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St. Marys River

Roger LeLievre 

Great Lakes Fleet Page Vessel Feature -- Roger Blough

By George Wharton

This large traditional styled Great Lakes self unloading bulk carrier was built in two sections as hull #900 by the American Shipbuilding Co., Lorain, OH for the USS Great Lakes Fleet, Duluth, MN at a cost of approximately $20 million. The keel of the 437 foot bow section was laid September 3, 1968 and was float launched December 21, 1968 (less ballast tanks due to the restricted size in width of the drydock). A new 125 foot wide drydock had been constructed where the keel of the 421 foot stern section was laid December 29, 1969. The bow section was floated into the new drydock July 25, 1970 and was joined to the stern section.

The official launch was scheduled for July, 1971 but a serious engine room fire on June 24, 1971 delayed the launch for almost a full year. The exact origin of the fire remains a mystery though there was speculation pointing a finger at a high intensity light bulb. (The local fire department, though, was unable to locate the actual cause.) What is known is that there was diesel fuel leaking from a faulty bonnet gasket on a fuel line in the engine room and the yard employees were advised to immediately extinguish any flame. The fire, though, had already started. Those that could get off did so; but many went back on board to fight the flames knowing that four of their co-workers (two welders and two air tool department workers) were trapped as they were checking a tank filled with air for leaks located immediately below the engine room; regardless of the fact that a couple of decks below was a fuel tank containing thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. The trapped workers died of asphyxiation; the engines and aft deck house were destroyed. Repairs to hull #900 cost approximately $13 million. (I wish to acknowledge with thanks, a welder who was working in the engine room at the time of the fire for supplying me with his first-hand account of this incident.)

With this incident behind, hull #900 was christened June 5, 1972 as the Roger Blough in honor of the retired Chairman of the Board of the United States Steel Corporation. The Roger Blough sailed on her maiden voyage June 15, 1972 departing Lorain in ballast for Two Harbors, MN. While on this voyage, the Roger Blough carefully sailed upbound passing by the sunken Sidney E. Smith, Jr. in Port Huron, MI on June 15th. Upon arrival at Two Harbors, the vessel took on 41,608 tons of taconite ore pellets.

The Roger Blough is powered by two Pielstick model 16PC2V-400 four stroke, single acting V-16 cylinder 7,100 b.h.p. diesel engines (built by Fairbanks Morse & Co., Beloit, WI) burning intermediate grade 320 fuel. The power is fed through a Falk single reduction gear box to a controllable pitch propeller giving the vessel a service speed of 16.7 m.p.h. The vessel is equipped with a bow thruster. The Roger Blough’s self unloading system was designed specifically for the unloading of taconite ore pellets into compatible hopper systems on shore. The vessel was designed for the delivery of these pellets to U.S. Steel docks at Gary, IN; South Chicago, IL; and Conneaut, OH. The shuttle type transverse self unloading boom is located below the boat deck in the stern of the vessel behind the engine room. This boom can be extended 54 feet to port or starboard and unload at a rate of up to 10,000 tons per hour. The Roger Blough is capable of carrying 43,900 tons at her mid summer draft of 27’ 11” in five holds fed through 21 hatches.

All accommodations for the officers and crew are equipped with private baths and individual temperature controls for heating and cooling. The hull of the Roger Blough was built so that it actually undulates as the vessel works in heavy seas. This hull will heave and bend thus arching her back as she negotiates the waves. This form of construction contrasts with older, smaller vessels whose rigid hulls were constructed with two arch supports stretching nearly the full length of the vessel resulting in a “springing” action while working heavy seas.

