General Articles

Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hulls

Cap'n McQueen laughs at Lake Erie’s sunken treasure — and turns rusty hulks into gold

M. W. BOWMAN,GRATTON GRAY September 1 1947
General Articles

Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hulls

Cap'n McQueen laughs at Lake Erie’s sunken treasure — and turns rusty hulks into gold

M. W. BOWMAN,GRATTON GRAY September 1 1947

Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hulls

Cap'n McQueen laughs at Lake Erie’s sunken treasure — and turns rusty hulks into gold



A FRIEND once remarked that J. Earle McQueen, one of the few practicing tugboat captains who can be termed “tycoon,” could pick up a shoelace, carry it around in his pocket all night, and by morning it would have turned to gold. This tendency to hyperbolize on the McQueen character is fairly common around Lake Erie, where his fleet of buff and black tugs is a familiar sight. Indeed, McQueen, who once operated on a shoelace, has turned many an old discarded hulk into gold. But the alchemy has usually been carefully calculated in advance.

In 1933, for example, when McQueen was struggling along with one old wooden tug and precious few orders, he suddenly bought the old rumrunner Vedas from Canadian customs for $1,285. Why anyone would want to buy the stripped-down hull of an ancient vessel in deep depression days was anybody’s guess. But McQueen knew exactly what he was doing.

He had discovered that a dredging company, pumping out the Livingstone channel of the Detroit River, was desperately in need of extra boilers to make steam. The Vedas had two perfectly good boilers. McQueen towed her down the river the day after he bought her, and promptly rented her out at $800 a month for the next nine months. Five years later he sold the hull for scrap; selling price: $4,500; net profit: $10,415.

Business acumen, often combined with blind luck, has been McQueen’s stock in trade for the past 18 years. In a business which has often been compared with horse trading, McQueen has been a shrewd and canny operator. Since he started out with his tiny wooden tug, Max L., in 1929, he has acquired, among other things, three tug boats, a dredge, a corvette, a coal business and dock, a fuel

company, part of a brewery, a $35,000 home and a healthy share of the towing and salvage business on the Great Lakes. His gross income runs around $400,000 a year and his total assets nudge the million mark. The 3,500 citizens of Amherstburg, a little town on the outskirts of Windsor, where the Detroit River widens into Lake Erie, often refer to him jocularly as “The Mayor” although they have a perfectly good legally elected representative who fills that office.

McQueen, at 54, has none of the Gappy Ricks flavor about him. In his office, behind his big mahogany desk, he looks exactly what he is: A

successful well-groomed businessman in a grey-blue double-breasted suit, heftily built, thin-lipped, balding. He is loquacious, speaks with a mild chuckle, dimples slightly when he smiles.

A Hundred Feet Down

IN THE wheelhouse the McQueen character undergoes a startling change. His Rotary Club attitude vanishes and he becomes the master of his craft. He is all business, has little time for joshing. Although ashore he may often knock off a quart of rye in an evening, he never drinks on board. A good deal of his time is spent in the wheelhouse of his new flagship Atomic. He takes the roughest jobs himself and has often taken chances that other men refused to take, or which he refused to allow other men to take.

McQueen quit diving in 1922, for example, but 10 years later, when harbor divers accustomed to 30 feet of water, refused to go down 104 feet into Lake Huron to identify a sunken Government dredge, the Captain promptly donned diving equipment, went under and came up slightly winded but otherwise unscathed. He was close to 40 then, the outside age for a diver.

McQueen had his first stroke of luck, and his first chance to prove that he was woven out of the stuff that tycoons are made of, in the summer of 1930, shortly after he started out in the business of marine contracting. He was weighing anchor off Pelee Island in Lake Erie when, by sheer accident and after a considerable tussle, he dragged an object from the bottom that turned out to be the gutted hulk of a Diesel fishboat.

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* McQueen stripped out the engine and headed posthaste up the lake for his home port of Amherstburg. He had to work fast. In the Great Lakes salvage business there’s no such thing as finders-keepers. In order to bargain to advantage, McQueen had to track down the owner of the hulk before the owner found out that McQueen had accidentally salvaged his boat.

He found him two days later—a fish dealer across Lake Erie, and a hard man with a dollar. McQueen phoned him, told him he was in the salvage business, and expressed an altruistic desire to help look for the fish dealer’s sunken craft. The dealer said he’d already combed the area where it had sunk, couldn’t locate it, and what’s moro as far as he was concerned anybody who went searching for it was on a fool’s errand.

McQueen, who was almost standingon the engine from where he was phoning, made the dealer a point-blank offer of $50 for the sunken boat, whether he found it or not. The delighted owner, who’d written the whole thing off as a dead loss, accepted. Next day McQueen sold the engine for $3,500.

