Chapter 5: War and Peace

The KERR's record-setting performance didn't end in Two Harbors. Upon hearing of the feat on the upper lakes, officials of the Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock Company in Conneaut took it upon themselves to set their own record. All was ready when the KERR steamed into port on September 12. Dock workers manning the unloading machines plunged into their work with a vengeance. They scooped out the last ore just three hours and five minutes later -- a new unloading record.

A promising note during these troubled years was U.S. Steel's acquisition in 1920 of the Michigan Limestone and Chemical Company. The Steel Corporation made Michigan Limestone a subsidiary and retained its president, Carl D. Bradley. The company operated a quarry near Rogers City, Michigan, that produced limestone which was high quality and almost pure white. Steel mills added limestone to molten iron in the blast furnaces to carry away impurities as steel was made. The stone also was finding widespread use in making cement and in producing lime, which in turn could be used in everything from glass and paint to baking powder and ammonia.

Michigan Limestone's operation included three ships: CALCITE, W.F. WHITE and CARL D. BRADLEY. These vessels were revolutionary in their own right, representing the latest developments in self-unloading ships. The first ship designed and built to be a "self-discharging" vessel was the steamer WYANDOTTE, launched in 1908 for the Michigan Alkali Company. Four years later Michigan Limestone built CALCITE, which was considerably larger than the pioneering WYANDOTTE. The WHITE and BRADLEY followed over the next several years, adding considerably to the company's capacity to move and deliver its product to customers. Each ship's hull was painted grey to hide the limestone dust that accumulated during loading and unloading.

The early self-unloaders functioned much the same as do their descendents today. The cargo hold is built with its sides sloping toward the center of the ship along the keel. Where the two sides come together, a series of steel gates can be opened which allow the cargo to drop onto a conveyor belt running the length of the ship beneath the hold. This belt carries the cargo to another series of belts or buckets, which carry it up on deck and onto another belt running through a long boom on deck. The boom is then swung over the ship's side to discharge the cargo onto a dock. The big advantage of self-unloaders is that they can deliver cargo directly to a customer's dock without requiring expensive shoreside unloading rigs.

Michigan Limestone would build several more self-unloaders in the years to come to serve the rapidly growing stone trade. After 1928, these ships would operate under the name Bradley Transportation Company. To U.S. Steel and people involved in the lake trade, they were simply known as "the Bradley boats." Although the Bradley fleet carried countless cargoes to Steel Corporation mills, it remained separate from the Pittsburgh Steamship Company and maintained its headquarters and a modest repair facility in Rogers City.

Bradley Transportation Company wasn't the only nautical subsidiary of U.S. Steel that sailed independently of the Pittsburgh fleet. U.S. Steel formed a fleet of small towboats and barges about 1917 to carry raw materials and finished steel products to and from mills along the Ohio, Mississippi and other rivers. By 1932 this so-called "Carnegie fleet" was the biggest on the rivers, consisting of 15 steamers and 440 barges carrying 10 to 15 million tons of cargo a year. In 1908, the U.S. Steel Export Company bought nine ships to carry Steel Corporation products to foreign markets. Within a few years U.S. Steel formed Isthmian Steamship Lines to handle its overseas trade, eventually building twenty-eight ships for the fleet. Among them were STEELMOTOR and STEELVENDOR, built in 1923, and STEEL ELECTRICIAN and STEEL CHEMIST, added two years later. These specialized ships were 258 feet long, enabling them to pass between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean through the series of small Canadian locks along the St. Lawrence River. The ships carried finished steel products from mills on the lakes, such as the U.S. Steel mill in Duluth, to ports like Waukegan, Illinois, and Cleveland. Other cargoes went to Montreal and American ports along the Atlantic Coast. When winter brought Great Lakes shipping to a halt, the ships continued trading along the coast. They resembled conventional lakers with their pilothouses forward and engines in the stern, but they were propelled by diesel engines -- a rarity then -- and used cranes mounted on deck to load and unload steel billets up to sixty-five feet long.

