This month, we feature yet another canal-sized laker, but not by any means one of the mass-produced canallers which emerged from British shipyards during the years following the First World War. Indeed, this particular canaller was a most remarkable vessel, this for a number of reasons. She was owned, built and registered in the United States. She was of unusual construction and was designed for an unusual trade. And she met an untimely end under rather bizarre circumstances. Despite all this, however, little of a detailed nature has ever been written about her and, to set the record straight in this connection, we feature her story this month.
In the early 1920s, the United States Steel Corporation ordered from the Federal Shipbuilding Company of Kearney, New Jersey, a pair of motorships designed to carry steel products on the Great Lakes and the east coast. The ships were sufficiently successful that another pair was ordered several years later. The first two boats were originally intended to be operated by U.S. Steel's lake shipping subsidiary, the Pittsburgh Steamship Company, but it was instead decided before their completion that they would be operated by another subsidiary, the United States Steel Products Company (commonly known as Isthmian Lines), which opened an office in Cleveland specifically for their management.
STEELVENDOR, registered at New York as U.S. 223082, emerged in good order from the Kearney shipyard and was ready for service during the summer of 1923. She was 250.3 feet in length, 42.9 feet in the beam, and 17.2 feet in depth, with tonnages of 1695 Gross and 973 Net. She shared all of these dimensions, complete with duplicated tonnages, with her almost exact sistership, STEELMOTOR. Indeed, the two looked very much alike. STEEL CHEMIST and STEEL ELECTRICIAN had similar dimensions and tonnages, although they were rather different in external detail, a few more modern features having been incorporated into their design.
STEELVENDOR's hull was built on the transverse system of framing and she had a complete double bottom which was used for the carriage of bunker oil and water ballast. Four watertight bulkheads were fitted and she was given two large and unobstructed cargo holds. The deck was trunked and over each hold was fitted a single but very large hatch, which measured 40 feet by 20 feet. The deck itself was strengthened so that STEELVENDOR could carry a sizeable deckload of heavy steel products.
STEELVENDOR was powered by a McIntosh and Seymour (of Auburn, New York) six-cylinder, four-cycle diesel engine which was designed to develop 750 brake horsepower at 135 revolutions per minute, with direct connection to the propellor shaft, and which enabled the ship to manage a speed of about nine knots on a 14-foot draft. The diesel engine was of the trunk piston type, and had cylinders of 22 inches diameter and 32 inches stroke. She was fitted with a Kingsbury thrust bearing and a four-blade, built-up propeller of manganese bronze, 10 feet in diameter and with 8-foot pitch. Her various pumps were operated either on steam or on compressed air and, in order to provide steam, an oil-fired donkey boiler was installed.
The ship had a relatively sharp flaring bow and an elliptical counter stern. Her anchors were carried in slanted pockets located quite close to the stem. She was given a half-forecastle (raised one-half a deck level above the spar deck), the forward portion of which was enclosed by a solid rail. A square texas cabin on the forecastle provided quarters for the master and guests, and was surmounted by a pilothouse with seven windows across its rounded front. Provision was made for a large awning to be fitted over the entire bridge deck and many photos of STEELMOTOR and STEELVENDOR show them with the canvas awning in place, shading the entire navigation area despite the fact that neither boat was fitted with an open bridge or monkey's island for conning the ship from an open-air position.
The entire spar deck, from the break of the forecastle to the fantail, was surrounded by a closed rail, into which were cut rather large scuppers. The after deck was flush with the spar deck and sported a large cabin which was protected from the elements for most of its length and around the stern by awnings and a wide overhang of the boat deck. Her stack, not as high as that carried by most steamers but certainly higher than the funnels placed on the majority of early motorships, was placed far forward atop the after cabin and, like the masts, showed very little if any rake. The foremast was carried abaft the pilothouse, while the main was stepped quite far aft of the stack.
STEELVENDOR was a rather handsome canaller, but her appearance would certainly have been improved if she had not been fitted with her unusual cargo-handling equipment. This consisted of two 5-ton, 3-motor, variable radius, fixed base, revolving deck cranes, which were built by the Brown Hoisting Machinery Company, and which were installed at Cleveland after STEELVENDOR had sailed into the lakes from her builder's yard. These cranes were of a most unusual design and were really nothing more that open steel framework with hoisting machinery and an operator's cabin perched in it. One was mounted immediately abaft each hatch. They sported rather long latticework booms to reach out over the holds, as the hoists did not travel up and down the deck. The cranes were normally operated by the wheelsman and watchmen, who earned extra wages as a result of these additional duties.
These peculiar derricks could handle about 100 tons of finished steel products per hour. They had a capacity of 10,000 pounds on a single line with a lifting speed of 130 feet per minute and a radius of 50 feet. The maximum hoist possible was approximately 65 feet. Each crane was operated with a combination of three 240-volt direct current Diehl electric motors, a rotating motor of 25 horsepower, a boom motor of 15 horsepower, and a hoisting motor of 50 horsepower. The hoisting and boom controllers were fitted for dynamic braking when lowering, while the rotating motor was braked dynamically in both directions. When the cranes were not in use, the counterweights were lowered to the bottom of the shafts and unhooked, and the booms were lowered to deck level by means of lines and then were secured there. While the boat was running, the forward crane was usually turned to face aft, so that the two booms could be secured lying fore-and-aft, side-by-side over the after hatch.
STEELVENDOR and STEELMOTOR were designed to carry U.S. Steel's finished steel products (such as rails, etc.) on the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River, but they were also fitted out in such a manner that they were suitable for coastal operation during the winter months. Most of the products they carried were destined for overseas markets and were thus trans-shipped at Montreal. It was because of the docking conditions at Montreal that the boats were fitted with these specially-designed deck hoists.