“I work on hunches,” McQueen is fond of saying. But’ most of the captain’s hunches like the Vedas hunch are based on research. Perhaps his most successful research - based hunch was the one which implemented his raising of the unwieldly 196-foot sand sucker, Hydro, which had thrown Cleveland’s Maritime economy for a loss by sinking in the lower Cuyahoga Itiver, completely blocking the city’s inner harbor to all heavy shipping.

Iligh-Pressure Artist

American salvage companies, called in to clear the passage, declared that it would take a miracle to raise the Hydro in less than three weeks or a month. The underwriters, faced with an avalanche of law suits, by business affected by the channel blocking, grasped desperately at a straw in the shape of Capt. McQueen, who chuffed into the harbor aboard his flagship tug, Progresso, and announced that he’d have the Hydro up and out of the way within 10 days. American salvage men called him crazy and left him to it.

His method of attack was fairly unorthodox, but it was based on research. The normal method of raising a ship like the Hydro is to build a wooden coffer dam about it—that is to say, false walls that stretch from the lake bottom to above the water—then pump the whole thing dry. It is mainly divers’ work, and is a lengthy, costly job. McQueen, however, had carefully studied the plans of the Hydro beforehand and knew that she was a strongly built ship. He closed all the hatches and skylights, rendering her watertight, put 15 pumps aboard and started to pump the water out of her sunken hull, gambling that her decks would withstand the pressure of the 16 feet of water under which she lay. Naval architects told him that once the hull was sucked dry the tremendous water pressure would crush the ship like an eggshell, but McQueen went ahead anyway. If he failed he would have to start again with a coffer dam, paying out $100 a day for every day over the contract time. Halfway through he ran into a snag; he had hired an American crew to do the job, but when he wired for $5,000 for his payroll he learned that Canada, which had just declared war, was refusing to allow money to go

out of the country. McQueen worked j fast, scraped up $5,000 from American ! friends, kept the pumps going and sure enough, the vessel bobbed up out of the j water, just as he’d planned.

He had done the job in seven days. ¡ He collected $26,500 for it, paid his j debts and went back to Canada.

Among other attributes McQueen has a happy knack of getting along well with newspapermen. This paid dividends in Dec. 21, 1935, during the nowfamous second “Battle of Lake Erie.” The first battle took place when Perry smashed a British fleet off Sandusky Bar, Sept. 10, 1813. The second occurred when McQueen, aboard his Progresso, locked horns with Captain Conlin of the Detroit tug Record. Two Windsor Star men, inconspicuously peeling potatoes, witnessed the whole affair and spread it across their front page the following day.

Avast and Belay!

The 247-foot steel carrier Fellowcraft, drifting onto a shoal in a blinding snowstorm, had sent out a call for help. Both Conlin of the Record and McQueen of the Progresso responded. The Fellowcraft’s captain chose McQueen and threw him a line. The tug attached the hawser to the stern of the freighter, | took up the tension and started in to pull her off the shoal. But the Record steamed around from behind the blind side of the crippled ship and nosed straight at the taut hawser, squeezing in between the McQueen tug and the Fello weraft.

The bow of the Record passed under the rope but the wheelhouse caught it. The Progresso was already well heeled over under the towing strain and, as the Record continued under way, McQueen’s port deck dipped into the water. The hawser snapped and the Progresso rolled wildly from side to side, threatening to capsize.

McQueen, according to the press ' witnesses, was white with rage. As far as he was concerned the Record had deliberately fouled his line—a charge that the Record’s operator denied. However, great chunks of ice and tons of water were pouring over the stern of his boat. The last straw came when the Record rammed the Progresso. McQueen swung his wheel, rammed the Record back and a moment later had the rival tug completely at his mercy. Livid crew members clung to the handrails and shouted “Kill him, cap’n. Kill him! Drown him. Drown the-!”

“What I wanted to do was push his funnel right under water,” McQueen declared later. However, at the last moment, he thought better of it and merely jammed the Record into the ice. Then he went back to his job of succoring the freighter. The Record retreated hastily to her home port. She had come off second best in the engagement, for when she had rammed the sturdier Progresso she had badly bent and twisted her own prow. A month later in thick ice she ran up onto a shoal. McQueen came along in his own tug and broke a pathway in the ice to the beleaguered Record by backing all the way in. On the Great Lakes that’s a king-sized insult.