After two years of recession, the U.S. economy rebounded sharply in 1922. Trouble continued on the lakes because of a miners' strike that cut coal shipments and low rates that made grain shipping largely unprofitable. But the amount of iron ore carried was 42.6 million tons -- nearly double the previous year's tonnage. The recovery gained speed in 1923 as the nation hungered for consumer goods, especially the Increasingly sophisticated and popular automobiles. Modernization of the railroads and a spree of highway construction added to the demand for bulk cargoes shipped over the lakes. Ore tonnage climbed to 59 million tons. Stone hit 9.9 million tons -- up from just 4 million tons in 1915. This commodity was relatively new to the lakes and yet it already was taking its place alongside iron ore, grain and coal as a leading cargo. The increase was so noticeable that the Lake Carriers' Association compared stone's importance to that of grain as a cargo for lake ships.

As the pace of the economy quickened, so did that of the lake fleets. On June 29 the Pittsburgh fleet's GEORGE W. PERKINS loaded 9,965 tons of ore in thirty minutes. No special preparations were made; the feat was simply a normal part of the trade. Ship traffic was so heavy by late summer that the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railroad ore docks in Duluth loaded 103 ships during the week of August 20. On August 25 alone the docks poured 208,000 tons of ore into twenty-three vessels. Again, just as it had in 1917, the fleet received timely help in the form of new ships. The JOSHUA HATFIELD and RICHARD LINDABURY would be the last of the fleet's 600-footers. They featured a new arrangement of cargo hatches. Previous ships had hatches that were nine feet wide. These two new ships had hatches that were twelve feet wide. Also, the sides of the vessels' cargo holds were vertical rather than sloped to reduce the damage caused by unloading machines.

While the increase in ship traffic signaled better times for the fleets, it also meant a greater likelihood of collision, particularly in the crowded channels that connected the lakes to one another. On June 3, the Pittsburgh fleet's WILLIAM B. SCHILLER was lying at anchor off Point Iroquois at the upper end of the St. Marys River waiting for the fog to lift. Out of the gloom glided the steamer HORACE S. WILKINSON, which slammed into the ore-laden SCHILLER, holing it below the water line. Aboard the stricken steamer, crewmen raced to their stations as the master ordered the anchor raised. As soon as the hook cleared the bottom, he ordered the ship to get under way, pointing it toward the American shore in hopes of beaching his vessel. The SCHILLER finally settled to the bottom in forty feet of water, leaving its smokestack and pilothouse jutting above the surface.

The fleet began wrecking operations on June 8. For the next three weeks, salvage crews bolted together timbers to make a large wooden patch that divers fitted over the hole made by the WILKINSON. The ship's steel telescoping hatch covers, lying just below the water's surface, were removed and replaced by eight-inch wooden covers designed to be relatively watertight. With the vessel made tight, workers started up pumps and began clearing the engine room and cargo hold of water. Twice the operation had to be stopped; the first time when heavy seas battered the after cabin and again when the after cargo hold bulkhead gave way. Nonetheless, the ship was afloat again by July 2, and the next day workers began raising steam on its starboard boiler. After the pumps and other wrecking equipment was removed at the Soo, the SCHILLER proceeded under its own steam to Cleveland, where its cargo was unloaded before the ship continued on to Toledo for drydocking and repair.

Another busy season was predicted for 1924. The lake fleets expected to carry 55 million tons of ore, but a short, sharp recession put an end to those hopes. On June 13, Pittsburgh Steamship Company withdrew five of its smallest steamers and three barges from the ore trade. Over the next ten days it idled four more steamers and three more barges. At the end of July more steamers and the remaining eleven barges went to the wall. During July and August all the lake fleets combined laid up more than 100 vessels.

While the season's tonnage figures and early layups caused rumblings through the fleet, the big news that year was that Harry Coulby -- stalwart crusader for safety and implacable foe of unions -- was retiring as president of Pittsburgh Steamship Company. Coulby was fifty-nine years old and his wife had recently died. He wanted to travel a bit, perhaps visit his hometown in England, and become more involved in Pickands Mather and Company, where he remained a partner.

