During the late 1890's, the fleet of John D. Rockefeller's Bessemer Steamship Company went through a period of great expansion and constructed many steamers and barges. Although they were neither the largest nor the last vessels built for Bessemer, it would be fair to say that SAMUEL P. B. MORSE of 1898 and her near-sister DOUGLASS HOUGHTON of 1899 were by far the most impressive Bessemer steamers. True, they were surpassed in size by the later CHARLES R. VAN HISE and GENERAL ORLANDO M. POE, but the MORSE and HOUGHTON were distinctive in appearance and outstanding by way of the power they possessed.
Given Official Number U.S. 157552, DOUGLASS HOUGHTON measured 456.0 feet in length, 50.0 feet in the beam, and 23.9 feet in depth. Her tonnage was 5332 Gross and 4034 Net. Since she and the MORSE were designed to tow the largest barges, they had to be very powerful and were, in fact, the most powerful ore carriers on the lakes for a number of years. HOUGHTON was fitted with quadruple expansion engines built by Globe and having cylinders of 18 1/2, 26 1/2, 39 and 56 inches, and a stroke of 42 inches. Her Indicated Horsepower was 2300. Presumably because of the large number of stokers required to feed her furnaces, the steamer needed an unusually large crew of thirty men.
DOUGLASS HOUGHTON was a very distinctive vessel in her appearance. For her entire career, her bridge structure was set back off the forecastle, being located aft of number one hatch. While this improved her appearance, she was undoubtedly cursed by many an unloading gang whose job was made more complicated by the arrangement. The bridge structure consisted of a texas cabin and a small three-windowed pilothouse, the vessel being conned from an open bridge atop the pilothouse. In early photos, the HOUGHTON can always be readily distinguished from the MORSE since the former's pilothouse was rounded whereas her sister's was squared off. Both ships kept the same pilothouses for their entire operating lives, although in later years another deck was added between the texas and wheelhouse.
The most distinctive features of the two vessels, however, were their funnels. Due to the large number of fireboxes they possessed, they were each given two very large and tall stacks. One might have expected these to be mounted athwartship in usual lake fashion, but instead they were carried in tandem and looked all the more imposing in Bessemer colours, painted black and carrying the large white letter "B". These stacks may have been impressive but they hardly could have enabled one to call either ship handsome as they made the steamers look overly heavy aft.
The HOUGHTON was named for Dr. Douglass Houghton, the first State Geologist of Michigan, and one of the members of the Schoolcraft expedition to Lake Superior in 1832. Houghton located large quantities of copper in Upper Michigan in 1840 but more important, he was largely responsible for the first major discovery of iron ore in the Lake Superior area in 1844. The find was located at Negaunee on the Marquette Range, Tragedy struck in the autumn of 1845 when Houghton was accidentally drowned near Eagle River while continuing his explorations. The Bessemer ships were all named after famous gentlemen, most being inventors.
The date was September 5th, 1899, and DOUGLASS HOUGHTON, towing the barge JOHN FRITZ, was proceeding downbound in the St. Mary's River with a cargo of iron ore. Fate had it that she parted her steering chains while she was in the narrow Middle Neebish Channel a short distance north of Sailors' Encampment. Having lost her ability to steer, the HOUGHTON veered off to starboard and found the shore on the American side of the channel with her bow. As soon as the steamer's plight was observed, the barge dropped her stern anchors but they did not hold and the FRITZ rammed the HOUGHTON amidships, tearing a hole seven feet by three in the steamer's starboard side. JOHN FRITZ ran ashore but remained afloat. The HOUGHTON, however, immediately settled to the bottom and, with her stern protruding well out into the river, she completely blocked off the navigation channel. As a result of the accident, both upbound and downbound traffic was halted for five days and about a hundred ships were held up in what was to be known around the lakes as "The Houghton Blockade". There are numerous photos in existence showing row on row of delayed steamers and schooners waiting in the lower harbour at the Sault.
The Great Lakes Towing Company quickly despatched tugs, lighters, divers and wrecking equipment to the scene, including the large salvage tug FAVORITE. The barge was easily removed by salvage crews but the steamer presented a more difficult problem, After the hole in the ship's side was patched, part of the ore cargo had to be removed and the hull pumped free of water. Rock was blasted away from around the bow and tugs finally pulled the freighter free at 3:30 p.m. on September 10th. Largely as a result of this traffic stoppage, the Neebish Rock Cut (West Neebish Channel), was constructed as an alternate shipping route around the area.