The Roger Blough is noted to have struck the stern of the Philip R. Clarke on January 11, 1973 while working in ice in the Straits of Mackinac; repairs being completed at Lorain, OH during the 1972/73 winter lay up. Due to the Roger Blough’s cargo specific design and economic conditions; the vessel was laid up at Sturgeon Bay, WI from September 12, 1981 through until September 25, 1987. For the remainder of the 1987 season, the vessel ran 21 trips carrying 900,000 tons of taconite pellets into the Gary, IN plant. On April 23, 1994; the vessel was in collision with a foreign freighter in Chicago causing only minor damage to the port lifeboat davits. Then in August of 2000, the vessel is noted to have struck a pier at the Soo causing damage to several plates and a crack forward on the port side; repairs being completed during the winter lay up of 2000/01 at Sturgeon Bay, WI. In recent years, the Roger Blough has seen sporadic mid season lay ups due again to her self unloading system design.

The Roger Blough is the largest traditional styled lakeboat sailing the Great Lakes that was constructed from the keel up on the Great Lakes. (The 1,000 foot Stewart J. Cort launched in 1972 was assembled on the Great Lakes but had sections built outside the ‘Lakes.) She also remained the largest lake-built vessel sailing until the launch of the 1,004 foot James R. Barker in 1976. (The 1,000 foot Presque Isle (2) launched in 1973 was constructed similar to the Stewart J. Cort previously mentioned.) The Canadian built Algosoo (2) launched in 1974 remains, though, the last of the traditional styled lakeboats built and sailing today.

In August 2006 the Bough lost its rudder in the lower St. Marys River and anchored near Raber Bay off of Lime Island. Fleet mate Edgar B. Speer arrived on scene three days later and the Blough was lashed along side the Speer for tow to Gary Indiana, the Blough original destination. The tow departed on August 9 and arrived in Gary on August 11. The Speer left the Blough at anchor while the Speer unloaded, both vessels use the same hopper to unload with their short unloading booms.

The Blough was then towed to Sturgeon Bay for repairs. The Blough was the third boat to lose a rudder in the same area of the St. Marys River in recent years.  The other two were the Edgar B. Speer and the Mississagi.

The Roger Blough currently sails under the ownership of Great Lakes Fleet, Inc., Duluth, MN; a subsidiary of Great Lakes Transportation, LLC. This ownership is, in effect, the derivative Company of the vessel’s original owners, who in recent years divested themselves of their marine operations. Since 1999, new cargoes of limestone and stone have been carried with relative success in unloading, in addition to the regular cargoes of iron ore pellets.

Overall dimensions
Length 858'00"
Beam 105"
Depth 41'06"
Capacity (tons) 43,900
Diesel Engine horsepower 15,000


Rock Cut. Bill Bird

Stern view.

Aerial view Don Coles

Mission Point. Jerry Petill

Stern view. Mike Nicholls

Winter 1976. Tom N.


Unloading Stone in Duluth. Glenn Blaszkiewicz

At the Soo. Rod Burdick

St. Marys River.Lee Rowe

Departing the Poe Lock. Mark Thompson

Rudder in lay-up. Steve Haverty

Close up of bow. Steve Haverty

Loading in Duluth. Al Miller

On the Detroit River. Mike Nicholls

Roger Blough slips through a low hanging fog on Lake Superior off Copper Harbor. by Captain Ben Kilpela


Rock Cut in the Fall, 1972, her first season of operation. Roger LeLievre

Aerial view Don Coles

Downbound the Detroit River. Mike Nicholls
Celebrates the Bicentennial in this photo taken at Mission Point in 1976. Roger LeLievre
Newspaper photo shows the Blough on fire at the shipyard in Lorain, 6-24-71. Roger LeLievre

Stern view. Mike Nicholls

Entering Duluth

Under tow 2006. Mike George Collection

Under tow 2006. Mike George Collection

Bow view. Jeff T.

On the Detroit River. Mike Nicholls

St. Marys River. Jim Hoffman

Profile. Jeff T.

St. Marys River.

Forward cabins. Tom N.

Unique unloading boom. Tom N.

Close up. Tom N.

Boom in its cradle. Steve Haverty

Another view of boom. Steve Haverty

Under construction (right) Russ Plumb

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