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Great Lakes Fleet Page Vessel Feature -- Joseph H. Thompson
By Brian Ferguson
The Joseph H. Thompson proves to be one of the most historic vessels on the
lakes. She has served in wartime and peacetime both on the ocean and the
She was originally built by Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock in Chester PA,
early 1944 as the 515-foot C4-S-B2 Cargo vessel Marine Robin, hull #342 for the
U.S. Maritime Commission for the World War II effort. The Vessel was
powered by a 9,900hp G.E. steam turbine. As the Marine Robin the Thompson
made cross-Atlantic voyages for the war effort and was present at the
Normandy invasion June 6, 1944.
After the war the Marine Robin and her C-4 cargo sisters were put into mothball
fleets all along the east coast.
Shortly after the start of the Korean war in the early 1950's the demand
for iron ore skyrocketed. The Great Lakes fleet owners struggled to keep up
with demands. Shipyards on both the American and Canadian side were backed
up with orders for new hulls. Several companies looked to former ocean
vessel as there answer for instant tonnage.
Cleveland Cliffs started the trend by Purchasing the 455-foot Victory Ship Notre
Dame Victory and converting her into the 620-foot lake bulk carrier
(She would eventually be lengthened to 716'3".) Slightly shorter
and with a smaller beam than the C-4's, the Victory proved the ex-Sea going
vessels provided a fast fix to the need for more hulls.
Following Cleveland Cliffs example several other U.S. and Canadian companies
purchased excess ocean vessels. The Marine Robin along with her C-4 sisters
Louis McHenry Howe, Scott E. Land, Marine Angel, and Mount Mansfield were
all slated to be converted for lake service.
The Robin was purchased by the Wisconsin-Michigan Steamship Co. of Milwaukee
in 1950. She was then sold to Hansand Steamship Co. (M.A. Hanna managed) of
Cleveland. She was converted in 1952 by the Maryland Dry Dock Co. in
Baltimore. The Robin was given a new 199' 3" mid-body built Ingalls
Shipbuilding Co. of Pascagoula, MS, and had her deck houses converted from
mid-ship style to the traditional fore and aft cabins. Her original G.E.
turbine was retained. The now 714' 3" vessel was towed up the Mississippi
river and the Chicago canal system in two sections so they could clear the
locks on both waterways. The vessels long complicated journey to the lakes
ended at the American Shipbuilding yard in Chicago IL. There the two
sections were were rejoined and as they were the new steamer
Thompson (U.S. 245496) became the new Queen of the Lakes and the largest
freight ship on Earth at 714'3" in length, 71'6" wide and 38'6" deep.
The Thompson took to the water on November 1952 and continued to serve her
owners until 1981 when the bottom fell out of the ore market sending her and
several other fairly middle age vessels to the wall. The Hanna Mining fleet
sat idle in Detroit for most of the early 80's due to the lack of cargo.
Hanna mining made the tough decision to abandon there marine transportation
services after nearly 100 seasons on the lakes. The fleets vessels were put
up for sale, even the companies nearly new 1004-foor George A. Stinson was
offered at a discount, but to little interest. One by one the classic Hanna
vessels were towed off the lakes to the cutters torch. The 710' George M.
Humphrey (first American laker with a 75-foot beam), and the 730 foot steamers Leon
Falk Jr. and Paul H. Carnahan (Both converted WWII T-2 tankers) all had a
date with the salvagers in the early 80's. Most of the vessel community
believed the Thompson's number was up next.
In 1985 Escanaba Michigan's Upper Lakes Towing Co. purchased the steamer and
announced there plans to convert her to a self-unloading barge. ULT had
successfully converted the smaller Self-Unloader/Crain Ship Buckeye and
planed a similar conversion for the Thompson. Shortly after ULT bought the
Thompson, its conversion was started at Menominee, Bay Shipyards, and
Escanaba. The aft and fore cabins were removed and the hull was shortened
to create a notch for her push vessel. A stern mounted bucket style
self-unloading system was also added. Her push tug, the 146'06"/38'/35' Joseph
H. Thompson, Jr., was constructed in 1990 from the left over steel from
the larger ship's hull. The tug is powered by three G.M. diesel
engines delivering 7,500 bhp.
In 1991 the conversion was completed. A year later her C-4 sister
McKee Sons also entered service as a self-unloading barge for the same managers,
making the Thompson and the McKee Sons the last two C-4's operating on the lakes. The
Thompson was now 706' 06" long with the same beam and depth as before and
with a capacity of 21,200 tons. Operating as a self-unloader she can engage in
more trades to more ports than in her steamer days.
The cost efficiency of her reduced crew has kept her active every season
since her conversion, and is a strong statement in favor of tug/barge units,
but no mater what side you take, in the end a classic and historic vessel
continues to ply the waters of the Great Lakes.
|Diesel engines horsepower
Aerial view underway. Don Coles
Unloading Lorain, Oh. TZ
Rouge River. Dave
Escanaba. Lee Rowe
Rouge River. Mike Nicholls
Unloading. Todd Shorkey
Rouge River. Mike Nicholls
Winter work at Escanaba. Lee Rowe
Pilothouse at the Basic Marine yard in Escanaba. Rod Burdick.
Detroit River. Mike Nicholls