The self-unloading cement carrier St. Marys Challenger was built as a traditional Great Lakes bulk carrier as Hull #17 by Great Lakes Engineering Works, Ecorse (Detroit), Mich., in 1906. This veteran of the lakes was launched February 7, 1906 as the William P. Snyder for Shenango Steamship & Transportation Co. (a subsidiary of Shenango Furnace Co.), Cleveland, Ohio.
Until she was taken to Bay Shipbuilding Co., Sturgeon Bay, Wis., in November 2013 for conversion to an articulated barge, the vessel was the oldest operating self-propelled cargo vessel on the Great Lakes, if not North America.
Until she was removed from service, St. Marys Challenger was powered by a Skinner Marine Uniflow 4-cylinder reciprocating steam engine burning heavy fuel oil rated at 3,500 i.h.p. (2,611 kW) with 2 water tube boilers. The power was fed to a single fixed pitch propeller. The vessel is equipped with a bow thruster. She is capable of carrying 10,250 tons (10,415 mt) in 8 holds at mid summer draft of 21’09” (6.63m). Cargoes of bulk or powdered cement can be unloaded by a fully automated system including air slides, conveyor equipment and bucket elevators feeding a forward mounted 48’ (14.63m) discharge boom.
As William P. Snyder, the vessel was built with 31 hatches feeding 3 holds capable of holding 10,900 tons (11,075 mt). Original power came from a yard-built triple-expansion 1,665 s.h.p. (1,242 kW) steam engine with 2 Scotch boilers. The vessel sailed for her original owners until 1926. On July 16, 1916, the William P. Snyder’s starboard bow struck a concrete dock at Superior, Wis., causing the indenting of two plates, damaging 3 frames and some internal brackets. The cause was attributed to a strong river current. Then, on November 22, 1917, the vessel received stress of weather damage in heavy seas while downbound on Lake Huron with iron ore from Duluth for Ashtabula. Damage resulted in the re-caulking and re-riveting of various parts of the hull. After the Scotch boilers were replaced with water tube boilers in 1924, the vessel struck an underwater obstruction while departing Sandusky with coal on September 5th, 1925. The resulting damage required the repair of 6 bottom shell plates.
William P. Snyder was renamed Elton Hoyt II (1) following her acquisition by Stewart Furnace Co., Cleveland, on June 26, 1926. Retaining her new name, the vessel was acquired by Youngstown Steamship Co. (Pickands Mather & Co., managers), Cleveland, in 1929. Ownership passed to Interlake Steamship Co., Cleveland, (also managed by Pickands Mather) in 1930. The vessel was repowered in 1950 with the Skinner Marine Uniflow steam engine, and also received two larger water tube boilers. In fall 1950, Elton Hoyt II (1) was involved in a head-on collision with the Enders M. Voorhees during a snowstorm in the Straits of Mackinac causing major bow damage to both vessels.
The vessel was renamed Alex D. Chisholm in 1952 following the launch into the Interlake fleet of a new hull christened Elton Hoyt II (2). Alex D. Chisholm continued sailing for the Interlake fleet into the 1960s before being laid up in Erie, Pa. as surplus tonnage. In 1966, she was purchased by Medusa Portland Cement for conversion to a cement carrier. This conversion was completed by Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co., Manitowoc, Wis. The conversion included a modern stack and the old coal bunkers being refitted as guest quarters. She was renamed Medusa Challenger in 1966, and the newly-christened vessel was operated by Cement Transit Co., Detroit, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Medusa Portland Cement Co. The vessel’s new trade routes involved the movement of powdered cement from Medusa’s Charlevoix, Mich., location to plants in Chicago, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Owen Sound. This vessel was Medusa’s first large Great Lakes vessel to be put into service.