No one could dispute Coulby's legacy to the fleet, nor his unofficial title of "Czar of the Great Lakes." When he took over the Pittsburgh fleet in 1904, he began pushing for bigger ships, ordering the first 600-footer in 1906 with the J. PIERPONT MORGAN. When he retired, the fleet had thirty ships as big or bigger than that first giant. His crusade for worker safety also was paying off. During his final year with the fleet, the steamers CLEMSON, McGONAGLE, FARRELL, ROBERTS JR., OLCOTT, BUFFINGTON, WIDENER, HOUGHTON, McLEAN and FAIRBAIRN each recorded their third consecutive years with no injuries to crew members. His staunch opposition to unions had stifled them in the early years of the century and kept them at bay ever since. Whenever unrest threatened, Coulby was there to dole out generous pay raises to keep his men reasonably content and, as a result, make sailors on the Great Lakes the best paid mariners in the world. As a powerful member of the Lake Carriers' Association, Coulby also had crusaded for better aids to navigation and wider and deeper channels. When he died in 1929, the Lake Carriers' Association eulogized him as one of the most important men in the history of Great Lakes shipping. "In the development of waterways, bigger and still bigger ships, coordinated effort, all to the end that lake commerce would be fastest and cheapest in the world, his breadth of vision and unerring judgment commanded the most serious attention in any council."

Replacing Coulby was his protege' A.F. Harvey, a man long familiar to the Pittsburgh fleet and its employees. Harvey was born in Cleveland and grew up in the city that was the heart of Great Lakes shipping. He graduated from Yale University in 1894 and immediately returned home to join Pickands Mather and Company. When the Pittsburgh Steamship Company was formed, Harvey was hired as an assistant to President Augustus Wolvin. When Coulby took over the fleet, he brought Harvey back to Cleveland and promoted him to assistant general manager. The long apprenticeship began to pay off in 1916 when, at age forty-five, he was named the fleet's vice president. Now, with Coulby gone, he was elected president and a director of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company.

Despite his new post, Harvey was not as prominent as Coulby, and he kept a lower profile in the Lake Carriers' Association. He was in firm command of the Pittsburgh fleet, but largely carried on the policies and traditions established by his predecessor. Safety remained a top priority, both for men working on board ship and in navigation. With more than seventy steamers and barges in operation, accidents of all sorts were common. Harvey closely monitored these mishaps and continually circulated memos among the masters that summarized recent accidents. Always labeled "Confidential Letter to Masters," these circulars offer a glimpse of Harvey's professional demeanor with the captains. He used the letters to discuss how accidents could be avoided and, often as not, to drive home a lesson about the need to follow company policies, maintain good shipboard discipline or adhere to government navigation rules. He also used them to chide, praise or absolve those involved in accidents. When an incident warranted relieving a master of his duties, Harvey told all the masters about it in the circulars -- undoubtedly to control the inevitable rumors while at the same time providing an example of what happened to those who didn't exercise sound judgment.

He could be strict or forgiving. But like Coulby, Harvey's word was law and his rulings in each memo were straightforward and firm. "I am very sorry to state that we were compelled to relieve Captain Blessing of the command of his steamer because of intoxication," Harvey wrote at the end of a two-page memo in 1926. "During the last four or five years I have heard several rumors to the effect that Captain Blessing was drinking. I have had him in the office twice and told him frankly that I had heard these rumors but had been unable to prove them. He arrived at the Soo for Inspection in such a condition that the entire Inspection Committee reported he was more than 'half seas over.' Under the circumstances there was only one course open to me."18

Harvey didn't fire masters often, but many surely felt the sting of being singled out after making a mistake that may have resulted from a mental lapse or just plain carelessness. On May 23, 1927, Captain J.F. Parke was in command of the steamer FRANCIS E. HOUSE as it steamed up the east side of Lake Michigan near the treacherous Gray's Reef Passage. The first mate was on watch about 5 o'clock that foggy morning when the ship ran aground.

