Down to the Lakes in Ships

A great port 2,000 miles from the sea—The most travelled freshwater traffic-way in the world—And the men and ships which service it

ROYD E. BEAMISH September 15 1936

Down to the Lakes in Ships

A great port 2,000 miles from the sea—The most travelled freshwater traffic-way in the world—And the men and ships which service it

ROYD E. BEAMISH September 15 1936

Down to the Lakes in Ships


A great port 2,000 miles from the sea—The most travelled freshwater traffic-way in the world—And the men and ships which service it


TWO THOUSAND miles from the sea is the third largest shipping port in Canada. It is a twin port, combining the harbors of Port Arthur and Fort William, at the head of Lake Superior, monarch of the greatest freshwater traffic-way in the world.

From the standpoint of size. Montreal outranks the combined population of Port Arthur and Fort William by twenty to one; Vancouver by six to one. Yet the volume of freight passing through each of these two ocean ports exceeds the amount shipped to and from the Lakehead by a comparatively small percentage each year. On an average, taken over the past five years, Montreal’s annual turnover is approximately 9,000.000 tons of freight; Vancouver handles 7,000,000 tons; the Twin Cities. 6,700,000 tons.

In one of those five years—the season of 1933 Port Arthur and Fort William stepped into second place in the Dominion. That year Vancouver docks handled 6.104.000 tons of freight while the Twin Cities accounted for 6.300,000. The significance of these figures is increased when it is realized that the port of Vancouver is open twelve months of the year, while the Lakehead can at best hope for a navigation season of eight months.

But in those eight months the Lakehead plays a vital part in the affairs of Canada. Here is Canada’s clearing house, where wheat from the West is gathered and dispatched to become bread for the East; and where the products of Eastern manufacturers pause briefly for re-

direction to the mining fields of the North, the prairies of the West and the cities of the Pacific Coast.

Toronto and Montreal may be the nerve centres of Canadian commerce -sensing conditions, creating trends. Port Arthur and Fort William are the heart, pumping steadily and ceaselessly, to keep the flow of trade in motion, guarding always against stagnation. Choke up the shipping facilities of these ports for even a short time and Canadians a thousand miles away will quickly feel the effects.

And yet it is strange how few Canadians realize the importance of the rôle which the two cities play in Canada’s all-star cast of shipping centres. Their own residents, for that matter, are equally unimpressed. For a week or two in the month of April, when everyone watches eagerly for open water and the smoke from the first ship of the season, the Twin Cities are decidedly shipping conscious. The opening of navigation spells the first stirring of spring, and from the day the lightkeepers are taken out to their posts until the day the first vessels swing into the harbor, the shipping industry is very much in the limelight. But when the Chambers of Commerce have presented silk hats to the captains of the first arrivals, the drama of the sea is over for another year and shipping is forgotten by all save those who earn their livelihood through port activities.

Meanwhile, vessels, fitted out in a dozen different ports, have begun a stolid trek that continues, through fair weather and foul, until mid-December. Up and down the lakes ply ships flying the colors of European countries as well as the more familiar ensigns of Canada and the United States flotillas of commerce, carrying a volume of freight greater than the total of all that rolls through the glamorous canals of Suez and Panama.

More than 800 freight ships stand ready to serve the needs of Great Lakes shippers; 295 fly the Canadian ensign, 511 carry the stars and stripes of the 1 ’nited States. Mamare idle this year have been ever since 1929; but those in operation carry an enormous quantity of freight to and from the Lakehead.

Nearly one hundred barges, used chiefly for canal transportation. and more than a thousand tugs also operate or the Great I.akes, to swell the flow of traffic in the harbors

and on the open water. These, together with the eightytwo Canadian and seventy-nine American passenger ships, complete the giant inland fleet whose total capacity runs far into the millions of tons.

A Profitable Waterway

L\KE SUPERIOR is one of the richest avenues of corn' merce in the world. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics reveals that the amount of freight passing through the canals at Sault Ste. Marie is often greater than the total of all freight passing through the Suez and Panama canals put together. In 1929, the busiest year on record in shipping

annals, 92.616,898 tons of freight went through the Soo canal. In the same year the Suez canal handled 34.516,(XX) tons and the Panama canal 33.663,000 tons, a combined total of 65.179,000 tons. In 1933, a lean year for shipping the world over, the Soo canal handled 40,303,398 tons as compared to a total of 43.440,000 tons for the Suez and Panama combined. And here, too, remember that these canals are open twelve months of the year, whereas the Soo must be content with an eight-month season.

All of this tonnage, of course, does not centre around the Canadian Lakehead. The ports of Duluth and Two Harbors on the American side, at the southwest tip of Lake

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Superior, contribute an impressive share to the total, for it is from these and other United States ports that iron ore comes in such large quantities to be shipped down the lakes to smelters in the East. The twin harbors of Port Arthur and Fort William dominate in the handling of grain, and it is this product that provides most of the out-bound cargoes. Pulp wood, too, is an important contribution from the Lakehead, more than 100,000 cords being exported each year via the water route. Flour and feed rank third in the list of shipments.

