Ship of the Month No. 125 Farewell, Sylvania

Table of Contents

Title Page
The Editor's Notebook
James M. Kidd
Farewell to Another Canadian Lake Fleet
Marine News
Ship of the Month No. 125 Farewell, Sylvania
Additional Marine News
Table of Illustrations

Operating on the Great Lakes around the turn of the century were numerous fleets founded and managed by individuals of a particularly flamboyant nature. Such entrepreneurs are few and far between in the shipping industry today, but they once were rather common, and to them goes much of the credit for making the industry what it is today. One such gentleman was George Ashley Tomlinson, an almost legendary figure who had been born on January 26, 1869, in the town of Lapeer, Michigan. A grain broker, and one of the leading industrialists in the United States, he was married to Laura Davidson, the daughter of James Davidson, the famous shipbuilder and shipowner of Bay City, Michigan. In fact, it was Davidson who suggested to Tomlinson that he should become a vessel agent.

The Tomlinson Fleet could probably be said to have been formed in 1901, when Tomlinson placed the order for the construction of his first ship, the steamer SULTANA, which was launched early in 1902. The fleet was actually a network of some eighteen small companies, each owning a few vessels that were owner-managed by Tomlinson. The organization was based in Duluth during its early years, but its headquarters were relocated in Cleveland in 1917.

Mr. Tomlinson, for some reason, preferred to give his vessels names that began with the letter 'S' and ended with the letter 'A', just as the slightly earlier Minnesota Steamship Company had christened its boats with names beginning with 'MA' and ending with 'A'. Tomlinson's name scheme began with SULTANA (nobody knows exactly why he chose that name for his first steamer), and continued with names such as SONOMA, SUMATRA, SAHARA, SIERRA, SINALOA, SHASTA, SPARTA, SOCAPA and SONORA. Although many of those ships were well-known and successful for many years, none was as famous, colourful or beloved as was SYLVANIA, a boat whose career would span almost four score years.

This is SYLVANIA as she looked shortly after her launching at West Bay City, Michigan, on March 18, 1905.
SYLVANIA began life as Hull 613 of the West Bay City Shipbuilding Company of West Bay City, Michigan. Enrolled as U.S.201840 and registered at Duluth, Minnesota, she was built to the order of the Duluth Steamship Company, one of the many firms managed by Tomlinson. She was launched at noon on Saturday, March 18, 1905, and the name SYLVANIA was given to her by Miss Marion Davidson Young, a niece of G. A. Tomlinson. The steamer was launched in an almost completed state, and many of the local residents were present at the gala occasion. The launch went without difficulty and, in retrospect, it might have been hoped that the rest of her life would go as smoothly.

SYLVANIA was 504.0 feet in length, 54.0 feet in the beam, and 26.7 feet in depth. Her tonnage was calculated as 6272 Gross and 4826 Net. She was fitted with a triple-expansion steam engine which was built for her in 19'5 by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company. It had cylinders of 23 3/8, 38 l/8 and 63 5/8 inches, and a stroke of 42 inches, and developed 1,800 horsepower. The engine was supplied with steam at 180 p.s.i. by two coal-fired Scotch boilers, measuring 14 1/2 feet by 11 1/2 feet, which were also built in 1905 by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company. It is interesting to note that these boilers were to last SYLVANIA throughout her life, a most unusual state of events indeed, for marine boilers seldom lasted as long.

As were all of the steamers built for Tomlinson, SYLVANIA was both well-designed and handsome. She had a half-forecastle whose head was enclosed for most of its length by a closed rail. The texas cabin and the small, rounded pilothouse sat directly on the forecastle, and an open navigation bridge was provided on the monkey's island atop the pilothouse. The five windows in the front of the pilothouse could be dropped to provide ventilation and, as they dropped down the outside of the cabin rather than into the space between the outer wall and the inner panelling, the front of the cabin had an odd "slotted" look that also was sported by a number of the vessel's contemporaries. Windows of this type, however, were extremely difficult to handle in inclement weather, and their use soon declined.

SYLVANIA's quarterdeck was flush with the spar deck, and on it was located the after cabin. Her stack was fairly tall and of good proportions, and it was well raked, as were her two tall masts. The foremast rose out of the texas, just abaft the pilothouse, while the main was stepped abaft the funnel. In the manner of the day, SYLVANIA was given a graceful counter stern, whose proportions complimented the sheer of her deck and the rake of her spars to give her a classy appearance in all respects.