Harvey's memo recounted in detail the courses, times and landmarks involved in the HOUSE's passage and subsequent grounding. He then rendered one of his typically stern judgments to make his point to the masters: "We all know that in running from Skillagalee to Gray's Reef Light Ship we are approaching some of the worst water on the Great Lakes. We also know that there may at any time be an unknown current of unknown strength and unknown direction in this vicinity. Under the weather conditions existing, it would seem to me that Captain Parke should have been in the pilot house himself a few minutes before arriving at Skillagalee instead of actually getting on deck as he did after they were about two miles past. At the time he came on deck the vessel was eight or nine minutes beyond Skillagalee and as this light could no longer be seen he gave himself no opportunity to really test visibility. I think he depended too much on his Mate at this time. Captain Parke left orders he was to be called ten minutes before ship would be abreast of Skillagalee. As a matter of fact he was not called until he was abreast and did not get on deck until the HOUSE was some two miles by."

"I feel compelled to hold Captain Parke solely to blame for this accident and to criticise his navigation severely," Harvey continued. "I was very much surprised to read his report because for many years Captain Parke has been considered and has been one of the most consistently careful and successful navigators who ever sailed for us." Despite Harvey's criticism, Captain Parke was in command of the HOUSE the following year, no doubt eager to keep his name out of future circulars.

Just as Harvey used his memos to chastise careless veterans like Captain Parke, he also used them to absolve from blame and bolster the confidence of new men who blundered. Such was the case when the steamer MARICOPA and barge SMEATON grounded on Lake Superior's north shore while upbound September 10, 1929, on a windy, rainy night. With no landmarks or lights visible, Captain G.T. Comins of the MARICOPA was steaming by his stopwatch and miscalculated the distance he had traveled before making a crucial turn.

"In checking over the time, distance and courses run by Steamer MARICOPA, we find that according to the Master's calculations, he should have been about four miles off the north shore," Harvey noted, writing as though he were the thoughtful headmaster checking over a student's solution to a mathematics problem. "Captain Comins, from lack of experience no doubt, did not realize that a light steamer would head reach while towing a barge with the wind northeast on steamer's quarter and running before it, which no doubt, brought the MARICOPA four or five miles farther to the north when he hauled than he expected to be. For that reason, we do not believe Captain Comins should be too severely criticised for his navigation in this case. He is due a great deal of consideration for the manner in which he handled the steamer and tow after the accident."

While he was sure to criticize poor seamanship, Harvey also readily recognized outstanding achievements by his masters and men. His first opportunity to do so came early in his tenure as president. In the fall of 1925, a Pittsburgh ship was involved in one of the most dramatic yet unheralded rescues in the history of shipping on Lake Superior.

A substantial autumn gale was pummeling eastern Lake Superior on November 5 as Captain George Banker brought the steamer RICHARD TRIMBLE, one of the fleet's 600-footers, upbound through the Soo Locks and into Whitefish Bay. Although his vessel's cargo hold was empty, Banker thought the steamer's 1,800-horsepower engine would enable him to handle the gale.

The TRIMBLE left the shelter of Whitefish Bay late on November 5 and steamed into the open lake. Conditions were severe, but Captain Banker kept going. After several hours, the ship was about eighty miles from Whitefish Bay and plunging into seas whipped up by winds blowing more than fifty miles per hour. It was a rough night to be out on Lake Superior. From the TRIMBLE's pilothouse Captain Banker could make out the lights of the HAMONIC, a popular passenger steamer belonging to Canada Steamship Lines. The HAMONIC's masthead lights were swinging in wild arcs as the ship rolled in the trough of the waves, but it wasn't showing distress signals, so Captain Banker kept the TRIMBLE pointed into the wind. The situation continued to deteriorate and, about 11 p.m., the wind blew the TRIMBLE around and pushed it into the trough of the waves. Admitting defeat, Captain Banker ordered his ship turned around and headed back to shelter.

