It is only infrequently that we have featured a tug as our Ship of the Month in these pages. This has not resulted from any intent on our part to avoid featuring tugs, but rather from two factors which have made it most difficult to prepare stories of any depth on those vessels. Tugs have long been acknowledged as true workhorses of the lake shipping industry, but in their day-to-day operations they tend to be taken for granted, with little real attention being paid to their comings and goings. As a result, there is usually but little written material available concerning tugs of the past, and even the "official" records may overlook a number of most important points in a tug's history. As well, even though any particular tug may have done yeoman duty for many years, she may never have been involved in noteworthy incidents and may have operated for only one owner for her entire life, with the result that there is very little that can be said about the boat. Problems such as these make it very difficult indeed to prepare a detailed story of any reasonable length concerning many of our familiar lake tugs.
A case in point concerns the big Canadian rafting tug GARGANTUA, a vessel which was somewhat more impressive than the harbour tugs which frequented most of the ports around the lakes. GARGANTUA is fondly remembered by many observers, particularly those from the Sault Ste. Marie area, and we have often been asked to feature her story. Be this as it may, we did not really know enough about GARGANTUA to make much of an article out of her life story. But with the timely resolution of some of the difficulties involved in pinning down her complete history, we are now able to do so.
The career of GARGANTUA began not in the Canadian waters which were her home for so many years, but rather in the United States, along the shore of the St. Clair River. During late 1917 and the early part of 1918, the United States Shipping Board placed orders with various shipyards for the construction of 165 seagoing tugs, some to be built with wooden hulls and others to be built of steel. These tugs were designed for use during the World War that was then raging, for there were very few good deep-sea tugs then available for service. Of the tugs that were ordered, however, only 68 were completed before the cessation of the hostilities, and the remaining 97 orders were simply cancelled outright by the Shipping Board.
Of particular interest to us at this time are the twenty wooden-hulled tugs that were built during those years, this number being only a fraction of the number that had actually been part of the original orders. These big wooden tugs were indeed handsome, and many experts have even gone so far as to declare that they represented the aesthetic zenith of tugboat design. Be this as it may, of the twenty wooden hulls that were constructed, only thirteen were actually delivered to and accepted by the U.S. Shipping Board. The remaining seven were left with the builders, who then had to scramble in an effort to sell them elsewhere, completing them where and when a purchaser could be found.
One of the shipyards that had secured a Shipping Board tug contract was the McLouth Shipyard at Marine City, Michigan. This famous yard was located at the mouth of the Belle River, at its confluence with the St. Clair River. The yard was operated by Sydney C. McLouth, with the assistance of one S.B. Kingsbury, a naval architect. McLouth contracted to build nine wooden tugs for the Shipping Board, and set about drawing up plans for the tugs and ordering the materials necessary for their construction.
But World War One soon came to an end, and the McLouth tug contract was one of many that were cancelled by the Shipping Board. The shipyard had managed to launch only three of its tugs, SEAFARER, ADVENTURER and PROTECTOR, before the entire order was cancelled. Work had not yet begun on the other six tug hulls, but McLouth had all of the necessary materials on hand for them, and the cancellation of the order left the shipyard in an extremely embarrassing situation. The whole affair wound up in litigation, and McLouth eventually received a settlement of sorts from the Shipping Board, although the shipyard did not receive compensation to cover its entire loss, which was considerable.
Nevertheless, McLouth was left with the partially completed hulls of SEAFARER, ADVENTURER and PROTECTOR on its hands. The three tugs had been built bow-to-stern in ways laid along the shore of the yard, with ADVENTURER having been the first of the trio to be launched. SEAFARER had been put into the water during 1919. But McLouth then had to find buyers for its three tugs and, as with other shipbuilders faced with the same problem, encountered considerable difficulty in doing so.
ADVENTURER and PROTECTOR had only their hulls completed (without machinery or superstructure), and ownership of this pair was retained by the McLouth Estate (S. C. McLouth died in 1923) until they were sold, about 1929, to the Peerless Cement Company of Detroit for use as barges. They were renamed PEERLESS NO. 1 and PEERLESS NO. 2, respectively. They later passed to the ownership of Ira J. Lyons of Muskegon, Michigan, and both are said to have been abandoned at Stoney Island in the Detroit River during the 1940s.
McLouth had better luck in attempting to dispose of SEAFARER which, apparently, was never actually enrolled in U.S. registry. Her hull (which was all of her that the Marine City shipyard completed) was sold in 1922 to the Cowles Shipyard Company of Buffalo, New York, and it would seem that SEAFARER was taken to Buffalo, although it is doubtful whether any work was actually done on her there by her new owner.