Upbound vessels bring coal, oil and

package freight from the East; some of it for local distribution, the rest for transshipment by rail to Western Canada. Coal shipments have decreased in recent years from an average of more than 2,000,000 tons per year to approximately 700,000 tons since the Dominion Government subvention on Western coal was put into effect, but the volume is still great enough to account for a considerable part of the ports’ activities. On the other hand, the package freight business is increasing with each passing season. All kinds of manufactured articles are included in the cargo of the

average package freighter, ranging from canned goods and confectionery to sugar, binder twine and heavy machinery.

And then there are the automobiles. In quantity they represent perhaps the smallest of all types of shipments; in value they rank well near the top of the package freight lists; and from the standpoint of appearance, there is probably nothing more spectacular than a ship’s cargo of motor cars from the lower lakes. Unseen, between decks are stored the tons of package freight, but lashed on top of her hatches, down the full length of the deck, are the automobiles, new and glistening in fresh lacquer and polished chromium. About a thousand cars each year are brought up the lakes in this manner to Port Arthur and Fort William, representing over a million dollars in merchandise, while several thousand more are carried over American shipping lanes to Duluth. The months of June and July see the heaviest shipping in this field, for then the lakes are free of gales and this valuable extra cargo may be carried in safety.

Organization and Operation

HESE ARE the products that keep over 800 vessels in almost constant operation for eight months of the year in peak seasons. To estimate the number of men who derive their livelihood from this inland shipping industry is difficult, for the ramifications of lake transportation are many and far-reaching. In addition to the twenty or twenty-five men who comprise the crew of the average freighter, there are elevator employees, dock workers harbor officials and the thousands of executives and office workers who toil behind the scenes.

In Canada one shipping company dominates the picture. Operating 101 vessels, including both freight and passenger ships, the Canada Steamship Lines owns the largest freshwater fleet in the world, and its operations cover the entire Great Lakes waterway system from the Lakehead to the mouth of the St. Lawrence. More than two thousand persons are employed on its ships alone, while its offices and other departments absorb many hundreds more. Two ships of this line, the freighter, Lemoyne, largest on the lakes, and the steamer, Noronic, flagship of the Northern Navigation Division passenger fleet, are perhaps the best known veasels on the lakes, from a landlubber’s point of view, and they represent the merest fraction of the strength of this great organization.

Second only to this fleet, on the Canadian side, is the grain-carrying Paterson Steamship Lines, owned and operated by N. M. Paterson, of Fort William. The only fleet with head offices at the head of the Lakes, it totals thirty-one vessels, some of which operate on the Great Lakes proper, and the rest of which negotiate the labyrinth of canals from Port Colborne to the lower St. Lawrence.

The difference between the upper lake vessels and those on the lower lakes is entirely a matter of size. Vessels with more than a 15-foot draft cannot negotiate the St, Lawrence canals, and so grain destined for Montreal or Quebec is transhipped at Port Colborne to narrower, shallower vessels for the balance of the trip.

Draft, too, represents the biggest difference between Great Lakes freighters and those that ply the ocean. Seagoing ships draw as much as thirty-two feet, and they are, in the main, shorter, wider and deeper than Great Lakes ships, whose maximum draft is usually twenty-five feet. It is this fact which makes comparison between the two types difficult. An ocean freighter, riding the waves of the Atlantic, may look much smaller than her sister ship on the lakes, and yet carry as large a cargo, or even larger because she is loaded deeper. On an average, however, ocean freighters have a capacity of about 300,(XX) bushels of grain, while lake freighters range between 200,000 and 300,000 bushels. The largest, the Lemoyne, can carry half a mil-

lion bushels. Some of the smallest perform a double service, sailing both on the upper lakes and on down the St. Lawrence.

The Twin Cities

V\7"ITH NEARLY seven million tons of V V freight being handled at the head of the Lakes each year, one would imagine a harbor front choked with vessels and ceaseless activity as stevedores load and unload the precious cargoes. But such is not the case.

The ports of Port Arthur and Fort William have a harbor frontage of more than ten miles, and incoming vessels scattered to nearly fifty points. Secondly, the bulk of the season 's cargoes are composed of grain, and ships glide in and out the elevator slips to take on capacity cargoes in only a few hours. Third, and most important of all, is the amazing organization that stands behind the shipping industry and makes it possible for ships to enter the harbor, unload their cargoes, take new loads aboard and depart without the crew once leaving ship.

The Lake Shippers’ Clearance Association is that organization, and its efficiency is amazing. The association renders to the transportation companies and the grain elevators a service similar to the service rendered by bank clearing houses to banks.

