Lakers carry bulk cargoes of materials such as limestone, iron ore, grain, coal or salt from the mines and fields to the populous industrial areas down the lakes. The 63 commercial ports handled 173 million tons of cargo in 2006. Because of winter ice on the lakes, the navigation season is not usually year-round. The Soo Locks and Welland Canal close from mid-January to late March, when most boats are laid up for maintenance. Crewmembers spend these months ashore.
Depending on their application, lakers may also be referred to by their type, such as oreboats (primarily for iron ore), straight deckers (no self-unloading gear), bulkers (carry bulk cargo), sternenders (all cabins aft), self unloaders (with self unloading gear), longboats (due to their slender appearance), or lakeboats, among others.
In the mid-20th century, 300 lakers worked the Lakes, but by the early 21st century there were fewer than 140 active lakers. One of the best known was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the most recent and largest major vessel to be wrecked on the Lakes.
By way of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, smaller lakers have access to the ocean, and some ocean-going vessels have access to the Lakes. Visiting ocean-going vessels are called "salties."
Due to their additional beam, very large salties are never seen inland of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Because the smallest of the Soo Locks is larger than any Seaway lock, salties that can pass through the Seaway may travel anywhere in the Great Lakes. Similarly, the largest lakers are confined to the Upper Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie) because they are too large to use the Seaway locks, beginning at the Welland Canal that bypasses the Niagara River.
Because of their deeper draft and the lower buoyancy of fresh water, salties may accept partial loads on the Great Lakes, "topping off" upon exiting the Seaway.
|Source: Great Lakes Dry-Bulk Commerce,
2007 Statistical Annual Report,
Lake Carriers’ Association
Lakers are generally bulk carriers; that is, they carry cargoes of rock, ore, salt or grain in large contiguous holds, not packed in containers. The earlier ships required rail cars unloading on ore docks and unloading machinery at the receiving docks, but modern lakers are self unloaders, allowing them to unload faster and in more ports.
The most common cargoes on the Great Lakes are taconite (a type of iron ore), limestone, grain, salt, coal, cement, gypsum, sand, slag and potash. Much of the cargo supplies the steel mills of the auto industry, centered around the Great Lakes because of the ease of transport. Other destinations include coal-fired power plants, highway department salt domes and stone docks, where limestone is unloaded for the construction industry. US-flag freighters carried the largest portion of the trade, accounting for two-thirds of all cargo by weight. US boats carried most of the iron, limestone and cement while Canadian boats carried most of the potash and almost all of the salt and grain moved on the lakes.
Destination harbors, boat sizes and legal restrictions greatly affect the pattern of haulage. US boats hauled almost all of the iron ore on the lakes (79%) - from US mines to US mills on large US ships. This reflects the requirement of the Jones Act, as well as the industry using large volumes of material while being concentrated in a few large harbor locations. Salt and Canadian grain can be hauled to numerous smaller ports of either country on smaller, mostly Canadian, boats which can also enter the St. Lawrence Seaway with the Canadian ports of Montreal and Quebec City.
The largest vessels on the lake are the 1000-footers (300 m). These vessels are between 1000 and 1013.5 feet (305 and 309 m) long, 105 feet (32 m) wide and of 56 feet (17 m) hull depth. They can carry as much as 78,850 long tons of bulk cargo although their loading is dependent on lake water levels especially in the channels and ports. A dozen of these giant ships were built, all constructed between 1976 and 1981, and all remain in service today. The most powerful of these, the Edwin H. Gott, carries two Enterprise DMRV-16-4 diesel engines driving twin propellers and is rated at 19,500 brake horsepower, making the Gott the most powerful lake boat on the seaway (14.5 MW). This allows a top speed of 16.7 mph (27 km/h). The MV Paul R. Tregurtha is the largest boat on the lakes, at 1013'6" and 68,000 gross ton capacity. The Stewart J. Cort, which is not only the first 1000-footer to be put into service on the Lakes, but also the only one built in the traditional wheelhouse-forward Great Lakes style (although all accommodations are forward, and the stern deckhouse is occupied by self unloading equipment and the engines), is another notable vessel. The Cort started life in Mississippi, and was sailed as a much smaller vessel consisting of only the bow and stern sections (appropriately nicknamed "Stubby"), to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she was cut in half and an additional 800+ feet of hull were added. Another interesting 1000-footer is the Presque Isle, an integrated tug and barge combination. The Presque Isle is the largest tug / barge composite in the world.