The TRIMBLE was running before the seas when the men in the pilothouse spotted the HAMONIC again, this time blowing distress signals on its whistle and burning a red distress flare. Captain Banker promptly changed course to bring his vessel closer to the passenger ship. After battling wind and seas for about two hours, he brought his freighter to within 300 feet of the wallowing HAMONIC. Through the roar of the wind, a man on the passenger ship's stern shouted that its propeller was gone. The HAMONIC, its passengers and crew, were helplessly adrift.

"At the time I went under the HAMONIC's stern ... the sea was washing all over us," Captain Banker reported. "We could do nothing in the night. It was snowing hard and for a while I could not see him. I could not hear anything in the pilot house on account of the wind. I checked down to stay as near to him as possible and went at various speeds down before the wind, thinking to get back to him sometime before daylight."

In the dim, grey light of the stormy morning, Captain Banker turned the TRIMBLE into the wind and began searching again for the HAMONIC. He located the passenger ship about 9:45 and began closing the distance between the two ships. By 10:30 a.m., the TRIMBLE was close enough to the HAMONIC for Captain Banker to shout through his megaphone for the Canadian ship to prepare its tow line. Aboard the Canadian steamer, its captain, standing atop the pilothouse clad in a long fur coat, waved and responded simply "All right!" The TRIMBLE continued steaming past, preparing to turn in a broad circle so it could come alongside again to pick up the towing hawser.

"The wind was fifty-five miles an hour and the seas were sweeping over us," Captain Banker said. "The seas seemed bigger than they had been. When we would turn, we would roll our decks under (water)."

Taking a vessel's tow line always called for caution, but with both ships battling high winds and waves, the maneuver became extremely dangerous. One miscalculation by Captain Banker, one nasty roll, one unexpected wave could slap the two ships together, sending both to the bottom. The TRIMBLE steamed off two miles before turning. Meanwhile, sailors aboard HAMONIC tied about 300 feet of three-quarter-inch line to a life preserver and cast it into the water for the TRIMBLE's men to snag. This light "messenger" line would be connected to a heavier line, which in turn would tied to the towing cable. The men aboard the TRIMBLE would need to snag the messenger line, then haul it aboard until finally getting the heavy hawser on deck. The life preserver remained near the HAMONIC's hull, however, so Captain Banker had to bring the TRIMBLE perilously close to the helpless steamer. The first attempt failed; the TRIMBLE steamed off again and turned to make another pass. The second attempt failed, then a third.

On his fourth attempt to snag the line, Captain Banker daringly brought the TRIMBLE within twenty-five feet of the rolling HAMONIC. A sailor standing on the ore carrier's exposed deck amidships snagged the line with a grappling hook and his companions quickly pulled it aboard and began hauling it aft to the TRIMBLE's towing bitts.

"The towline was a ten-inch line. I held the stern of the TRIMBLE as best I could about seventy-five or 100 feet from the bow of the HAMONIC while we made the towline fast," Captain Banker said. "The towline led from his bow to our stern chock. Seas were coming over our stern and the men were in constant danger from these seas. Even after we got the line the seas came right over our stern. After we got the line made fast we had to maneuver very carefully because both vessels were jumping and rolling heavily. We had squalls of snow right along and the weather was very cold. Our thermometer was washed overboard from the front of our observation cabin and we were all covered with ice. The HAMONIC put out about 500 feet of towline, and we got him down abreast of Whitefish Point at 6:21 p.m. November 6."

The TRIMBLE brought the HAMONIC into the bay and let go the towline off Iroquois Point. The HAMONIC dropped anchor, badly battered but safe. His duty to his fellow mariners completed, Captain Banker ordered the TRIMBLE back on course and unceremoniously departed.

"Practically our entire time from 2 a.m. to 9 p.m., November 6 was devoted to the HAMONIC. I was forty-eight hours without sleep and for thirty hours I didn't even have a meal," Captain Banker said. "All the men on the TRIMBLE were concerned in the rescue of the HAMONIC. All worked faithfully, some of them without dinner and all were pleased that we had rescued her."

 

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