SYLVANIA was painted in the usual Tomlinson colours, and thus sported the reddish-purple hull carried by all ships in the fleet up until the time of its dissolution almost seventy years later. The cabins were white with red trim, and the stack was dark red and was divided into thirds by two silver bands. At first, these bands were very narrow, but they subsequently became much wider. In the early years, it was Tomlinson's custom to paint all his vessels in the same manner, but to place on the bows of each a small emblem designating which of the Tomlinson-managed firms actually owned her. As a result, SYLVANIA carried a small blue-and-white pennant, with a red letter 'D' in the middle; it appeared on her bow beneath her name and identified her owner as the Duluth Steamship Company. The pennant, however, disappeared after some ten years, and thereafter the vessel carried no special insignia of her particular ownership within the Tomlinson group.

Not long after her entry into service, SYLVANIA began to establish a reputation for being accident-prone. On Monday, June 12, 1905. with barely two months of service behind her, she was downbound with a cargo of iron ore. In a severe early-morning fog, and allegedly as a result of misunderstood passing signals, she collided off Whitefish Point with the Pittsburgh Steamship Company's SIR HENRY BESSEMER (29), (b) MICHAEL J. BARTELME (43), (c) WOLVERINE (I), which was upbound light. SYLVANIA struck the port bow of the BESSEMER a glancing blow, and then her port anchor raked down the tinstacker's side, cutting a long gash in her plating. Reports of the length of the hole range from 80 feet to 175 feet. Both ships remained afloat, and SYLVANIA suffered only a few damaged plates and the loss of her port hook. She was not to be let off so easily in future accidents which, unfortunately, were destined to occur with alarming regularity.

The camera of A. E. Young caught this scenic view of D.M. PHILBIN, downbound in Little Rapids Cut, during 1919.
In 1914, SYLVANIA was renamed (b) D. M. PHILBIN, but no change of ownership accompanied this rechristening, and the vessel continued to wear Tomlinson colours, just as before. By this time, she had been given a wooden upper pilothouse, and this structure lent her a somewhat more modern appearance. As well, her original long, angled, steering pole, complete with its fancy ornament, had been removed and replaced with a short upright pole which was to guide her for the rest of her career.

There has been some suggestion that, in 1925, D. M. PHILBIN was sold to the Forest City Steamship Company of Cleveland, an unsuccessful firm that was formed in 1923 by several Cleveland businessmen and managed by Capt. Fred A. Bailey. The company failed in 1927, at which time all of its vessels were repossessed by their former owners. Two of the ships involved thus reverted to the Tomlinson fleet, namely WILLIAM F. RAPPRICH (28), (a) SINALOA (24), (c) SINALOA (60), (d) STONEFAX, and DAVID S. TROXEL (27), (a) SONOMA (24), (c) SONOMA (47), (d) FRED L. HEWITT (II). It now seems apparent, however, that the PHILBIN never actually went to Forest City, and that any reports to the effect that she did were erroneous.

The fact that SYLVANIA had been renamed D. M. PHILBIN did nothing to free her from her reputation in respect of accidents. It was whilst the steamer carried this new name that she was involved in an accident which, as it developed, was destined to make aviation much safer for all concerned. Tuesday, April 30, 1929, saw the PHILBIN downbound on Lake Erie, en route to Conneaut with a cargo of iron ore. In a spring gale, with visibility reduced by blizzard conditions, her crew observed a flashing light off to starboard. The light had the same sequence as did the Conneaut harbour light, and the master concluded that the Conneaut entrance was at hand. Unfortunately, however, the light was actually the North Kingsville Airway beacon which was located several miles west of Conneaut. As a result, the PHILBIN grounded on a sandbar six miles west of Conneaut at about 4:30 a.m., and she was to remain there for a week.

The severely inclement weather hampered rescue efforts. In fact, on May 3rd, the ship's ballast tanks were filled in order to keep the stranded PHILBIN from pounding on the bottom and possibly breaking up. One of the forward tanks had actually been holed in the grounding. Two crew members were seriously injured in the accident and several, including the master, Capt. Neil Baker, were ill, and could not be evacuated until the weather subsided. When conditions improved, the Great Lakes Towing Company sent several boats to the PHILBIN's rescue, including the lighter RELIANCE and numerous tugs such as ABNER C. HARDING. It was not until Tuesday, May 7th, that the steamer was finally floated free of the sandbar, and was taken in tow for Conneaut.