All of the 1000-footers are US vessels. The Canadian fleet needs to travel to and from its major cities along the St. Lawrence Seaway, so the standard length for the Canadian vessels is around 730 feet (Seawaymax-size). The reason for this standard length is the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls. The locks here are only about 800 feet (240 m) long, and for safety reasons, the vessels must be at most 730 feet (220 m). Because of the Jones Act, Canadian ships cannot carry ore from American mines to American mills. This ore is the usual cargo of the largest ships.
More common are lake boats in the 600 and 700 foot (183 and 213 m) classes, due to the limitations of the Welland Canal. These vessels vary greatly in configuration and cargo capacity, being capable of hauling between 10,000 and 40,000 tons per trip depending on the individual boat. These smaller boats can serve smaller harbors around the Lakes which have irregular need for their services. The latest major vessel built for bulk cargoes on the lakes is the articulated tug/barge combo Ken Boothe Sr./Lakes Contender. The 740' barge Lakes Contender and the 135' tug Ken Boothe Sr. entered service in 2012.
Because these vessels must traverse the locks of the Great Lakes Waterway, they all have features in common, and their appearance differs from similarly sized ocean-going freighters. For instance, they are narrower and generally longer. An early variation of the type (designed by Alexander McDougall and built from 1887 through 1898) was the "whaleback" design, which featured significant tumblehome in the sides of the hull and a rounded bow, looking rather like the back of a whale. Where the superstructure of an ordinary freighter used to have the bridge in the center of the vessel, lake freighters typically have the bridge and associated superstructure on the bow. Traditionally they had a second island, over the engine room in the stern. These dual cabined boats were constructed between 1869 and 1974. The R. J. Hackett premiered the style and the second Algosoo was the final vessel designed this way. More recently built lakers, like the CSL Niagara, have a single large superstructure island at the stern.
Vessel speeds are not as important on the Lakes as on the ocean. Ports are often closer together than in ocean trade, so cargo capacity is more important than speed. Lake vessels are designed with the greatest box coefficient to maximize the vessel's size in the many locks within the Great Lakes/St Lawrence Seaway system. Therefore, ship designers have favored bluff bows over streamlined bows. After World War II, several ocean freighters and tankers were transported to the Great Lakes and converted to bulk carriers as a way to acquire ships cheaply. Several of them served well in the role and continue to sail today (American Victory (fmr. Middletown), Lee A. Tregurtha, and a few others).
Another distinguishing feature of Lake vessels versus Ocean vessels is the cargo hatch configuration. On the Lake vessels, the hatches are traditionally spaced 24 feet (7.8m) apart. This configuration was needed to match the hatches to the loading facilities. At the turn of the 19th century, most ore loading facilities had loading chutes spaced every 12 feet (3.8m). The ship designers used this pattern for their hatch configuration. This pattern continues today, even with modern Lake vessels. A lake vessel has many more hatches than an ocean vessel of equal length.
The largest deep lock at the Soo is the Poe Lock which is 1,200 feet (370 m) long and 110 feet (34 m) wide. Because of size restrictions, thirty vessels on the lakes can only pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron using the Poe lock although none approaches the lock's size. Many lakers are restricted to the Lakes, being unable to navigate the St Lawrence Seaway whose locks allow a maximum vessel size of 740 feet (226 m) in length or 78 feet (24 m) in breadth. The shallow draft imposed by the rivers (typically dredged to about 28 feet (8.5m) by the United States Army Corps of Engineers) restricts the cargo capacity of Lakers, but that is partially recovered by their extra length and box design. Since Great Lakes waves never achieve the great length or period of ocean waves, particularly compared to the waves' height, ships are in less danger of being suspended between two waves and breaking, so the ratio between the ship's length, beam and its depth can be a bit larger than that of an ocean-going ship. The Lake vessels generally have a 10:1 length to beam ratio, whereas ocean vessels are typically 7:1. The dimension of locks is the determining factor in Lake vessel construction.
Since the freshwater lakes are less corrosive to ships than the salt water of the oceans, many of the Lakers remain in service for long periods and the fleet has a much higher average age than the ocean-going fleet. The average lifespan of a laker is 40–50 years. Boats older than 50 years are not unusual. The SS St. Marys Challenger, built in 1906 as the William P. Snyder (552 ft), is currently the oldest boat in active duty on the Lakes. She is managed by Port City Steamship and owned by St. Mary's Cement, a subsidiary of Votorantim Cimentos. The E. M. Ford had one of the longest careers, having been built in 1898 (as the Presque Isle - 428 feet) and still sailing the lakes 98 years later in 1996. In 2007 she was still afloat as a stationary transfer vessel at a riverside cement silo in Saginaw. She went to the scrap yard in November 2010 at Purvis Marine. The J. B. Ford, built in 1904, last sailed in 1985 and in 2007 served in the same capacity as the E. M. at a different cement silo in Superior, Wisconsin. Several decorated World War II veteran ships are still in active, although civilian, use such as the tankers Chiwawa and Neshanic, now the bulk freighters Lee A. Tregurtha and American Victory, respectively, and the Landing Craft Tank 203, now the working vessel Outer Island.
