Each year in the December issue, we take a few moments to pass along Holiday Greetings to our members and to reflect upon the current navigation season. In recent years, we have had little good news to pass along in reviewing developments on the shipping scene, primarily because of the effects of poor business conditions and accidents in the Seaway system which have combined to put large volumes of red ink in the ledgers of lake vessel operators.
The 1986 season has, indeed, been one of mixed blessings. The shipping business has remained in a state of economic depression, and many vessels remained idle for much of the year. Those that did run were very lucky if they did not go to the wall at some time during the summer, either due to a lack of cargoes or, as in the case of the U.S.X. fleet, as a result of labour dispute.
What appeared to be a year of record grain crops rapidly turned sour as the late summer became cold and wet, and crops rotted in the fields. A reasonably good harvest was finally realized in some areas, but nothing compared to what had been expected, and even Ontario crops were severely affected by the weather. The grain did begin to move towards the end of summer but, on September 3. there occurred a strike of grain handlers at Thunder Bay, and this dispute kept the Lakehead elevators shut down until October 9th.
By the time the grain handlers returned to their jobs, a considerable backlog of grain had developed and almost every available Canadian ship, including several that had not operated for a few years, was pressed into service. Continuing labour problems at Quebec City have caused lakers taking grain to the St. Lawrence to face long waits to unload at other ports. Despite the shortness of the season remaining after Thunder Bay reopened, it is likely that the available grain will be dispatched before the close of navigation (unless a possible St. Lawrence River pilots' strike shuts things down again).
Fortunately, we have been spared (to the time of writing, at least) the lengthy Seaway blockades which have become the "trademarks" of the last few years. Nothing particularly untoward has occurred on the Welland or St. Lawrence canals, or even at the Soo, as all of the locks and bridges have remained operative. For this, at least, we can all be most grateful.
Perhaps nowhere have the effects of the economy been more evident than on the order books of the few remaining lake shipyards. Not one major new lake vessel was turned out by any lake yard in 1986, and there seems little likelihood of any new construction for lake fleets in the foreseeable future. To make matters worse, we lost one of the most important lake shipyards when, in September, the Collingwood yard closed down after 103 years of operation. True, the yard had no new construction orders when it closed, but in recent years it had been one of the few shipyards to remain busy building new hulls for Great Lakes trade.
What the 1986 navigation season may best be remembered for, however, is the almost constant parade of old and not-so-old lakers to the breakers. It was one of the most disheartening years in recent memory in this respect, with many major vessels heading to scrapyards on the lakes and overseas. Large and familiar boats, such as FRANK A. SHERMAN, RED WING, GEORGE M. HUMPHREY, PAUL H. CARNAHAN and DETROIT EDISON have all made the one-way trip to the breakers, and the largest laker yet sold for scrapping, Bethlehem's ARTHUR B. HOMER, appears destined to go to Port Colborne for dismantling in the very near future. On both sides of the border, there has been a relentless weeding-out of excess tonnage and as long as scrap prices remain favourable, this unfortunate process is likely to continue.
We lost several prominent T.M.H.S. members during 1986, notable among them being our good friends Alan Howard and Rick Wright, whose achievements in the field of marine history were considerable. We miss them and will continue to do so, but we are comforted by the thought that they are at Peace after the conclusion of their labours.
Despite the horrible weather that has plagued the lakes during the late summer and autumn, 1986 has been a year of relatively few serious marine accidents, and for this we may all be grateful. It is our fervent hope that all of our members and friends in the shipping industry had as pleasant and safe a navigation season as was possible under the circumstances. We wish them all a better year in 1987. We hope that the coming year will be a good one for all of our members and, of course, for the Toronto Marine Historical Society itself.
But now, as the skies and waters of the Great Lakes take on the familiar grey of winter, as the snows obscure the horizons, and as the haze rises from the cold waters, the lake ships are trying to collect and deliver their last cargoes of the year before heading for the calm and safety of winter quarters. We wish them all safe passage.
And to all of the many members of our growing family, the Toronto Marine Historical Society, we extend our very best wishes for a Merry Christmas and for all possible Happiness in the New Year. Take care, friends, and may 1987 bring to you all a full measure of love, health and success.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.