SEAFARER was soon sold by Cowles to Henry J. Dixon of the Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd. Dixon was a shipbuilder who had operated his business out of the St. Catharines shipyard which had originally been founded and occupied by the late Louis Shickluna. Dixon later moved to Toronto and formed the Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd. This company was incorporated in 1917 by Col. C. S. Boone, president, and John E. Russell, vice-president and managing director (both being Toronto marine contractors of considerable repute). The other directors of the new firm were Laurence Solman (the manager and principal of the Toronto Ferry Company Ltd.), J. J. Manley, and, of course, Henry J. Dixon.
Henry Dixon had the hull of SEAFARER towed over to his yard at Chippawa, Ontario, across the Niagara River, and plans were finalized for the completion of the tug. As finished, she had a length of 130.0 feet, a beam of 32.1 feet, and a depth of 15.4 feet. Her Gross Tonnage was 381 and her Net was calculated as 259. She was fitted with a wartime triple-expansion engine which had been built by the Filer and Stowell Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It had cylinders of 17, 25 and 43 inches, and a stroke of 30 inches. Unfortunately, we have no details at all concerning the boilers that were installed in the tug.
GARGANTUA, as completed, was one of the most handsome tugs that ever operated on the Great Lakes. Her hull had a most graceful sheer and the lift of her bow was accentuated by a small raised addition to the forward part of the closed bulwarks that ran completely around her main deck. She was given a long main cabin, and on her boat deck carried accommodations for her officers. A large, round-fronted, six-windowed pilothouse, raised several steps above the deck, was carried far forward on the boat deck, with a large binnacle set just in front of it. GARGANTUA was equipped with two tall, well-raked masts, the fore stepped just forward of the deckhouse, and the main at the after end of the cabin. The mainmast was equipped with both gaff and boom. To complete a most pleasing profile, GARGANTUA was given a tall, heavy, well-raked stack, which gave a very good balance to her lines.
Whether Henry Dixon completed GARGANTUA for his own use or for a potential operator is not known. He may, however, already have made an agreement with the Lake Superior Paper Company Ltd. of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for GARGANTUA entered the rafting service of that firm in May of 1923. She was so ideally suited for that trade that she may actually have been completed to the order of the Paper Company.
GARGANTUA was put to good use towing rafts of pulpwood on Lake Superior. The rafts, which could consist of as much as 8,000 tons of pulpwood, were loosely enclosed by log booms. These rafts were assembled by smaller tugs along the north shore of Lake Superior between the Michipicoten River and the Puckasaw River, and larger tugs like GARGANTUA then had to haul them down the lake to the mills at Sault Ste. Marie, where the pulpwood was processed. The job of towing these huge log booms was one which required much skill on the part of the tug skipper for, especially in strong winds, the rafts would yaw considerably and it took a great deal of effort to keep the tug on her proper course. On her return trips up the lake, after delivering her rafts, GARGANTUA would often take along men and supplies destined for the logging camps as neither railway nor road facilities were then available to these extremely isolated locations.
It was not unusual for vessels to get into trouble in the heavy weather that so frequently besets Lake Superior, and GARGANTUA was only in her second season of service when she was called upon to perform a rescue. On May 18, 1924, the 295-foot wooden steamer ORINOCO, towing the 342-foot wooden schooner-barge CHIEFTAIN, was upbound light on Lake Superior, en route to load a cargo of logs for pulping. The tow encountered a 60 m.p.h. gale and the strain of tossing and twisting in the seas, with the heavy barge on the towline aft, proved to be too much for the 26-year-old ORINOCO. Her seams began to leak badly and she was making water fast. When the tow was about 40 miles above Whitefish Point, the barge CHIEFTAIN was cast off, for Capt. Anthony Lawrence of the ORINOCO had seen that his ship's pumps were unable to stem the incoming water and he knew that ORINOCO would soon founder.
Capt. Lawrence ordered seventeen of the steamer's crew into the lifeboats off Montreal Island, while three men remained aboard in an unsuccessful but gallant attempt to beach ORINOCO on the Island. Very shortly thereafter, however, the steamer plunged to the bottom of the lake, taking her captain, the chief engineer and the wheelsman with her. The lifeboat managed to survive the heavy seas and reached Montreal Island safely, although two men succumbed to exposure in the boat; the other fifteen reached shore.
GARGANTUA, under the command of Capt. D. A. Williams, happened to be in the area of Montreal Island at the time, with a log raft in tow, and her crew spotted the ORINOCO'S men on the beach. GARGANTUA was hove to and a boat was sent ashore to pick up the survivors, an operation which proved to be completely successful.