The Great Lakes have a long history of shipwreck, groundings, storms and collisions. From the 1679 sinking of Le Griffon with its cargo of furs to the 1975 loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald, thousands of ships and thousands of lives have been lost, and many involved vessels in the cargo trade. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum uses the approximate figures of 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives lost. David D. Swayze has compiled a list which details over 4,750 well-documented shipwrecks, mostly of commercial vessels and a list of known names of over 5,000 victims of those sinkings. Maritime historian Mark Thompson reports that based on nautical records, nearly 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes occurred between 1878 and 1994, with about a quarter of those being listed as total losses with a total of 1,166 lives lost.
The most recent losses of modern lakers were (with their causes):
The salties Prins Willem V and Monrovia also sank in the Great Lakes during the 1950s; both in collisions with other ships. The saltie Nordmeer grounded on Thunder Bay Island Shoal in November 1966 but before it could be refloated was further damaged in the same storm that sank the Morrell and it was declared a total loss.
Ships on the Lakes have been involved in many lesser incidents. Lakers have been subject to frequent groundings in port and channels due to varying lake levels and silting, collisions with objects (such as the 1993 collision of the Indiana Harbor with the Lansing Shoals Light Station), icing in during winter trips and shipboard fires (including the unusual case in 2001 where a drawbridge ran into the Canadian grain carrier Windoc causing a fire). To prevent collisions and groundings, the Great Lakes are well-served with lighthouses and lights, and floating navigation aids. The U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian Coast Guard maintain stations around the Great Lakes including icebreakers and rescue helicopters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies maintain the harbors and seaways to limit groundings by dredging and seawalling.
November was the traditional last month of shipping before the winter layup (and lake freeze-up). This month sees much of the worst weather of the navigation season and has seen a disproportionate number of accidents. Dana Bowen mentions that over half of all strandings and one-third of all vessels lost to foundering between 1900-1950 were lost during November.
The most famous laker was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (popularized by Gordon Lightfoot's song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in 1976), which sank on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. The Fitz was the first boat with a length of 729 feet (222 m) and the flagship of the Columbia Steamship Division of Oglebay Norton Co. The MV Stewart J. Cort was the first of the 1,000-foot (300 m) oreboats.
The first laker with self-unloading equipment was the Hennepin (formerly the George H. Dyer) a small wooden laker that was refitted with the equipment in 1902. The first laker built as a self-unloader was the Wyandotte launched in 1908. Before these, all boats were unloaded with shoreside equipment. Self-unloading equipment worked well for cargoes that could "flow" out of the holds onto belts, such as coal and limestone. It did not work well for grain, which flowed too readily and would spill off the conveyors, or iron ore, which would not flow well and would hang up in the hold. Because the predominant cargo for lakers was iron ore, self-unloaders did not become common until higher grade ores were depleted and taconite pellets were developed in the 1970s. Steam power first appeared in the 1860s and became the standard source of power for over a century. The Canadian grainboat Feux Follets of 1967 was the last laker to be built with a steam turbine and thus was the last steamer built on the lakes. Ford Motor Company's Henry Ford 2nd and Benson Ford of 1924 were the first lakeboats with diesel engines. Diesel powerplants did not become standard until the 1970s. The last active ships of 1920s vintage, and the oldest ships still operating in non-specialized bulk trades is the motor vessels Maumee of Lower Lakes Transportation. She was built as the William G Clyde for US Steel. The S. T. Crapo, inactive since 1996, was built to haul cement for Huron Cement Co. back in 1927 and was the second ship of that design, the first being the John G Boardman of the same company. The Crapo was the last coal burning freighter on the Great Lakes.
The classic design of cabins fore-and-aft with open decks over the hold started with the 208-foot (63 m) long R. J. Hackett, designed and built by Elihu Peck in 1869. The first iron-hulled laker was the Brunswick, launched at Detroit in 1881. The Brunswick sank after a collision later that year and was apparently little known. Many follow the lead of the contemporary Cleveland press and credit the Onoko as the first iron-hulled laker, launched in 1882. The Onoko’s higher center section did become a standard for later lakers. At 302 feet (92 m), the Onoko was the first bulk carrier to hold the unofficial title of Queen of the Lakes (longest vessel on the lakes). The SS Carl D. Bradley (1927 – 640 feet) held the title for 22 years, longer than any other laker of the classic design. The Bradley is also known for breaking her back and foundering in a Lake Michigan storm in 1958. There were only two survivors.