In March 1901, J. P. Morgan and Elbert H. Gary, who were forming the United States Steel Corporation, bought out Rockefeller and thus DOUGLASS HOUGHTON passed to the Pittsburgh Steamship Company. She continued operation for this, the largest American lake fleet, until 1945. In 1910, however, it was decided that she and the MORSEL were more powerful than necessary and hence were uneconomical to operate. Accordingly they were each reboilered, this operation reducing their power somewhat, HOUGHTON received two single-ended Scotch boilers built in 1910 by the American Shipbuilding Company. They measured 14 feet by 11 1/2 feet, and like their predecessors, were coal fired. It was at this time that the second funnel was removed and thereafter, she and her sister looked more like regular bulk carriers.
DOUGLASS HOUGHTON was rebuilt about 1928 and at this tine her tonnage was altered to 4515 Gross and 3070 Net. Her carrying capacity was 7000 tons at a mid-summer draft of 19' 6". Despite the addition of many new vessels to the Pittsburgh Steamship Company's fleet during the 1920's and 1930's, she continued in operation and could frequently be seen towing one of the company's barges. She and her sister survived the purging of older tonnage which occurred early in the Second War when Pittsburgh traded a number of its older vessels to the U.S. Maritime Commission in return for newly-built steamers.
In June 1945, however, her career in the Pittsburgh fleet came to an end for, at that time, she was sold, along with the steamer MAUNALOA and the barges JOHN A. ROEBLING and JOHN FRITZ (her previous partner in misfortune) to the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company Ltd., Toronto, for use in the Canadian grain trade. She was enrolled as Can. 174976. For the next twenty-two years, the HOUGHTON was a familiar visitor to Canadian lake ports, and especially Toronto. She frequently towed the ROEBLING and on many trips the barge would be left to unload at Sarnia or Port Colborne while the steamer went on to Toronto with her cargo, returning later to pick up her barge or one left by another steamer.
The owners of DOUGLASS HOUGHTON changed their name in 1959 to Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd. and have been known as such ever since. The company discontinued the use of barges in the early 1960's and was, as a matter of fact, the last lake shipping company to tow barges with bulk steamers. Thereafter, the HOUGHTON carried on alone, but she was in good company since Upper Lakes still operated several other veterans which, had been her running mates during the Pittsburgh years. The HOUGHTON was growing old, but she bore her years gracefully and her lines, if anything, improved with age. With her tall bridge structure set back to leave her bow uncluttered, with the jaunty rake to her by now more reasonably sized funnel, and with her bow lifting proudly with the sheer of her deck, she presented a most majestic appearance.
In 1967, however, she came to the end of her operating life and at the end of the season was laid up at Toronto. She was held in reserve during 1968, being tied up in the slip at the foot of Spadina Avenue along with HOWARD L. SHAW. In early 1969, the HOUGHTON, the SHAW, and another Upper Lakes Shipping veteran, VICTORIOUS, were sold to the Toronto Harbour Commission, They were all soon resold to the Government of Ontario and were moved to a slip just behind the east pier of Toronto's Eastern Gap. Here, during the summer months, they were one by one stripped of their cabins and machinery and the hulls loaded with stone. They were then towed to the site of the Ontario Place development on the shore of Lake Ontario outside the Western Gap, just off the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The ships were then sunk onto a prepared bed of stone to form a breakwater across the unprotected front of the growing complex. Their decks were capped with cement and visitors may now walk along a promenade atop the trio of steamers that served the lake trade for so long.
The three hulls form a long curve, sunk stern to bow, and the HOUGHTON is the most easterly of the three. The government, apparently anxious to preserve some memory of the vessels' past, has left the name visible on the HOUGHTON's bow which protrudes out past the landfill and on the forecastle has been erected a double-deck observation platform shaped very much like a ship's bridge. On clear summer nights, when the sun is sinking in the west, an observer looking out from the inner harbour into the sunset can spot the silhouette of DOUGLASS HOUGHTON's new "superstructure" and, with a little imagination, can picture her once again making for the Western Gap with another cargo of grain.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.