The vessels of the Great Lakes, and particularly those flying the Canadian flag, have always had a propensity to change shape as the years pass. This is probably due mainly to the longevity of a steel hull which is kept in fresh water, for such hulls frequently outlive their usefulness in the trade for which they were designed and, because of their good condition, are passed on from owner to owner and from trade to trade. Such a progression has often resulted in drastic changes in appearance for the boats involved as they have been modernized and modified to suit their new duties.
Such a vessel was THUNDER BAY (I) which began life as a barge, serving the iron ore trade, and was later converted into a steamer. After this conversion, she was used first as a bulk carrier, then as a tanker, and finally as a breakwater on salt water.
In 1894, the Minnesota Steamship Company let to the Chicago Shipbuilding Company an order for the construction of two similar barges. Ready for launching at the South Chicago shipyard in 1895, the builder's Hulls 12 and 13 were christened, respectively, MARCIA and MALTA. The latter was named for the famous island in the Mediterranean and followed the Minnesota Steamship Company's practice of giving its vessels names beginning with the letter 'M' and ending with 'A', just as did its own name.
MALTA, given official number U.S.92637, was registered at Cleveland, Ohio. She measured 302.0 feet in length, 40.2 feet in width and 19.6 feet in depth. Her tonnage was registered as 2237.48 Gross and 2132.40 Net. She was a flush-decked boat, that is, she had neither raised forecastle nor quarterdeck. A small, low deckhouse was carried at the bow behind a closed rail and aft was a small pilothouse beside which rose a rather spindly stack which carried away the smoke from the boiler which provided steam for the towing winch and other equipment. MALTA was given three heavy masts which were rigged to carry sail. All of the big steel barges built around the turn of the century carried auxiliary sail even though they were normally towed by steamers.
MALTA was something of an oddity when she was built in that she was one of the first steel boats to be built with the channel system of construction which had been pioneered by the Chicago Shipbuilding Company in 1894 with the steamer KEARSARGE. This system employed channel-shaped steel in the construction of the double bottom instead of flat steel beams and angle irons. This method resulted in a saving of weight as well as labour, not only in the original construction but also in subsequent repairs, and also provided a stronger structure.
The odd part about the construction of MALTA is that the so-called "official" records disagree as to where she was built. It is clearly evident that both she and MARCIA were built at South Chicago and with MARCIA there is no problem with the records. The fact that MALTA did come from this same yard is verified by the various editions of Merchant Vessels of the United States and of the American Bureau of Shipping Record. For some strange reason, however, the Canadian List of Shipping always reported that the vessel was built at Cleveland and to compound the error, Lloyd's Register of Shipping frequently indicated that MALTA was built by the Chicago Shipbuilding Company at Cleveland and the 1941-42 issue even went so far as to show that she was built by the American Shipbuilding Company at Cleveland! This is, of course, totally absurd as American Shipbuilding was not formed until 1899. The differences do, however, point out the need for historians to check as many sources as possible and to avoid accepting any one source as the ultimate authority.
In any event, MALTA was duly completed and in 1895 entered service for the Minnesota Steamship Company whose fleet was at this time managed by the Cleveland firm of Pickands Mather and Company. MALTA was towed by the early steamers of the fleet but as the last decade of the old century passed, these early steamers were far overshadowed by the larger steamers built for the company (or purchased by it shortly after their construction) such as MAUNALOA, MALIETOA and MATAAFA. The same situation occurred amongst the barges and before many years were out, MALTA and MARCIA, which were the first two barges built for the company, were outstripped in size by such "giants" as MANILA, MARSALA and MADEIRA which were well over 100 feet longer than the original pair.
The Minnesota Steamship Company was not to last long, however, for in 1900 its parent company, Minnesota Iron, was absorbed by the Federal Steel Company which was an enterprise of the famous J. Pierpont Morgan. Federal, in turn, was involved in the larger consolidation which in 1901 saw the formation of the United States Steel Corporation. The new company, in the course of its formation, picked up a great number of lake vessels which had belonged to the amalgamated companies individually and the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, Cleveland, was organized in 1901 to operate these boats. Of course, the ships of the Minnesota Steamship Company were no exception and in 1901 their management passed from Pickands Mather to the Pittsburgh Steamship Company.
The change in ownership led to MALTA being painted in the striking green hull colour of the Pittsburgh fleet with an all-silver stack. Before many years had passed, however, her hull became red and her stack was given a black smokeband as Pittsburgh developed the basic colour scheme which is still used on U.S. Steel vessels. MALTA was to serve the Pittsburgh fleet in the ore trade until 1912, at which time it was deemed that her small size made her unsuitable for further service. It must be remembered that, by this time, the age of the 600-foot lake steamer had come and the operation of a 300-foot towbarge by a company the size of the "Steel Trust" was not economically warranted.