When a cargo of grain is purchased on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, warehouse receipts, issued by the various elevators at the Lakehead, are delivered to the buyer, who may then exchange these at the elevators for the actual cargo of grain. Consequently, when a shipper buys a cargo of, say 200,000 bushels, he is likely to have delivered to him warehouse receipts from a dozen or more of the thirty-one elevators at the head of the Lakes. To send a vessel around to each of these elevators and pick up the cargo piecemeal might take anywhere from two to three days. Instead, however, the shipper merely sends his warehouse receipts to the clearance association and receives a document which permits him to draw his full cargo from any single elevator—a task that is but a matter of hours.

This same system also makes possible further savings in time, for the association, advised of every charter made in Winnipeg, can select the elevator at which it wishes any particular vessel to load, and complete all arrangements while the vessel is still en route up the lakes. When the ship enters harbor, her master gives two signals with the siren. The first of these indicates the fleet to which the vessel belongs and the second gives the name of the particular ship. In the harbor signal station, an operator checks over his list, finds which elevator has been assigned, and blows a signal directing the boat to its proper destination. Thus the ship’s master may continue direct to the elevator without a lost moment.

Such is the system by which two hundred million bushels of grain, and more, are shipped each year without the waste of a minute; and such, too, is the reason for the lack of congestion in the harbor, which causes the uninitiated to overlook a large part of the twin ports’ activities. It’s all done behind the scenes.

Two hundred million bushels is a lot of grain in any language, but the lakehead ports, equipped as they are with grainloading facilities second to none in the world, take it in their stride. The biggest grain rush of all, veteran lake men will tell you, occurred not in a twoor threehundred-million-bushel year, but in a year during which only seven and a half million bushels were handled.

That was in 1887, when the crop of 7,500,000 bushels was regarded by Westerners as something in the nature of a miracle. And when the golden tide began to roll in on the Lakehead, the result was virtual paralysis. Only two tiny elevators were available to handle this record-breaking consignment. The grain was brought from the West in twenty-one-rar trains, each car holding about fifteen tons. All in

all, nearly a thousand trainloads were necessary to complete the delivery.

Transhipping was an even more difficult task, and the tiny vessels which then rode the lakes could barely carry the grain away as fast as it came in. Eventually, however, the job was completed, and shipping officials of the nineteenth century sat. back with the fervent hope that there might never be another rush such as that one.

Twenty years later, on November 29, 1928, an almost equal quantity of grain was cleared from the twin ports in a single day. The exact figures were 6,385,814 bushels.

Probably of even greater interest to the handful of people living at the Lakehead in the ’80's, was the shipping of the first grain cargo ever to go down Lake Superior, in 1882. Only one boatload was required that year, and it was taken aboard by the steamer Erin. Fifteen thousand bushels of Western wheat comprised the cargo, packed in barrels and carried into the holds of the Erin on wheelbarrows.

It is a far cry from the diminutive Erin to tlie vessels which ply the commercial routes of the Great Lakes today with cargoes ranging all the way up to half a million bushels. The steamship Lemoyne, mentioned earlier, still holds the record for a single shipment—a record set in 1929. On July 27 of that year, the Lemoyne made last at Saskatchewan Pool Elevators No. 4 and 5 to take on a cargo of 571,885bushels of No. 2 Northern wheat. It took just about eight hours to do the job, and the feat stands as just another instance in the long list of achievements in which the twin ports have shown the way to the rest of the world.

Toll of the Lakes

TN BETWEEN those two extremes of

1882 and 1929, history, drama, tragedy, and pathos have been traced in the foamchurned wakes of the freshwater freighters. The elements have taken their toll down through the years, and an unsalted Davy Jones’s Locker nurses the bleached and barnacled skeletons of many a proud ship of commerce.

The first lake tragedy occurred in 1885 when the passenger steamer Algoma came to grief near the shores of Isle Royale, just outside Thunder Bay. Bucking a heavy storm in late autumn, the Algoma went far off her course and was thrown on to a rocky shoal. Twenty-six lives were lost, and of the handful that were saved, the most miraculous escape was credited to a thirteen-year-old cabin boy who was washed off the deck and hurled upon a ledge of rock, where he remained in a semiconscious condition until rescued. The lad lost a foot through frostbite, and, while his name is forgotten, his experience remains the most talked-of incident of the wreck of the Algoma.

Savage winter gales struck often in succeeding years, but while several ships were lost at various times, their crews escaped and fatalities were light for nearly thirty years. Then, on November 29, 1913, the worst storm the Great Lakes have ever known lashed out of the northwest to blast thirty-four vessels on reefs and shoals. Skill in navigation and the power of twentieth-century machinery were helpless against the cold* fury of the gales that swept two hundred miles of open water and hurled before them avalanches of snow that blotted out signal lights more effectively than the densest fog.