Shipping authorities had warned of the possibility of an accident of this type when the airport beacon had been installed, but their protests had fallen on deaf ears. However, as a result of the official enquiry into the circumstances of the PHILBIN's grounding, measures were taken to change the characteristics of airport beacons so that they would not resemble, nor be mistaken for, harbour entrance lights. One shudders to think that an airliner might have crashed in severe weather as a result of mistaking a harbour light for an airport beacon, or that a lake vessel might have been lost with all hands because of a similar misconception. Those who fly, pilots and passengers alike, owe a debt of gratitude to the PHILBIN, whose own grounding helped to avert such a tragedy at any of the airports in the lakes area.

After her cargo had been unloaded at Conneaut, the PHILBIN was taken to the shipyard for the repair of the damage she had suffered. She was soon returned to service, but under her original name of SYLVANIA, which was given back to her in 1929. It is not known why she reverted to her old name, but perhaps it was in an effort to avoid memories of the accident. As a matter of fact, several Tomlinson steamers that had lost their old 'S...A' names over the years, also reverted to those names during the late 1920s.

The 1930s were extremely quiet years on the Great Lakes, with the Great Depression at its height, but SYLVANIA went on her way, creating few headlines and somehow avoiding notice. But almost all lake ships were idled at some time during those lean years, and SYLVANIA was tied up at Buffalo in September of 1931, with her fleet-mates SPARTA and CUYLER ADAMS nearby. A storm on Thursday, September 24, 1931, caused a rise in the river and made the three boats rub against each other. SYLVANIA dented several portside plates.

On Sunday, April 11, 1937, SYLVANIA was inching bow-first into No. 3 C & O coal dock at Toledo, Ohio. The actions of the wheelsman caused one of her mooring cables to part, and the other was let go by a deckhand. Out of control, SYLVANIA was blown over against the bow of the Great Lakes Steamship Company steamer A. E. NETTLETON, which was loading coal across the slip. There was slight damage to the NETTLETON and virtually none to SYLVANIA.

Even in her latter years, SYLVANIA could still be impressive. Photo by Rev. Peter J. Van der Linden shows her in the St. Clair River.
The war years of the 1940s generated much more activity for the lake fleets, and the various companies slowly recovered from the inactivity of the hungry 1930s. But SYLVANIA, still sailing in Tomlinson colours, seemed to have difficulty staying out of the grasp of the shipyard during 1941 and 1942. In one accident, she had barely left the shipyard after having her rudder and propeller completely replaced, and extensive bottom damage repaired, when she struck the north pier at the Duluth harbour entrance. The accident occurred during strong northwesterly winds, and with a northeast sea running, and resulted in new damage to her bottom plating. She was forced to return to the shipyard for repairs.

Minor incidents aside, the remainder of the 1940s were relatively uneventful for SYLVANIA. It was, however, during this period that she was given the new steel upper pilothouse that she was to carry for the rest of her life. This structure, with nine windows in its front, was surrounded by a catwalk with an open railing, and she could frequently be seen sporting a canvas dodger on this railing.

The 1950s brought rapid growth and change to the lake fleets that were then operating. Some were able to adapt to the "new order" of things and thrived, updating their old ships and acquiring new ones. Other companies did not adapt and hung onto the old ways; they did not survive. Ships of SYLVANIA's size were becoming obsolete for the ore trade, with the advent of vessels such as the Pittsburgh Steamship Company's "Triple A's" and the 700-footers that were beginning to emerge from the shipyards. The independent carriers (those fleets whose boats did not carry cargo for the owners' direct consumption) were having a more difficult time obtaining cargoes, a situation that was to become even worse after the steel industry's strike of 1959. Another factor operating against the old-style independents (although this one did not directly involve the Tomlinson fleet) was the Soo tug strike of June, 1956, which caused the retirement of the last large U.S. bulk cargo barges on the lakes.

G. A. Tomlinson passed away in Pasadena, California, back on January 24, 1942, and his successor as president of the fleet was James E. Davidson, his brother-in-law. Davidson died in 1947 and the management of the boats was then assumed by Capt. Warren Jones, a veteran of the fleet. After his death in 1952, management of the vessels passed to Edward C. Davidson, the son of James E. Davidson. It was during his period of leadership that steps were taken to modernize the fleet's corporate structure. All of the small companies which had formed the fleet in prior years were dissolved during 1954 and 1955, and the ownership of all the vessels was consolidated into the Tomlinson Fleet Corporation, of Cleveland.