And so in 1912 MALTA was sold to the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company of Port Arthur. Enrolled as C.131060 at Port Arthur, she was formally registered in the name of James Whalen, the noted Lakehead entrepreneur whose name was immortalized by the famous icebreaking tug. MALTA was renamed (b) THUNDER BAY (I) in honour of the body of water on which the Lakehead ports of Fort William and Port Arthur were located. This name has since been given to the consolidation of the two neighbouring cities.
THUNDER BAY found herself in the fleet of the Canadian Northwest Steamship Company Limited of Port Arthur and Toronto, a company which, back in the 1890s, had been affiliated with Thomas Marks and Company Limited, Port Arthur. By the time that THUNDER BAY entered the fleet, however, the Marks involvement had ended and it is highly likely that James Whalen himself was the controlling interest. It appears that THUNDER BAY was never actually registered in the name of Canadian Northwest but rather that she was under its "management". The various steamers in the fleet towed her but she was usually seen behind PAIPOONGE, a veteran of 1888 which, as (a) CORONA, had been built for the Mutual Transportation Company and absorbed into the Pittsburgh Steamship Company in 1901. Like MALTA, she also made the transfer out of the tinstack fleet in 1912 but she was actually registered in the name of Canadian Northwest. PAIPOONGE was commonly known to lake sailors as "Noah's Ark". She and THUNDER BAY served principally in the grain trade, a large number of their trips taking them to the ports of Georgian Bay.
During the early years of the First World War, the Canadian lake shipping scene was dominated by two major firms, the largest being Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal, which had been formed in 1913. The other was the Montreal Transportation Company Ltd. Control of this latter organization was acquired in 1916 by Roy M. Wolvin who was one of the principals involved in the formation of C.S.L. and who eventually would bring Montreal Transportation into the C.S.L. family. In the meantime, however, Wolvin set about expanding the M.T.Co. fleet by absorbing smaller companies. Most of the steel steamers in the fleet were sold off for war service at inflated prices and this left M.T.Co. with a collection of what might best be called second-rate hulls.
One of the companies swallowed up by Montreal Transportation during the Wolvin years was the Canadian Northwest Steamship Company whose fleet at that time incorporated the steamers ATIKOKAN, GEORGE A. GRAHAM, NEEBING (I) and PAIPOONGE, along with the lone barge THUNDER BAY. The transfer of ownership to M.T.Co. was effected on April 13, 1917.
Despite the fact that the sale to the Cuban interests was off, Smith sent the sections of THUNDER BAY and PAIPOONGE down through the canals and had them rejoined when they had safely reached the St. Lawrence, the intention no doubt being to arrange another foreign sale for the pair. This did not immediately materialize and in 1921, both vessels were actually acquired by C.S.L., PAIPOONGE being resold to Danish interests. It is to be assumed that neither had operated since their journey to the St. Lawrence in 1919.
C.S.L. had lost a number of boats to enemy action and to the ravages of ocean service during the course of the war and it was decided that THUNDER BAY might be of use in bolstering the canal fleet until such time as new tonnage might be available. Accordingly, THUNDER BAY was sent in 1921 to the Lauzon, Quebec, yard of the Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Company Limited where she was shortened to a length of 247.6 feet to allow her to transit the old canals. This operation reduced her Gross Tonnage to 1870.
At the same time, THUNDER BAY was converted to a steamer by the installation of the engine from the wooden steamer NICARAGUA which had been built in 1894 at West Bay City, Michigan, by James Davidson and abandoned by C.S.L. in 1920 in the Kingston boneyard. The triple-expansion engine had been built in 1894 by the Frontier Iron Works of Detroit and had cylinders of 16 1/2, 25 and 42 inches and a stroke of 34 inches. Steam at 160 p.s.i. was provided by one single-ended Scotch boiler built in 1912 by the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. It is likely that this boiler had been placed in her at the time that Whalen purchased the barge from the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, but we find it hard to believe that a boiler suitable for the operation of towing and steering gear on a barge could provide sufficient steam for a triple-expansion engine in a self-propelled vessel.
Be this as it may, THUNDER BAY in due course entered service as a steamer. Strangely enough, she was not given a raised forecastle but remained a flush-decker. A rather odd triple-deck bridge structure was placed forward and aft she was given a very boxy and bald-looking cabin which sported windows across its forward end. A tall, thin stack was fitted very far aft and it had no more rake to it than did two scrawny steel masts. The net result of the conversion was a vessel which undoubtedly proved to be an adequate stop-gap in a much depleted fleet but which looked every bit the conversion that she was.
The career of THUNDER BAY with C.S.L was as short as one might have expected it to be. She had been in the grain trade for C.S.L. for less than a decade when the results of the Great Depression began to make themselves felt in lake shipping circles. The company may have had an adequate fleet of boats to service its needs in normal times, but it had under its flag far more ships than it could put to use during a period of poor business conditions. With many newer canal-sized bulk carriers going to the wall, it was not unusual that THUNDER BAY should join them and in 1930 she was laid up in the C.S.L. reserve fleet at Kingston. The company was to resurrect from this marine cemetery a number of its vessels but THUNDER BAY was not destined to be one of them.