McQueen, whose father was in the tug and salvage business on the lakes, gained invaluable experience during the first war when he became the youngest officer in the newly organized salvage department of the British Admiralty. He learned every trick and trade of the salvage business at His Majesty’s expense, and he met his wife, a pretty Scottish lass named Patricia Williamson, who lived in the Shetland Islands.

The Admiralty sent him to the Shetlands as salvage officer with only a suitcase as equipment, to try to reclaim ;

eight torpedoed ships. He enlisted the aid of an Italian salvage man named Count Landi, probably better known now as the father of Elissa Landi, the movie actress.

The w'orst salvage job off the Shetlands was the Warknight, a big freighter which had been in a collision, been torpedoed, mined and finally burned to a crisp with 50 hands on board. The divers refused to examine her bulkheads because the only way down appeared to be by way of a thin spiral staircase, which twisted 48 feet from the upper deck to the stokehold. McQueen said he’d go down if his men wouldn’t, and did—but he didn’t use the spiral staircase. He simply pulled off the tops of the deck ventilators with a derrick, had himself lowered down the vents.

A Deserter Returns

It was a grisly business. The charred skeletons of the engine room crew lay around him below decks, but during the war McQueen became inured to death. On New Year’s Day, 1918, he went diving off the Shetlands to see how his crew were making out below water. It had been a rough New Year’s Eve and Jock Campbell, the diver’s tender, was green and shaking as he paid out the line. On the floor of the bay McQueen’s heavy boot rolled onto a corpse. It was a member of his crew who had been missing for two weeks and posted as a deserter.

McQueen seized the corpse by the knees, so that the corpse’s head was considerably higher than his own and gave the signal to pull up. The first thing the unfortunate Jock Campbell saw at 7.30 a.m. on New Year’s morning, was the face of a dead man breaking the surface of the sea. “I got ’em! I got ’em!” he shouted, and dived off the tender’s raft, letting McQueen and the corpse drop to the bottom again.

McQueen was married overseas. The marriage came on the heels of an unnerving experience for the future Mrs. McQueen, when McQueen was engaged in the salvaging of a Russian merchant ship off the Shetlands. Only the bow was above water; pressure bowed in the bulkheads and as McQueen worked in the half-empty engine room they burst, letting half the ocean in on him. The McQueen luck was with him. He was directly under a skylight and air pressure blew him up through the opening to safety. A moment later the sunken ship’s cargo of small pulp logs shot up, hammering McQueen black and blue. A trawler that saw the ship go down telephoned ship-to-shore that McQueen had been drowned. His fiancée, a wartime telephone operator, was the first to get the message. It was three hours before she found out he wasn’t dead.

McQueen arrived back in Canada in 1921, and for the next seven years he ran a fish buyer’s and cold storage business at Bellevue, Ont. In 1929 he bought his first tugboat, modtst cornerstone of McQueen Marine Contracting, and soon became noted for taking jobs after everybody else quit trying. His most successful effort in this direction was his raising of the famous old Lakes steamer, Tashmoo.

McQueen was on hand shortly after the Tashmoo foundered, but another salvage firm got first crack at the job. The million-dollar steamer, built in 1901, was still going strong in June, 1936, w’hen she struck a rock in Sugar Island Channel near Amherstburg. There were 1,400 passengers on board —a gay, not-too-sober excursion crowd, which didn’t realize what had happened. The orchestra was still playing when McQueen raced up in the Progresso, and when he turned his

searchlights on the stricken ship, some of the more spirited passengers threw bottles at the tug, smashing the windows. McQueen paced the Tashmoo to safety, watching while the big ship settled down into the water. The passengers were quietly taken off, but the vessel’s decks w'ere awash w hen the last ones went down the gangway.

A rival salvage concern tried vainly for two months to raise the Tashmoo. The old ship was badly smashed in the attempt. McQueen then took the job and raised her in six weeks. The underwriters, saddled with the task of removing her as an obstruction, gave him the ship and an additional $12,000.

The Tashmoo raising is a good instance of the roulette-wheel aspect of the salvage business. Three years later McQueen was to take a gambler’s chance and raise the Hydro in Cleveland harbor by pumping out the hull and trusting that the water pressure wouldn’t smash in her decks. The company who tried first to raise the Tashmoo had taken the same chance and lost. McQueen built the conventional coffer dam and made a handsome profit. He sold the Tashmoo for junk and turned the wheelhouse and a portion of the second deck forward into a summer home. This ability to make use of every conceivable portion of wreckage that comes into his hands is the hallmark of the true salvage man and a key to McQueen’s success. But it was when he purchased the Canadian corvette Kamloops from War Assets Corporation that he set a new high in salvage technique.

