In the summer of 1958, upon returning from my construction laborer's job, I received a telegram to report for a job as seaman on board the 730 foot Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship had just been built and launched in River Rouge, Michigan and I would be sailing on her maiden season!
The previous year I had sailed for her owner (Columbia Transportation Co. of Cleveland, Ohio) aboard the Crispin Oglebay for nine months and was listed on their call list for college students available for short-term work. My job at that time was in Pontiac, Michigan, and needed only an hour bus trip to sign on for the projected 15 trips. Needless to say, for a seaman it would be a dream to work on the newly launched "Queen of the Lakes."
Three days later I signed on the Fitzgerald, assigned to the boiler room crew. My duties as to coal passer were to assure that the four stoker furnaces were fed properly and to coordinate steam pressure with the fireman.
Growing up in Hubbell, Michigan, near the shores of Lake Superior I had spent many hours aboard lake bulk carriers as they delivered coal to the docks of the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company at the foot of my street. Many of the local men sailed on the freighters and often considered Hubbell their home port with frequent deliveries of coal and pick up of copper throughout the season.
Several generations of my ancestors were in the fur trade, as voyageurs or boatmen, traveling in convoys from Montreal up the Ottawa River system to Fort Mackinaw and on to the Lake Superior country. In 1808 my great?great grandfather sailed to Michilimackinac, Mississippi and the Missouri territories. The first record of my grandparents sailing to Superior country occurred in 1853 when Michel Chaput emigrated to the Michigan Copper Country to work as a woodsman for the local copper smelting companies.
On many occasions as we made our way up the St. Marys River I would visualize and romanticize about hard muscled Frenchmen paddling their 35 foot canoes towards the Sault Ste. Marie rapids. How hard it must have been! My job was to turn one dial the size or a dime to raise or lower the steam pressure.
Adjectives used over the years to describe the Fitzgerald were not exaggerations. Not only was this the largest ship ever built for Great Lakes service, she also contained many new features. The spacious engine room had an 8,000 horse engine and a 400 kilowatt turbine generator with a manually operated standby backup unit rated at 50 kilowatts. The generous crew quarters had only two seamen to a room; each had their own, bath facilities making the Fitz's crew the envy of many sailors in the fleet.
Other crew amenities were a TV room, card room, pool room, and a 24-hour open kitchen manned by the husband and wife team of Bud and Alice Labadie of Wyandotte, Michigan. Air conditioning in each room beat the heat. Two under-deck passageways protected crew fore'n aft movement from iced decks.
Forward, near the captain's quarters, were guestrooms furnished by the J. L. Hudson Co. Not much was lacking in the line of decor or comfort. During the maiden season many of the officers' relatives and factory representatives and Oglebay Norton customers, took as one round trip with us from Toledo to Minnesota.
The Fitz went into sea trials on September 13, 1958, with a short trip down the Detroit River and onto Lake Erie. Officers and engineers were decked out in their finest uniforms, which led crew to believe there might also be a short side trip into Cleveland, Ohio, the home port of the Oglebay Norton Company, proud operators of the newly commissioned ship. As the day progressed the ship developed the expected sea trial type problems and returned to the Detroit area for repair and re-inspection. We assumed the uniforms were tucked away to be used at a later date.
On September 13, 1958 the Fitzgerald steamed for the Upper Lakes. On the following day, the longest and fastest ship on the lakes made her first passage through the Soo Canal and Captain Bert Lambert, dressed in full regalia, squeezed the Fitzgerald on slow bell between the lock gates with inches of water off both the stern and the fantail, heading for Silver Bay, Minnesota, at the head of Superior for a load of taconite ore.
All shipments in this first year were made, to Toledo, Ohio, and were generally about 25,000 net tons. This represented an increase of about 40 percent over the standard 600 foot boats, foretelling the reduction of the numbers of carriers from about 400 in the 1950s to only about 60 carriers of U.S. registry in Great Lakes service in 1995.
