More About Whalebacks

Table of Contents

Title Page
The Editor's Notebook
Marine News
Segwun in 1983
Ship of the Month No. 120 Pontiac (I)
More About Whalebacks
Table of Illustrations

In the March issue, we presented an interesting quiz on the subject of whaleback steamers and barges, which was prepared for us by Capt. John Leonard. One of the points raised in the quiz was the fact that, of all the lake-built whaleback steamers, only E. B. BARTLETT had British-made engines. They came from the Northeastern Engine Works of Sunderland, England. We had been unable to determine why the BARTLETT was given different machinery, but this question has been answered by Ken Thro of Hayward, Wisconsin. Ken, an enthusiastic researcher of material on whalebacks, has located two relevant contemporary press reports, and we are pleased to reproduce them here (with a few of our own comments added) for the benefit of our readers.

"Superior Daily Call" - Monday, April 20, 1891: It may now be said that the work in the American Steel Barge Works is in full swing. From early morn till dark, the constant ring of the hammers as they strike the sheets of iron can be heard for blocks and the thriving industry where the remarkable whalebacks are being built may well be a cause of admiration to the citizens of Superior.

There are now on the stocks and nearing completion whalebacks numbered as follows: 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115 and 116. Numbers 110, 111, 115 and 116 are barges, while the other three are steamers. (112 was CHARLES W. WETMORE, 113 was E. B. BARTLETT and 114 was A. D. THOMSON - Ed.) All winter, an army of men has been at work on the boats and the dates are now practically settled for their launching.

According to present plans, barges 110 and 111 will be launched next Saturday (April 25) Steamer 112 will be headed into the water June 10th, steamers 113 and 114 about August 1, and the other two barges in September.

In steamers 113 and 114, there will be a trial of American machinery against British machinery. In the former whalebacks, all of the engines have been furnished by Hammond & Company of Detroit, and they are known as Hodge Compound Engines. Quite recently, representatives of a steamship builder in Sunderland, England, visited the yards in the city and held an important conference with Capt. McDougall. They came prepared with a proposition to introduce a new triple expansion engine. It was resolved to give the English firm an opportunity to test its engines and accordingly steamer 113 (BARTLETT) was set apart for the English engines. Steamer 114 will have the Hodge patent. It is the most important test possible, as the steamer that makes the best record will decide the make of the engines that are to be put in the other boats.

Naturally, there is a great difference of opinion in regard to the power and mechanism of the Detroit and Sunderland engines. The American engines are not very closely connected and it is claimed that in this manner the work is equally distributed. The engineer occupies a position in the tower or turret. The English engine has closely connected cylinders, while the engineer is below water level and can see all the machinery working. Engineer Robert Armstrong was in charge of placing the Detroit engines in 114, while Mr. Sampson is superintending the Sunderland engines in the 113.

According to the contract, the boats are to steam eighteen knots per hour, which will make them the fastest freight carriers on the lakes. The contract is very severe in nature and if the engines should fail to make the required speed, it means a very serious loss to the company supplying them.


"Superior Leader" - Friday. July 10. 1891: The EDWARD B. BARTLETT (sic), the sixteenth of Capt. McDougall's steel progeny, was launched yesterday afternoon (July 9) at the barge works. The crowd gathered to witness the event was not as large as usual owing to the uncertainty of the date, but enough were present to show that the people of the city have not lost their interest or abated their enthusiasm over Superior's prize industry.

Promptly at the hour set, the huge mass glided into the water. There was the usual splash, shouts and applause, and the vessel soon came to rest in the muddy waters of the slip.

The vessel is a steamer of the same general build as the other whaleback steamers already afloat. Her length is 265', beam 38' and depth 24'. The dimensions are the same as those of the (CHARLES W.) WETMORE and (A. D.) THOMSON, but two feet more in beam and depth of hold than those of the (JOSEPH L.) COLBY. The COLBY is 284' long. (Ed. Note: We have no idea where the reporter got this information, for COLBY, Hull 108, was only 265 feet in length, just like the BARTLETT and her sisterships.)

The BARTLETT has several improvements on the other steamers. The engines are English make, triple expansion. The three cylinders have a diameter, high pressure, intermediate and low pressure respectively, of 17 1/2", 30" and 47". The stroke of the pistons is 33". (Our records indicate that the intermediate cylinder was 28" diameter - Ed.) The boilers are of Scotch make, return flue, and measure 11 1/2 by 11 feet. The engines have an independent condenser.

A patent duplex gong telegraph engineer's signal will be placed on the foot. It consists of a set of self-registering graduated dials, one at the wheel and one in the engineroom. The device is something new on the lakes and is claimed to have many advantages over anything in use at the present. The apparatus was imported from England.

The BARTLETT has all of her machinery in and is in a further advanced stage

of completion than most of the others were when launched. It will take about

three weeks to complete her ready for going into commission. She is designed for ocean trade.

The BARTLETT is No. 113 of the whaleback tribe but is the fourteenth launched at the Lake Superior yards, No. 114, the A. D. THOMSON, being launched three weeks ago. Those, with the two small consort whaleback barges built in the Erie Basin, New York harbor, by Hendren and Robins, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Nos. 201 and 202), make up the list of whalebacks now afloat. All but the WETMORE and COLBY, and the last-mentioned barges, are on the Great Lakes.

Barges No. 115 and 116 are in the process of construction and will be ready for launching in about three weeks. The oil barge built for the Standard Oil Company (S.O.CO. NO. 55) may be launched Saturday. The steamer A. D. THOMSON is nearly completed. Owing to the low stage of water, it is quite likely that neither THOMSON nor BARTLETT will be taken through to the Atlantic before spring. They will engage in lake trade for the rest of the season.

The steel plate for the two new barges, Nos. 118 and 119 (sic) arrived yesterday and work will be started at once on them. These are to be proportioned differently than any of the others. The length of each will be 292' or 8' longer than COLBY and 28' longer than the regular steamers. They are to be 36' beam and 22' depth. (Ed. Note: The reporter was totally off base here, for he must have been referring to barges 117 and 118, which were launched November 14 and December 5, 1891, respectively, and which were actually 285 feet in length. Hull 119 was not a barge at all, but rather the 308-foot steamer THOMAS WILSON. And once again appear the incorrect references to the dimensions of JOSEPH L. COLBY.)


The British-built engines of the BARTLETT were obviously not as good as the Hodge engines, for no other whaleback was ever given other than American-made machinery. The triple expansion engines caught on, however, for whereas the previous steamers COLGATE HOYT, JOSEPH L. COLBY and CHARLES W. WETMORE had fore-and-aft compound engines, all subsequent whalebacks had triples, with the exception of ALEXANDER MCDOUGALL, which had a quadruple. The Hodge engines were likely patented, with other builders such as Hammond, and the Frontier Iron Works, licenced to build that particular type of machinery.

In our quiz, we also mentioned the problems involved in building large whaleback hulls, notably the need for supports inside the holds of larger vessels. Ken Thro, who was aboard 137 in 1964, not long before her scrapping, confirms that she did not have stanchions in her holds, whereas the larger JOHN ERICSSON and barge ALEXANDER HOLLEY did. Barge 137 was perhaps closest in hull design to No. 136, the steamer FRANK ROCKEFELLER. Their hulls were very much alike except that the ROCKEFELLER was some twenty-one feet longer.

In closing, we should add that Ken mentions that the last whaleback, ALEXANDER MCDOUGALL, which was completed in 1898 as Hull 141 with a conventional bow, was designed by Albert C. Dierex, who was an employee of Capt. McDougall. We know nothing else about Dierex or his accomplishments in the field of marine architecture.



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