On December 20, 1976, Medusa Challenger was forced aground in Lake St. Clair by winds and shifting ice while at anchor due to heavy fog. She was bound for Detroit at the time of the incident. In 1977, the vessel rescued two people from their capsized boat in Lake Michigan. They had been in the water for over 15 hours. On May 22, 1987, the vessel was the first to load at the new cement dock in Toledo. Medusa Challenger, on November 20, 1990, was the first vessel to deliver a load to the new Miller Paving Silo in Owen Sound, Ont. On October 5, 1997, Medusa Challenger was hit by a waterspout while passing White Shoal Light on the way to Charlevoix. The spotlight on the wheelhouse was lifted from its supports and crew’s bikes stored on deck were vertically lifted.
In 1998, Medusa Portland Cement was acquired by Southdown Inc., resulting in the vessel being renamed Southdown Challenger, with the name painted on the bow April 26, 1999 by Midwest Maritime Corp., Milwaukee, Wis. Following the acquisition of Southdown by Mexican company Cemex in 2000, Southdown Challenger was sold to Wilmington Trust, Wilmington, Del., on November 8, 2000 with the vessel operated by HMC Ship Management Ltd., Lemont, IL (an affiliate company of Hannah Marine Corp.). This last ownership transaction was necessitated to remain in compliance with The Jones Act which requires any vessel carrying loads domestically (in other words, product shipped from a U.S. port bound for a U.S. port) be owned and crewed American. Plans were made to rename the vessel Cemex Challenger, but were never carried out.
In spring 2005, the Great Lakes region operations of Cemex were acquired by Votorantim Cimentos, Sao Paulo, Brazil for $389 million (US). Included with this acquisition were two cement plants, eight related distribution terminals, the Southdown Challenger and the barge Cemex Conquest, all becoming part of Votorantim Cimentos' North American subsidiary St. Marys Cement Inc., Toronto, Ont. On April 28, 2005, the name and registration of the Southdown Challenger was changed to St. Marys Challenger with the new name being painted on her hull before returning to service from her winter lay-up in June. (The barge Cemex Conquest was also renamed St. Marys Conquest in keeping with the ownership changes.)
When the St. Marys Challenger departed her winter lay-up berth in S. Chicago, Ill., on April 4, 2006, she achieved a major milestone in Great Lakes history by marking her centennial year of continuous operation as a powered carrier. The classic steamer completed a full season of sailing, laying up on December 11, 2006 at S. Chicago, Ill., after having spent most of her centennial year plying her trade on Lake Michigan.
The St. Marys Challenger’s final season saw her employed just as she had been the past few years, carrying cargo from the St. Marys Cement Co.’s elevator at Charlevoix, Mich., to ports such as South Chicago, Milwaukee, Manitowoc and Grand Haven, all on Lake Michigan. Much to the delight of boatwatchers, she also made two trips to Owen Sound, Ontario in 2013 and one to Detroit.
The vessel arrived at Bay Shipbuilding Co. in the afternoon of November 11, 2013, blowing salutes on her steam whistle and flying a white flag, indicating surrender – however reluctantly – to her fate. Crowds of boatwatchers with cameras documented the event as she negotiated the gauntlet of bridges on the Calumet River after her last delivery to Chicago, and then as she arrived in Sturgeon Bay.
At the time of her retirement as a steamer, the St. Marys Challenger was the last active U.S. flag freighter built before World War II and one of the oldest operating ships in the world. The 1942-vintage steamer Alpena, also a cement carrier, now assumes the title as the oldest active freighter – U.S. or Canadian – working the Great Lakes.
As her days dwindled down, fans even launched a Save the St. Marys Challenger page on the Facebook social media website.
Those who spoke with the crew said the mood on board had become increasingly somber in the last weeks it was in service as speculation grew about the future of the ship, which was due for a mandatory five-year federal inspection. Although the Challenger's owner said the company was trying to decide between re-powering the ship with a diesel engine or transforming it into a barge, eventually barge conversion won out.
The conversion involves removing the existing stern end and its existing steam propulsion plant, fabricating and installing a new Bludworth-style ATB notch and modifying the forward end accommodations to allow for a forward-end machinery area. Bay Shipbuilding is expected to complete the work by May 2014.