Not long afterwards, the decision was made to lengthen SYLVANIA and convert her to a self-unloader in order that she might become more competitive, the cost of such work being considerably less than that of constructing a new vessel. The necessary contract was let to Manitowoc Shipbuilding Inc., and the work was done at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the winter of 1957-58. She was given a 230-foot unloading boom, and her length was increased by 48 feet to 552.0 feet. The reconstruction increased her tonnage to 7352 Gross and 5889 Net.

SYLVANIA's appearance was considerably altered with the conversion, although her handsome lines were not seriously affected. She was given an A-frame for the unloading boom and elevator gear forward, and her texas cabin was extended aft to meet the new equipment. In order to provide additional accommodation for the crew, a doghouse was set on the extreme after end of the boat deck, well abaft the stack and mainmast.

The conversion and lengthening also produced a change in the types of cargo carried by SYLVANIA. Whereas she earlier was kept busy primarily in the ore trade, she now handled mainly coal and limestone. The reconstruction added many years to SYLVANIA's life, for all of her fleet-mates that remained as straight-deckers found themselves facing increasing periods of idleness during the 1960s, and most of them were scrapped during those years, as the Tomlinson fleet dwindled in importance from a powerful organization to a minor operation. Indeed, it was the coal runs made by SYLVANIA, and by Tomlinson's other self-unloader, G. A. TOMLINSON (II), (a) D. 0. MILLS (61), which was acquired and converted in 1960, that kept the company operational through until 1971. It seems quite evident that the fleet would have been unable to survive as long as it did without the rather considerable revenues that were produced by these two steamers.

During the latter years of her service in Tomlinson colours, however, SYLVANIA was involved in the two most serious accidents of her life, either one of which would undoubtedly have sent her to the scrapyard had it not been for her extraordinary value to her owners. The most famous of these accidents occurred on Thursday, June 1st, 1967, whilst SYLVANIA was unloading a cargo of limestone at the Peerless Cement Company's dock, which was located on the St. Clair River, just below the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron, Michigan.

The Canada Steamship Lines steam package freighter RENVOYLE (II), (a) GLENLEDI (27), was docked at the freight sheds which were shared by C.S.L. and Canadian National Railways, and which were located on the Point Edward side of the Huron Cut, on the opposite side of the river and just a bit downstream of SYLVANIA's berth. Vessels moored at those sheds always docked facing upstream, and it was the custom of any ships departing downbound to turn right in the narrows, despite the swift current running there.

RENVOYLE did just that when she cleared Point Edward, downbound, at about 10:10 p.m. on June 1, 1967. But the current in the narrows is tricky indeed, swirling about in rather unusual patterns. RENVOYLE got herself caught in the current (it has been suggested that her rudder was in defective condition at the time) and she veered directly across the river, striking SYLVANIA a hard blow on the latter's starboard side near the stern. RENVOYLE's bow was stove in downward from the level of her anchor pockets, and she was backed about 400 yards downstream, anchoring on the American side of the river until the following day. She was then taken back over to the Point Edward freight sheds, where she was unloaded. She sailed shortly thereafter under her own power for Kingston, laid up there, and never again turned a wheel.

SYLVANIA was much more seriously wounded and began to take on water rapidly. Her crew managed to reach shore safely, some of them scrambling over to the dock along a forty-foot ladder from the listing deck. SYLVANIA settled to the bottom and came to rest down at the stern and with a considerable starboard list as a result of the downward and outward slope of the river bottom. Fortunately, her unloading boom had been swung out to port, and this helped to steady the ship. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard halted all vessel traffic through the Huron Cut for some sixteen hours, for fear that SYLVANIA might slip out into the channel and sink in deep water. Once she was secure, traffic was allowed to move past the wreck at slow speed; the first vessel to pass the accident scene was the Bethlehem Steel bulk carrier SPARROWS POINT, on June 2nd.

A salvage contract was awarded to McQueen Marine Ltd. of Amherstburg, Ontario, and the lighter T. F. NEWMAN was quickly put into action. By June 12, SYLVANIA had been refloated and, by June 18, she was ready to be towed to the American Shipbuilding Company yard at Lorain for repairs, a temporary patch having been applied to the twelve-foot-long and one-foot-wide gash in her starboard side. She reached Lorain on June 20, in tow of the McQueen tugs AMHERSTBURG and A-BURG, and, after the necessary repairs, she re-entered service on October 12, 1967.