The first trip west across Lake Superior was not uneventful. Much of the trip was into a strong headwind and difficulties encountered were credited to the newness of the ship. During the midnight to 4 a.m. watch, for some unexplained reason the electric control center in the engine room started sparking and caught fire. Third engineer Carl Makinen and I rushed to start the manually cranked standby generator. When the unit would not respond to either our physical or verbal commands, the ship started to drift aimlessly in the night; the complete lighting system shut down and gave all on board that old Titanic feeling. The power outage lasted only minutes and was fixed mysteriously by the chief engineer and the factory agents.
The downbound trip to Toledo, Ohio, was uneventful and the Fitzgerald proved to be worth all that was spent on its construction. She made season's planned fifteen trips with great dispatch and brought down about one-half-million tons of ore during her 1958 inaugural season.
Our maiden season consisted partly of trips carrying taconite ore from Silver Bay, Minnesota, to Toledo Ohio, the only ports that could accommodate the Fitzgerald's size.
The seamen on board this first year were generally from the larger boats of the Columbia fleet that had been transferred for their longevity with the company. Some of the personnel were a former preacher from West Virginia; a farmer from Iowa, a woodsman from Minnesota; and college students like myself. I was 21 at that time and had heard many stories of near misses, dock collisions and port-side exploits. Having only two ports of call was not very exciting unless a side trip was made to the corner of Cherry and Summit Streets in Toledo.
The short season for the new boat ended as it left Minnesota for Toledo, Ohio, on November 18, 1958, and headed east toward the Soo. Upon leaving the lakehead, the captain was informed that a storm was gathering in the Plains States and all precautions should be taken. No storms were encountered on Lake Superior during the first day's sailing.
While the Fitzgerald encountered 80 mph winds as it entered northern Lake Huron, the steamer Carl D. Bradley sank only 100 miles west on Lake Michigan. The Fitz was buffeted by these high winds and heavy seas, and seemed to want to crack in two with every mountainous wave. All of the ship personnel not required below deck stayed topside for the day. Grown men were scared. The balance of the trip that late November day was under heavy winds and near 25-foot seas.
Late in the evening this storm subsided. Upon our arrival in Toledo, shipboard personnel were informed of the sinking of the Bradley. With great bravado and confidence born of hindsight, we all agreed that we were grateful to have sailed on the Fitzgerald instead.
Upon discharging our last cargo for the season, we sailed toward lay-up in River Rouge, Michigan, where my duties were to operate the standby boiler to provide heat for the ten or twelve seamen left on board. The forward crew was dispatched immediately after our Thanksgiving dinner. The engine room crew stayed on to work with the shipyard personnel for the breakdown and inspection of the turbine and generator, the filling of ballast pumps with non-freezing liquid and the greasing of all decks and gangways.
It is now fourty-two years since I sailed on the Fitzgerald and it will always engender a conversation as people look in surprise at someone who sailed the "Queen of the Lakes" that maiden season. As a boy I delivered newspapers to the home of Ransom Cundy, Sr., in Hubbell, Michigan. In this small town of 1,100 people we lived only six houses around the corner. Their son Ransom Cundy, Jr., was a wheelsman on board at time the Fitzgerald sank.
I now live three miles from the mouth of the Detroit River and must admit that with the onset of the 1,000-foot lakers, the public has lost a lot of chances to see the long ships. On my last trip to the Soo Locks in 1995, for the bell raising ceremonies for the Fitz, ships were only passing at three hour intervals versus former long backups when smaller more numerous freighters were sailing in the fifties and sixties.
In my brief sailing career aboard the Ben W. Calvin and the Crispin Oglebay I had visited 44 ports and know that my experiences and memories will never be matched aboard the large two port carriers that dominate today.
If a family wants to get a sense of what shipping was in the past they will have to visit museum ships that are now around the lakes in Toledo, Cleveland, Duluth or the Soo.
Mr. Edward Chaput
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