Currently that title is held by the modern stern-ender Paul R. Tregurtha. Launched in 1981 as the William J. Delancy, and measuring 1,013.5 feet (308.9 m), the Paul R. Tregurtha has held the title since her launch. The Wilfred Sykes (1949 – 678 feet) is considered to be the first of the modern lakers, and when converted to a self-unloader in 1975 was the first to have the equipment mounted aft. Since then all self-unloading equipment has been mounted aft. The Algoisle (formerly the Silver Isle) (1962 – 715.9 feet) was the first modern laker built with all cabins aft (a “stern-ender”), following the lead of ocean-going bulk carriers and reprising a century old form used by little river steam barges and the whalebacks. The Stewart Cort (1971) was the first 1,000 footer and the only “footer” built in the classic cabins-fore-and-aft style. The Algosoo (1974 – 730 feet) was the last laker built in the classic style.
Also of note is the steamer Edward L. Ryerson, widely known for her artistic design and being the only remaining straight-decked (without self unloading machinery) freighter still in active service on the US side of the Great Lakes (the only other US straight decker still listed is the John Sherwin, has not sailed since 1981 and is currently docked in Detour, Michigan after conversion to a self unloader and repowering was halted in November 2008). In the summer of 2006, the Ryerson was fitted out and put into service following a long-term lay-up that began in 1998. The Ryerson has been meticulously maintained, and was often used as a museum boat for tours. She was put back into service due to a lack of reliable hulls on the Lakes, and a need for more tonnage. (The Canadian fleet retains a number of active straight-deckers for use in transporting grain, which is not well suited for self-unloading equipment. Most US grain is currently transported by rail.)
In film, the W. W. Holloway (since scrapped) is famous for being the lake freighter that the Blues Brothers jump their 1974 Dodge over when Elwood jumps the open 95th Street Draw Bridge.
The William G. Mather, a laker built in 1925 and a former flagship for the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, has been turned into a maritime museum and is open to the public in Cleveland, Ohio in the North Coast Harbor.
The William A. Irvin was named for the president of U.S. Steel at the time of its launching and served as the flagship of US Steel's Great Lakes fleet from her launch in 1938 to 1975. It was the first laker to incorporate welding in its design and is open for tours at the Great Lakes Floating Maritime Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. Another museum ship, the Meteor, is the last surviving ship of the whaleback design, and is a museum in Superior, Wisconsin, which was the location of the American Steel Barge Company, where the whalebacks were built.
The Valley Camp was built in 1917 and served the National Steel Corporation, the Republic Steel Corporation, and Wilson Transit Co. during her 1917-1966 working life. She became a museum ship on the waterfront of the 'American Soo', east of the Soo Locks, in 1968. She holds many relics of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald including two of the Fitz's mauled lifeboats.
The Col. James M. Schoonmaker is a former Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company vessel that sailed from 1911 to 1980. She was originally owned by the Shenango Furnace Company, but renamed the Willis B. Boyer under Cleveland Cliffs ownership. The Schoonmaker was the largest bulk freighter in the world when commissioned. In one of the most ambitious Great Lakes ship restorations to date, the Schoonmaker was re-christened July 1, 2011, on the 100th anniversary of the ship's launching in Toledo. She was open to the public for many years as a museum at International Park in Toledo, Ohio but was moved Oct. 27, 2012, to a location downriver, next to the new home of the National Museum of the Great Lakes Historical Society. She is expected to reopen to the public in Spring 2014, when the museum is also scheduled to open.
The Lewis G. Harriman's bow and bow superstructure are preserved here. The Harriman, launched as the purpose-built cement steamer John W. Boardman, was scrapped but the bow was saved as a DeTour residence. Recently restored to the Boardman colors.
The Benson Ford was named after Henry Ford's grandson, and was the flagship of the Ford Motor Company (1924). The forward cabin is now located on a cliff on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, where it was moved in 1986. It is a private museum residence owned by Bryan Kasper of Sandusky, Ohio. It has been featured in many magazines and national television shows such as HGtv's Extreme Homes and Travel Channel's Extreme Vacation Homes. The deckhouse of the Ford provides a glimpse of what one of the grandest freighters on the lakes looked like.
The SS Ridgetown was partially sunk as a breakwater (with stack and cabins intact) near Toronto at Port Credit. It was built in 1905 and is one of the oldest surviving hulls on the lake. Its stark silhouette provides an example of the appearance of early 1900s lake freighters.
Several other lakers nearly became museums, but due to funding, political opposition or other causes, were scrapped.
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