CHIEFTAIN, meanwhile, had managed to reach the lee of the island by herself, and there found shelter and safety. She survived the ordeal and saw several more years of service before being retired and laid away along the shore of the Saginaw River at Bay City about 1930. Both CHIEFTAIN and ORINOCO were owned by the Davidson Steamship Company of Bay City, and had been built there by Davidson's own shipyard. CHIEFTAIN and her sister-barge, MONTEZUMA, had the distinction of being the largest wooden vessels ever built on the Great Lakes .
GARGANTUA served her owners well over the years, as also did two other big wooden steam tugs owned by Abitibi, RELIANCE and G. R. GRAY (II). A whole fleet of modern, diesel-powered, steel-hulled tugs was built for Abitibi in 1938, but still the big steamers were needed and they continued their rafting duties through until the conclusion of the hostilities of World War Two. However, in the years following the war, a network of logging roads was constructed along the north shore of Lake Superior and, thereafter, more and more of the pulpwood originating there was hauled to the mills by road and by rail. First the steam tugs, and eventually even the diesel tugs, fell victim to the economic benefits to be gained by the company in hauling pulpwood by land rather than in slow and awkward rafts on the lake.
GARGANTUA last operated for Abitibi Power and Paper in 1948 and, in October of that year, she was laid up at Sault Ste. Marie and put up for sale. She was the last of the company's three big wooden-hulled tugs to operate and she was the last but one of the steam tugs in the Abitibi fleet. (The last Abitibi steam tug was the steel-hulled STRATHBOGIE, which remained in the fleet until 1962.)
On May 19, 1949, GARGANTUA was purchased by Capt. James Franklin McColman, who had her taken to Thessalon, Ontario, a small port located along the North Channel of Lake Huron. The tug lay idle at Thessalon until 1952. At that time, Capt. McColman made a deal to dispose of GARGANTUA's engine and boiler, so he had the tug towed (probably by BAYPORT (I)) to Collingwood. There her pilothouse and cabins were stripped off and the machinery removed from her hull. It seems that Capt. McColman intended to use GARGANTUA's hull as a barge to haul hardwood logs to the local lumber mill at Thessalon from its various forest operations.
Once the stripping of GARGANTUA was completed at Collingwood, the steam tug MAC, which had been built by the McColmans at Thessalon, was sent to bring the hull back home. In due course, MAC started out across Georgian Bay with GARGANTUA in tow but, during the night of December 5-6, 1952, the two vessels encountered a severe storm. They sought shelter behind Cabot Head, and ran for the safety of Wingfield Basin, a small circular harbour which is located between Boulder and Middle Bluffs, two of the three high limestone cliffs which mark Cabot Head. The area is located to the east and a bit south of Tobermory.
The crew of MAC realized that the tow was being driven toward the shore, and accordingly they opened the seacocks in GARGANTUA to allow her to fill with water and settle to the bottom instead of being driven onto the rocky shore. GARGANTUA did settle on the bottom, but the water was not deep in that location and much of her hull remained above water. MAC returned to Thessalon, with the intention of returning in the spring of 1953 to recover the hull of GARGANTUA from Wingfield Basin. But, presumably because the McColmans were not able to secure sufficient work for the boat to justify the salvaging of the hull and to keep her busy, they never returned to reclaim GARGANTUA.
Accordingly, the remains of the old tug became a permanent fixture in the northwest corner of Wingfield Basin. She gradually began to disintegrate, and grass sprouted in the cracks between her deck planks. Vandals always seem to be attracted to wrecks, and GARGANTUA was no exception. Persons unknown set fire to her in 1971. and the blaze burned off her forward end and much of her decking. It is interesting to note that the Toronto registry of GARGANTUA was not closed out until December 7th, 1967, fifteen years, almost to the day, from the time of her sinking behind Cabot Head.
The remains of GARGANTUA still lie in Wingfield Basin today, with most of the hull relatively intact, although greatly deteriorated with the passage of time. She is now an interesting dive site for local divers, only one of the many fascinating wrecks which may be found in that area of Georgian Bay. After twenty-five years of hard service in the rafting trade, she has now had thirty years of quiet rest. The fact that the hull has held together for so long is a credit to the McLouth shipwrights although, perhaps, something of a surprise considering the circumstances under which she began her life. She was fortunate ever to have been completed, for she might never have been finished and could well have been destined to rot away in some backwater without ever having seen active service.
Ed. Note: We extend sincere thanks to James M. Kidd for his extensive research into the history of GARGANTUA, particularly with respect to her final years. The final disposition of GARGANTUA had been something of a mystery to all of us. As well, we should like to express our appreciation to Capt. Kenneth McColman, who supplied certain information for this story, and through whose courtesy appears the large photo of the tug which graces the reverse side of this issue's photopage. The material on the McLouth Shipyard comes from the writings of the Rev. Peter J. Van der Linden, particularly from an article which appeared in Vol. XXV, No. 3, of "Telescope", May-June 1976.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.