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 St. Clair River, June 14, 2006.

Wade P. Streeter 

Great Lakes Fleet Page Vessel Feature -- American Victory

by Jody L. Aho

The Middletown is probably the one vessel on the Great Lakes today with the most involved history, both in terms of name or ownership changes as well as other incidents the vessel has found herself a part of.

Perhaps an unlucky omen, she was launched on Halloween--October 31, 1942--as the tanker Marquette. She was built by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation's yard in Sparrows Point, Maryland as an oiler for the U.S. Navy. The vessel was commissioned, however, as the USS Neshanic (AO-71), and entered service in April 1943. During her first year, she was involved in several close encounters with both enemy submarines and air attacks on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On June 18, 1944, her luck ran out, as she was hit with a bomb from a Japanese plane while refueling a destroyer. She tied up alongside a sister ship, the Saranac, and some of the Saranac's injured crew (she was also attacked) were treated aboard the Neshanic. The Neshanic was later repaired and was decommissioned in December, 1945.

In 1947, she was sold to the Gulf Oil Co. and renamed Gulfoil. The years to follow were much less eventful than her war years until August 7, 1958, when she collided with the tanker S. E. Graham near Newport, Rhode Island. The Graham exploded, and the Gulfoil was heavily damaged, as most of her crew perished. After the collision, the Gulfoil was taken to Baltimore, where it was determined that her engine spaces had not sustained unrepairable damage. The vessel was converted to a straight deck bulk carrier, her pilothouse and forward cabins were moved to the bow, and after lengthening and widening with the new midbody, she was purchased by the Pioneer Steamship Company and renamed Pioneer Challenger. Since the St. Lawrence Seaway was complete, she would make the trip into the lakes through the Seaway, not through the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers as other vessels had done in the past.

The Pioneer Challenger entered service on July 16, 1961. The vessel was constructed as a maximum sized Seaway carrier, 730 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 39 feet 3 inches deep. With her steam turbine plant producing 7700 horsepower, the Pioneer Challenger was capable of over 16 miles per hour under full load, and even today she is faster than most vessels on the Great Lakes. The Pioneer subsidiary of Hutchinson was disbanded at the end of 1961, however, and the vessels were sold to various other fleets. The Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company acquired the Pioneer Challenger and renamed her Middletown in 1962. Over the next 20 years, the vessel would follow a steady trade route, often carrying taconite pellets from the Reserve Mining Company plant in Silver Bay down to the Torco dock in Toledo. It was and remains a common trade route for the vessels in the Oglebay Norton fleet, although the Middletown would make visits to other loading and unloading ports. As the steel industry and shipping on the Great Lakes entered a downturn in 1982, the Middletown received what was certainly the reprieve which kept her from a premature end to her Great Lakes career. The Middletown was converted to a self-unloader at Bay Shipbuilding Company in Sturgeon Bay, and this not only cut down her unloading time but also allowed her more flexibility in ports she can visit as well as being profitable in different types of cargoes. Because of the hull design of the vessel, including the old saltwater tanker parts, the deck apparatus of the Middletown's self-unloading system was built to a lower profile than Bay Shipbuilding Company's other conversions of the era and much lower than the Fraser Shipyard's conversions.

The vessel began carrying a greater number of coal cargoes, and on one of those trips, disaster again struck the ship. On September 15, 1986, while on her way to Port Washington, Wisconsin, some methane gas (which can be a by-product of coal) had gathered and ignited in her boiler room, causing an explosion. The vessel raced into port in an effort to treat injured crewmembers quickly. After this incident, all Great Lakes vessels have been taking regular readings of gases in the cargo holds while carrying coal, in an effort to prevent a similar build-up of dangerous, invisible gases.

The 1990 season saw the Middletown involved in a pair of notable events exactly one month apart. On April 19, 1990, the Middletown took on the first cargo at the reactivated Silver Bay plant, which had closed in 1986 and was reopened by Cyprus Minerals. A month later, on May 19, the Middletown was being towed out of Fraser Shipyards in Superior by the tug New Jersey. In strong winds, the tug went aground, and was later pulled off by the tug Minnesota, undamaged. The Middletown was also undamaged in this incident.

Throughout the 1990s, the Middletown has been following her own three-leg trade pattern for Oglebay Norton Company. A typical trip starts at the Northshore Mining dock in Silver Bay (now managed by Cleveland-Cliffs) to load pellets. The pellets are taken to the Pinney Dock in Ashtabula to be unloaded, and the Middletown usually shifts over to the coal dock. The vessel then takes on a coal cargo, usually for Milwaukee Bulk Terminal, but sometimes for Port Washington. After unloading on Lake Michigan, the vessel returns to Silver Bay empty. The vessel will make occasional departures from this route, including loads of iron ore at Duluth or Taconite Harbor, unloading ore in Toledo, and even some coal loads out of Superior Midwest Energy Terminal. It seems ironic that, while the Middletown has had such an unusual and varied career both on the oceans and on the Lakes, she is actually close to average for a Great Lakes vessel in several aspects, including years of service on the Lakes (36) and her size. This vessel has survived numerous mishaps during both her ocean and Lakes careers, and hopefully the trend of several recent incident-free years will continue for the Middletown.

On June 6, 2006 in a joint announcement made with American Steamship Co. of Williamsville, NY, Oglebay Norton Co. announced the sale of the Middletown and five of her fleetmates to American Steamship Co. (ASC) for $120 million.  With the sale came a new name: American Victory.  The other vessels going to ASC were the Armco, Columbia Star, Courtney Burton, Fred R. White Jr. and Oglebay Norton.

Overall dimensions
Length 730'00"
Beam 75'00"
Depth 39'03"
Capacity (tons) 26,300
Unloading boom 260'

At Port Huron. Cy Hudson

Passing Detroit. N Schultheiss

Stern view on a cold day. Mike Nicholls

On board looking forward. TZ

Looking aft. TZ

Working in ice. Jim Hoffman

Engine room door. Mike Nicholls

Close up of WWII ribbons. Mike Nicholls

Close up of boom. TZ.

Life boat drill. Sharon Bouchonville

Entering Ashtabula, OH, 2000. TZ

Stern view, June 14, 2006.
Wade P. Streeter
USS-Neshanic.jpg (74707 bytes)
 USS Neshanic in Tokyo Bay, 9/26/1945 - Paul J. McCarthy collection (click to read WWII history)

As the Pioneer Challenger.
(From the Rich Weiss collection
courtesy of John Belliveau)

Spring fit out in Toledo as a straight decker.
Jim Hoffman

As a straight decker. Jim Hoffman

Middletown Aerial view. Don Coles

Downbound Port Huron August 2008. Marc Dease
1-American-Victory-6-27-08-.jpg (79490 bytes)
 Soo Engineer's Day 2008 upbound in the MacArthur Lock. Dave Christiansen

Entering the MacArthur Lock May 12, 2007. Lee Rowe

Upbound Point Edward July 13, 2008. Marc Dease
141.jpg (69628 bytes)
American Victory laid up at Fraser Shipyards, Superior Wi. May 2009. Michael Sipper

On the Detroit River. Mike Nicholls

Stern view. Mike Nicholls

St. Marys River. Jim Hoffman

St. Marys River. July, 2002. Mark Schumaker

Passing the Ashtabula Light. TZ.

Close up  of bow. TZ

Close up of stern. TZ.

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