When the storm had spent itself, thirtyfour steamships lay at the bottom of the Great Lakes and 270 lives had been lost. That was the darkest day lake shipping has ever known, and it awoke shipping and government officials anew to the need for better navigation aids. A campaign urging the compulsory installation of wireless transmitters on every boat was begun, but the movement died out and freighters continued to ply the Great Lakes with only the lights, buoys and fog signals as their guides.

The frigid gales of winter raged just as

furiously in the intervening years, but it was not until mid-December of 1927 that tragedy struck again. Howling nor’westers, snow, sleet and mountainous seas had Lake Superior in their grip on the day that the freighter Kamloops, with twentythree people aboard, miscalculated on her courses, steamed past the channel where she intended to turn, and swung her nose directly toward Isle Royale’s rocky shores. The steamer Windoc, which had been preceding the Kamloops and had almost made the same mistake before an alert helmsman’s eye caught sight of a warning buoy, saw the Kamloops turn and blew the alarm signal. Either the officers of the ill-fated vessel did not hear, or they regained their proper course only to lose it again, but whatever happened, that was the last seen of the Kamloops. She simply disappeared, swallowed up by the storm.

Tradition has it that the waters of Lake Superior never give up their dead, but in this instance tradition was wrong, for the following spring the bodies of two members of the crew were found cast up on an island, and months later the vessel was located, under water, in a position which told the tale of the December tragedy.

Aids to Navigation

nPHE LOSS of the Kamloops and the narrow escapes of other vessels which had gone through experiences almost equally trying, once again resulted in a strong campaign for wireless equipment on freight boats. Shipowners, seeking some navigation aid which would overcome the terrific hazards of winter navigation, finally adopted the direction finder. This instrument, which is simply a specially constructed radio receiving set with a loop aerial, is installed on the bridge of each vessel. Through it, radio beacon signals are received at stated intervals from government stations established at all dangerous points on the Great Lakes. The location of the beacon in relation to the ship’s position can be checked by adjusting the loop aerial until the signals reach their maximum strength, and in this way the ship can be kept away from all danger zones.

The direction finder, simple enough to be operated by any member of the ship’s crew, has undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives on the Great Lakes. Its value is apparent even in dear weather, and it is doubly valuable in fog. But its true merit is revealed in late autumn and early winter when the worst sailing conditions of all are encountered.

Great Lakes captains do not fear fog. Its continued presence may be a strain on the ship’s officers, but it does not hinder navigation on the open lakes. Nor do these men fear gales. Lake freighters can ride out almost any storm, and shelter can be found if the storm becomes too severe. Fog and gales never come together, for the wind dissipates the fog, and so navigation is comparatively unhampered from May until September or later.

But it is in the last three months that the greatest difficulties must be faced. Gales at this time bring snow in their wake, and when the storm is severe, visibility is reduced to nothing. Every major shipping accident has occurred in November or December, and these months are as dangerous now as they were in 1885, when the Algoma fell victim to King Winter. Today that hazard has been minimized by three things-more and better warning signals, more scientific navigation methods, and the direction finder.

As might be expected, the increase in the use of scientific navigation aids and methods is regarded with some scorn by a few of the veteran lake captains who completed their careers and retired before they were brought into use. Piloting a vessel now is a “sissy” job, they say.

We asked Capt. S. B. Hunt, master of the S. S. Ontadoc, of the Paterson Steamship Co., what he thought of the new “gadgets.”

“I've sailed with them and without

them.” he said, “and I’d hate to go hack to the old style. Conditions have changed so greatly that it’s hard to make a comparison.”

“What would you say was the chief difference between navigation forty or fifty years ago and now?” we hazarded.

“Well, for one thing, the old timers ran lots of risks, but they could take their time about matters. A week or two, or even three, didn’t matter very much. Their principal job was to deliver a cargo and the element of time didn’t enter into it. They ran into lots of bad weather unexpectedly, but if they knew bad weather was ahead, they could just sit back and wait for things to dear up.

“With us it’s different. We operate on a schedule that is nearly as strict as a pas-

senger-boat's. We're due at the Soo at a ] certain time, and when we get there, j Detroit is advised as to the time well reach ; that port. At Detroit, as we sail by. a j launch comes out and gives us our orders. We’re due at Port Colborne or Buffalo at a certain time, and, weather or no. we’ve got to be there. If we aren’t, the ship is lasing money instead of paying her way— and when a ship is losing money, it generally means that navigation is closed as far as she is concerned.

“Then there are hazards that all the navigation aids in the world can’t quite overcome. Compasses aren’t infallible and the weather hasn’t changed much, either. No. sirree! There’s plenty of kick left in the old lakes yet. If there wasn’t, a lot of us wouldn’t be on the bridge today.”