Kamloops Into Atomic

The Kamloops is still afloat at the McQueen dock. The once proud warship is just a hull today. McQueen bought her for $12,000 last year. He’s already realized $42,000 in cash by selling parts of the ship and her equipment, and still has plenty more left. The big mahogany desk in his office, for example, comes from the Kamloops’ wardroom. So do his office chairs and the big compass standard. Ilis crews’ homes, and McQueen’s too, are partially furnished with Kamloops furniture. The four-inch naval gun outside the Amherstburg Legion hall is the Kamloops’ old gun, a present from Capt. McQueen.

McQueen fitted his newest tugboat, the 80-foot Diesel - powered Atomic, almost completely from the Kamloops. He had the Atomic built to his own specifications by a naval architect— but when he purchased her she was nothing but bare hull, walls and engine. That way she cost him $160,000, instead of the $270,000 she would have cost if completed. McQueen put $20,000 worth of equipment from the Kamloops into the Atomic. This includes the rich mahogany panelling, the insulation board, the lead-covered electric wire which was impossible to buy when McQueen was outfitting the boat, and most of the furniture. It also includes luxuries like radar, and an echo sounder for determining water depth.

The Atomic today is the most modern tug on the Great Lakes. She sleeps 14 comfortably. McQueen himself designed the bow, which flares sharply back under water, giving it a knifelike point which enables it to cut through five feet of solid ice at six knots. Its main winter job is clearing a path through the ice for the Nicholson Transit Co., which insists on operating all year round from Toledo, Ohio, to Detroit—the same general area where a Negro woman once crossed from floe to floe, thus forming the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Eliza of ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Atomic’s

ship-to-shore telephone equipment has greatly relieved the peace of mind of Mrs. McQueen. A few years ago McQueen took his tug, Patricia McQueen, out to rescue the tanker Paratex caught in Lake Erie ice floes. In the midst of a howling blizzard he went unreported for 36 hours. McQueen and his crew finally returned, dog tired, having snatched less than two hours sleep battling the ice. At one point two 15-foot floes had born down on the little tug from opposite sides. McQueen, caught like ham in a sandwich, swung his ship at right angles, tore into one of the ice floes and cut through it just as the oncoming ice collided behind him with a crack and a roar. “There are no narrow escapes in this business,” McQueen says. “In our kind of work you either get out of it or you don’t come back at all.”

Besides the Diesel power Atomic and Patricia McQueen, McQueen owns the steam tug Henry Stokes. (The Progresso was sold and, under the new owners, promptly sank. McQueen, according to friends, was close to tears when he heard the news.) The Henry Stokes, which he bought in 1936, is a 65-year-old vessel with an almost indestructible iron hull. McQueen’s father once owned her and McQueen served on her when he was 13 years old.

In World War II McQueen became a commander and director of Canadian Boom Defense for the Navy. He tried to join in 1939, was told he was too old, went back to Amherstburg and “decided to be a war profiteer.” He started to build a $35,000 home, had it completed and ready to move in when the Navy called him back to service. He fidgeted in what he considered a desk job, finally got command of the H.M.C.S. Eastore to bring her up to Halifax through sub-threatened waters,

from the shipyard at Brunswick, Ga., J where she was built. To his disgust he j encountered no submarines.

McQueen and his two right-hand ' men, Capt. J. G. Penner and Capt. I C. R. Hackett, all live in adjoining ! houses on the riverbank. Each house has the traditional white mast and yardarm in the front yard and Amherst citizens call the street “Pirate’s Row.” I McQueen’s top story is fitted out with a white, glassed-in “wheelhouse” which gives him an uninterrupted view of the busy river, when he has time to sit back and look at it.

His McQueen Marine Contracting Co. is the smallest of Amherstburg’s three main industries. (The big Brunner-Mond chemical plant employs around 500 and Calvert Distilleries 150.) It is also the most talked about. He has 15 men on his payroll all year round and keeps them on it even when there’s no work to do. His labor relations are excellent. On trips his crew eat like potentates, and as well as wages McQueen gives them stock in the company. On big jobs he hires up to 150 men. A good many of the town’s 3,500 citizens use his dock as a fishing wharf on Sundays and on week ends he usually takes a dozen or so guests out on a fishing trip aboard the Atomic.

McQueen never hires saltwater sailors.

McQueen (whose wife calls him “Beany”) spends his off hours on a busman’s holiday: he sails. On the hot summer evenings and week ends he floats about in a small, single-sail sloop. Like most of the rest of his goods and chattels (including his wife whom he also calls “Beany”) he acquired the sloop as a direct result of his salvaging operations. It happens to be the old long boat off the corvette Kamloops, if