season was even worse. Some fleets cut their rates by up to 30 percent in an attempt to attract customers. Even so, about half the ships enrolled in the Lake Carriers' Association didn't sail. Jobs were scarce. Longtime masters sailed as mates, while veteran mates took jobs as bosuns, wheelsmen, even deckhands. It was common to see fifteen licensed officers in a crew of twenty-eight men. A few ships sailed with twenty licensed men aboard.

As if to add a dismal punctuation mark to the season, the Pittsburgh Steamship Company's SUPERIOR CITY was lost in a collision with the WILLIS L. KING above Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior. The two vessels were steaming toward each other just after dark on August 20 when confusion arose over whether the ships would pass each other on the port side or the starboard side. The 429-foot SUPERIOR CITY turned across the path of the oncoming ship, and the KING rammed it at full speed. The ore-laden SUPERIOR CITY plunged to the bottom within two minutes. As the crew struggled to release the lifeboats from their davits atop the after deckhouse, the cold lake water rushed into the engine room and hit the hot boilers, causing a massive explosion that killed virtually everyone on the ship's stern. Only four men survived of the crew of thirty-three.

The Lake Seamen's Union seized upon the troubled times as an opportunity to renew its efforts to organize the lake fleets. In 1920 union officials signed an agreement with many of the small, independent fleets that did away with twelve-hour work days aboard ship in favor of an eight-hour day. They also managed to squeeze a 25 percent pay raise out of the owners. Ever eager to thwart the unions, Pittsburgh Steamship Company and other fleets in the Lake Carriers' Association countered by raising the pay of their men by 30 percent.

Amid the dismal economic news and renewed labor disputes occurred a feat that astonished men in the lakes trade. It was done almost on the spur of the moment and, not surprisingly, involved the D.G. KERR. Captain William P. McElroy had brought the KERR into Two Harbors on September 6, 1921, with a cargo of coal. He expected to quickly unload that cargo, then cross the tiny harbor to the ore docks of the Duluth and Iron Range Railway. But other ships were ahead of the KERR for the single berth at the coal dock. By the next morning, the dock cranes were just beginning to divest the steamer of its load.

At this point, George Watt, dock agent for the Duluth and Iron Range, sought out Captain McElroy. Watt had a simple proposition. To make up for the delay in unloading the coal, Watt and his men would try to load the KERR in record time. If it worked, Watt reasoned, his men could break the record of twenty-five minutes set in 1911 at Superior by the steamer WILLIAM E. COREY. Captain McElroy agreed to give it a try.

To prepare for the job, Watt's office men pulled out their records of the KERR's previous loads. Poring over the papers, they carefully calculated the number of tons they needed to put in each of the ship's thirty-five hatches. It was vital work. If they didn't figure the tonnage just right, the rapid loading could end or twist the ship's hull and cause serious damage.

While the unloading buckets chewed away at the KERR's coal cargo, workers on the ore dock began dumping iron ore into the dock pockets. The KERR was slated to receive a load of low-phosphorous ore from the Pioneer Mine on Minnesota's Vermilion Range. Switch engines pushed strings of ore cars out onto the dock, spotting them over the loading pockets designated for the KERR. Dock men quickly opened the dump hatches on the bottom of each car, allowing the ore to drop into the pockets. After six carloads were dumped into each pocket, more ore cars were spotted on the dock. When the men were done, the KERR's entire cargo was either in the dock pockets or in cars atop the dock waiting to be dumped.

By 4:10 p.m., the KERR was ready to load. Captain McElroy backed the ship away from the coal dock and, with help from the tug EDNA G., turned the steamer toward the south side of Dock 2. As the steamer approached the dock on its starboard side, deckhands dropped mooring lines down to men on the dock wall, who looped them over bollards. Winches on the KERR's deck hissed and clanked, drawing the boat tight to the dock.

Once the ship was secured, the KERR's wheelsmen took their places at the mooring winches while the deckhands gathered around the hatches. First mate C.A. Wallace picked out a spot where he could watch the "tell-tale" that would indicate whether the ship was listing. Atop the dock, some men took their places at the controls that raised and lowered the chutes while others stood by the cars ready to dump them into the dock pockets. Finally, everybody was ready.

Precisely at 4:43:30, Watt and Wallace exchanged signals and the loading began. Ore chutes swung down into the KERR's open hatches and iron ore slid into the hold with roar. Two minutes after loading began, ore was pouring into every one of the steamer's hatches. As each pocket emptied, dock workers raced among the rail cars spotted atop the dock, opening their bottom dump chutes to send more ore thundering through the pockets and directly into the KERR.

The operation was running without a hitch when a mooring cable parted at the ship's bow. The KERR began easing away from the dock, threatening to bring the adventure to a disastrous ending. Frantic shouts and curses brought loading to a halt. Within seconds, however, the EDNA G. surged forward to push the steamer's bow back to the dock and hold it there. Only a minute passed before loading could resume.

More chutes swung down. More cars were emptied. More iron ore slid into the freighter's hold. As the KERR settled lower and lower, it remained perfectly level. Watt's careful planning was paying off. Gradually the roar of moving rock ceased and the ore dock chutes began rising back into place. At exactly 5 p.m. all chutes were up and the KERR was ready to cast off. The men of the Two Harbors ore dock and the KERR had loaded 12,507 tons of ore in an incredible sixteen and one-half minutes. It shattered the old record of 9,362 tons in twenty-five minutes. As dock workers cheered, the EDNA G. helped the KERR back away from the dock and turn toward the open waters of Lake Superior. At 5:20 p.m., the steamer cleared the breakwall even as the deckhands were still closing the hatches.

The KERR's record load drew little attention from the public, but it won praise and admiration among lake and mining men. Skilling's Mining Review, a mining trade journal published in Duluth, described the feat as "almost beyond belief."

"The average person can hardly conceive of 12,507 gross tons being placed aboard a ship in sixteen and a half minutes, and as a matter of fact to have accomplished this great task required the most careful arrangement. Every move on the part of the men operating the dock and ship must be in perfect accord, and the slightest misconception of orders, or in the execution of such, would have disarranged the whole performance."


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