STEELVENDOR and her three running-mates ran successfully on the lakes for some two decades and, for this entire period, they carried the same colours. Their hulls were grey, their cabins white, and their stacks were painted all buff without any smokeband. They not only carried their cargoes all the way down to Montreal, but went about such other trades on the lakes as their owner found for them, for which they were suited with their big holds and cargo-handling gear. On several occasions, they even called at Toronto with loads of railroad rails. They were very adaptable ships and could carry almost any kind of steel product made by U.S. Steel or its affiliates.
U.S. Steel never was known for engaging in frequent transfers of ownership for its vessels from one subsidiary company to another, but each of the four craneships did go through at least one change of ownership during its Steel Trust years. Sometime prior to 1941, STEELVENDOR and STEEL CHEMIST passed from the United States Steel Products Company to the United States Steel Export Company, while the ownership of STEELMOTOR and STEEL ELECTRICIAN was transferred to another subsidiary, the Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company, of Mobile, Alabama.
With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the canal-sized craneships began to spend more and more of their time on salt water, aiding in the transport of steel products as part of the war effort. (In 1940, STEELVENDOR had carried steel from Duluth to the Vickers plant at Montreal for use in the construction of the "Flower" class corvettes that were built there for war service on the North Atlantic.) From 1943 onwards, they spent almost all of their time on the coast, but the need for them there ceased with the conclusion of the hostilities. By 1946, they were no longer needed even on the lakes, for U.S. Steel could ship its products eastward more economically by land, and the company's craneship needs on the upper lakes were capably handled by the steamer CLIFFORD F. HOOD. This bulk carrier, (a) BRANSFORD (l6), (b) JOHN H. McLEAN (43), had been transferred from the Pittsburgh Steamship Company to yet another subsidiary, the American Steel and Wire Company, in 1944, and had been converted to a craneship at Lorain by the American Shipbuilding Company. Accordingly, the canallers were sold off to other owners who found that they had a need for them, and STEEL CHEMIST was the last of the four to operate on the lakes for U.S. Steel.
STEEL ELECTRICIAN was sold in 1945 to the Warrior and Gulf Navigation Company and, in 1946, to the American Eastern Corporation, New York. In 1947, she was purchased by N. M. Paterson and Sons Ltd., Fort William, who returned her to the lakes and operated her until the early 1960s as (b) FARRANDOC (II). After a brief spell as (c) QUEBEC TRADER, she passed to Caribbean owners who ran her as (d) SAN TOME, but she was finally broken up for scrap in South America during 1969. STEELMOTOR was sold in 1946 to Chinese operators and she was last heard of running in Far Eastern waters as (b) TAI WHU. The STEEL CHEMIST was sold in 1946 to the Inland Steel Company, which ran her as a craneship as (b) THE INLAND for two years, and she was then converted to the tanker (c) TRANSINLAND, under which name she operated for many years in the ownership of Gaston Elie's Coastalake Tankers Ltd., Ottawa, (Transit Tankers and Terminals Ltd.). She later passed to the Hall Corporation, which operated her sporadically as (d) INLAND TRANSPORT until she was retired after a grounding and oil spill incident in the North Channel. After a protracted lay-up at Sarnia, she was finally acquired for scrapping by Harry Gamble of Port Dover, Ontario.
STEELVENDOR, however, did not last long enough to be with the fleet at the time of the disposal of the canallers after the war. She came to a more unfortunate end on Lake Superior in 1942 which, unhappily, was accompanied by the loss of a life. In fact, she was, until then, the only large motorship ever to be lost on Lake Superior and, as far as we know, this is a record that she still holds.
Under the command of Capt. Gerald L. Kane (who would later serve as master of CLIFFORD F. HOOD), STEELVENDOR cleared Duluth harbour at 8:00 p.m. on September 1st, 1942, a Tuesday, with a cargo of steel billets bound for Waukegan, Illinois. Downbound on Lake Superior the following day, she was beset by heavy weather of the type which frequently is encountered on that lake in the late summer and autumn. When she was east of Keweenaw Point, and some 18 miles off Manitou Island, her cargo shifted and she took on a very heavy list. With the ship heeling over, water found its way into the engineroom and the engineers were forced to abandon their machinery.
With the crew cut off from the controls, STEELVENDOR's diesel engine continued to run and, while the crew waited to be rescued, the ship began to turn in large circles on the open lake. Her predicament was sighted by the Interlake Steamship Company's steamer CHARLES M. SCHWAB and by the Pittsburgh Steamship Company's WILLIAM G. CLYDE, and both these vessels approached the distressed STEELVENDOR as closely as they could, following her around in her uncontrolled circles.
After about two hours, the rising water in the engineroom put the diesel engine out of action, and the SCHWAB and CLYDE could then move in closer to STEELVENDOR in order to take off her crew. The ship was finally abandoned at 3:45 a.m. on Thursday, September 3. 1942. Of her crew, 22 found their way to the SCHWAB, whilst two more were taken safely aboard WILLIAM G. CLYDE. Only one person lost his life, an oiler, John N. Sicken of Chicago, who left the ship prematurely and was drowned in the heavy seas.
Six minutes after her crew abandoned STEELVENDOR, she was finally overcome by the water rising in her holds, and she foundered. Salvage was totally out of the question as a result of the depth of the water in the area of the sinking, and so the remains of the canaller still lie to this day on the floor of Lake Superior. United States Steel never replaced her, despite the fact that she had been a valued vessel to the fleet for all of her twenty seasons of service.
(Ed. Note: We thank Gordon Bennett of Cleveland for suggesting STEELVENDOR as a Ship of the Month. Gordon sailed on her during the 1940 season. Much of the technical data on the ship was provided by Robert Campbell of Toronto in the form of clippings from trade magazines which date from the time of her commissioning.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.