Thursday, January 03, 2008

Classic lake boats: a dying breed.


In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I've written about, and posted photos of, the unique ships (called, I've now learned, "boats" by true Great Lakes sailors) built for bulk cargo (usually grain or ore) transport on the Great Lakes. Yesterday, thanks to Tom Turner of NYCMaritime, I received a link to this story by Jim Nichols, in the Grand Rapids Press, about the scrapping of Calumet (photo above, by Dick Lund, from Dick's Great Lakes Ship Photos & More), a particularly handsome classic laker (i.e. one with the wheelhouse and crew quarters at the bow). She was launched in 1929 as the Myron C. Taylor, of the U.S. Steel Corporation fleet, and traded under that name and ownership for most of her life, before being sold and assuming her present and final name a few years ago. With her passing, the fleet of classic lakers continues to diminish; soon, all will be gone except for a few that may be preserved as museum pieces.

I forwarded a copy of the Calumet article to Mark Crawford, who told me he had served some years ago as a crewman on lakers. He replied, sending me a photo of the William B. Schiller (see below), also of the U.S. Steel fleet, on which he had sailed.


Schiller was a particularly fine example of the classic laker type, long and lean, with trim lines and a tall stack, and sporting a bowspirt. According to the records of American Shipbuilding (a company later purchased by George Steinbrenner), she was delivered to her owners in 1910, and went to the breakers in 1978. Sixty eight years of service is remarkable for a ship, though Calumet managed seventy eight.

Of his days as a Lakes seaman, Mark wrote:

I started out working as a deckhand and after a few months was promoted to watchman, the easiest job imaginable -- my work consisted of measuring any water collecting in the empty ballast tanks when the boat was cargoless, providing relief for the wheelsman, making coffee for the pilot house crew, and swabbing the forecastle deck. The rest of the time I would spend reading. My watches were from 4PM to 8PM and 4AM to 8AM, so I got to see almost every daybreak and sunset. I read a massive number of books at the time.
Mark's decision to leave this contemplative life (though one not without danger: he was a Lakes crewman near the time of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald with all hands) meant that the Lakes' loss would be the art world's gain.