THUNDER BAY lay in the Kingston boneyard until 1937 at which time C.S.L. embarked upon a program of housecleaning that was to rid the fleet of many ships which had not turned a wheel since the onset of the Depression. In all, 22 boats were sold for scrapping, the majority of them being laid up at Kingston at the time. Of the 22, some fourteen were sold to Les Chantiers Manseau Limitee, Sorel, Quebec, for dismantling, and THUNDER BAY was included in this latter group. In due course, she was hauled off to Sorel where for the next few years she languished in the shipyard's reserve fleet in a backwater of the Richelieu River.
Like some of her mates, however, THUNDER BAY did not feel the wrecker's torch. By 1940, Les Chantiers Manseau Ltee. had been reorganized as Marine Industries Limited, Sorel, and the company, in addition to operating the Sorel shipyard and numerous tugs and dredges, was becoming interested in the operation of bulk carriers and tankers. A number of former C.S.L. steamers were hauled out of the reserve fleet and reactivated.
One of the lucky ones was THUNDER BAY which was taken in hand by Marine Industries' own shipyard and converted to a tanker. The rebuilding altered her tonnage to 1984 Gross and 1447 Net, her actual dimensions being shown at this time as 247.6 x 40.1 x 23.4. She was commissioned as (c) PINEBRANCH, her name attesting to her management by that section of Marine Industries which ultimately would come to be known as Branch Lines Limited. She was given a black hull and her cabins for many years were red with white trim while her stack was all black. When we say that her cabins were red, we should exclude her pilothouse which carried the same colours in reverse in that it was white with red trim! Her stack was not the same tall, thin one which she carried as THUNDER BAY, but rather a squat, heavy funnel which also was placed far aft.
PINEBRANCH entered service in 1940 and her first trip took her to Toronto, a port that she was to frequent throughout her remaining active lifetime. But the Second World War had become a fact and Canada was deeply embroiled in the conflict. PINEBRANCH was requisitioned for wartime service in British waters in 1941 and was at that time renamed (d) EMPIRE STICKLEBACK for her new duties but, oddly enough, she did not actually cross the Atlantic until 1945. When she did leave her home waters, she was operated by C. Rowbotham and Sons for the British Ministry of War Transport, but her salt water service was short and in 1946 she was brought back to the lakes. On her return, she reverted to the ownership of Marine Industries Ltd. and the management of Branch Lines Ltd. and she again became (e) PINEBRANCH. She was given back her familiar colours, although for a short time she and several other vessels in the fleet were given a greyish-green hull colour which obviously was not considered to be a success as it was soon covered over with black paint.
PINEBRANCH was indeed a ship of irregularities as far as the official records were concerned. Sometime between 1946 and 1956, the Canadian shipping register indicated that her official number was changed from C.131060 to C. 173404. There is no indication of why such a change should have been made since PINEBRANCH did not undergo any major reconstruction during that period. One would have thought that if any such change were ever contemplated, it would have been back in 1921 when the hull underwent its shortening and conversion to a steamer, but no change was then recorded. In any event, the change in registry numbers was never reflected either by Lloyd's or by the American Bureau of Shipping and we might surmise that at one stage there may have been an error in the preparation of the Canadian List of Shipping, an error which might have been perpetuated as the years passed.
PINEBRANCH continued in operation, mainly on the St. Lawrence River and the lower lakes, through the 1940s and early 1950s. She underwent several changes in appearance, amongst them being that her cabins were painted white about 1950 and her stack became white with a black top, the Marine Industries diamond-shaped insignia making an appearance on the lower portion of the funnel. PINEBRANCH, of course, never lasted long enough to carry the stack colours presently used by Branch Lines tankers. In addition, her pilothouse was substantially enlarged and a closed rail was placed around the front of the texas deck. Her deck was made more typically that of a tanker by the addition of two deckhouses (probably containing pumping equipment) and catwalks, as well as other equipment.
The veteran PINEBRANCH stayed in service through her sixty-first year. Superceded by more modern vessels in the Branch Lines fleet and showing her years in her lines and her steam power, she was retired at the close of the 1955 season and was laid to rest in the extensive Marine Industries boneyard on the Richelieu River at Sorel, probably not far from where she was laid in 1937 after the tow from Kingston. She remained there, the years taking their toll and the paint peeling from her cabins, until 1960 when she was sold for use on salt water, but not in an operating capacity. PINEBRANCH was taken from Sorel to Mulgrave, Nova Scotia, where she was sunk to form a protective breakwater. As far as we are aware, her remains are still there, well into the eighth decade since the construction of the barge MALTA at South Chicago.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.