During the legal battle that followed the accident, C.S.L. filed a Limitation of Liability Proceeding with the district court in Cleveland. This forced all of the claimants, including the Tomlinson Fleet Corporation and the cargo interests, to file their respective claims for damages in one action. Under this proceeding, C.S.L. had the right either to put up a bond or file an interim stipulation with respect to the value of its vessel, with a further request that the court appoint a trustee and that the vessel be sold. RENVOYLE was then towed to Fairport, Ohio, within the court's jurisdiction, and an auction was held. The Acme Scrap and Metal Company was high bidder, and the ship was sold for $21,000. (She was subsequently broken up at Ashtabula.) The limitation fund, therefore, consisted of the amount for which RENVOYLE was sold.

Tomlinson, quite naturally, was not satisfied with this amount in view of the extensive damage suffered by SYLVANIA, and tried to establish that RENVOYLE had, in fact, been operating with a defective rudder. The case went before the court during the winter of 1970-71. After the trial was concluded, the judge called the attorneys to his chambers and urged that the matter be settled. The parties managed to work out a settlement and the case was closed.

Just as had her grounding near Conneaut many years previously, SYLVANIA's altercation with RENVOYLE produced lasting results which may well have served to prevent repetitions of the occurrence. Following the collision, the U.S. Coast Guard imposed a regulation to the effect that ships leaving a dock could no longer turn within the confines of the Huron Cut and, if a turn were necessary, would have to proceed out into the lake and turn there, where little harm could result. Of course, in the interim, the package freight service has been discontinued and vessels no longer stop at the Point Edward freight shed. As well, the Peerless Cement plant has been closed and completely demolished, so there is little likelihood of any sort of recurrence of the RENVOYLE - SYLVANIA affair. Two-way traffic in the cut has been banned since the SIDNEY E. SMITH JR. sinking of June 5, 1972.

Despite her age, life did not become any easier for SYLVANIA after the Huron Cut incident. On Friday, November 29th, 1968, SYLVANIA was downbound light in the Fighting Island Channel of the Detroit River. One of Lake Erie's infamous snow squalls set in and, in the reduced visibility, the steamer collided head-on with the American Steamship Company's 1917-built self-unloading motorship DIAMOND ALKALI (II)(76), (a) FRANK H. GOODYEAR (II)(39). (c) BUFFALO (III)(78), (d) SAGINAW BAY. Both vessels were severely damaged in the collision. SYLVANIA was taken to Ecorse for temporary repairs and then proceeded to Toledo, where the American Shipbuilding Company undertook permanent repairs during the winter of 1968-69. SYLVANIA's bow had been stove in all the way from the spar deck down to the keel, and an entire new bow section was fabricated by AmShip and fitted on the steamer. She was returned to service in the spring of 1969.

In August of 1971. the Tomlinson Fleet Corporation was finally dissolved, and its last three ships, the self-unloaders SYLVANIA and G. A. TOMLINSON, along with the straight-decker JAMES DAVIDSON, were sold to the Columbia Transportation Division, Oglebay Norton and Company, Cleveland. The DAVIDSON had been chartered to Columbia during 1968, 1969 and 1970, although she had not operated in 1970, and she never operated at all for Columbia after her purchase from Tomlinson. She was sold for scrap in 1974.

But SYLVANIA and G. A. TOMLINSON kept on running as hard as ever. SYLVANIA looked much better in Columbia colours than she had previously, for the Tomlinson reddish-purple hull paint only looked good when it was fresh, and tended to fade and wash out badly as time passed. With her red hull and cream forecastle and cabins, and with the Columbia star raised proudly on her tall stack, SYLVANIA looked more impressive at this stage than at any earlier period of her long career. Her turret pilothouse, although old-fashioned, made her look even more handsome.

SYLVANIA served the Columbia fleet well for the rest of her life. She operated mainly on the short but profitable coal run between Toledo and Detroit, and she sustained numerous scrapes and bumps which were a direct result of her short runs in constricted waterways. She suffered several minor groundings at both the Conners Creek and Trenton Edison plants over the years. She became a fixture of the Toledo waterfront, and called at that port almost daily. By the end of each year, her paint would be much scraped and faded, but she was always freshly painted each spring during fit-out.

Her original triple-expansion steam engine still drove SYLVANIA well, in spite of its age, but it was decided that the ship did require some modernizing touches to keep her in operation. Accordingly, during the winter of 1973-74. SYLVANIA was taken in hand by the Nicholson Terminal and Dock Company at its Ecorse yard. Her original boilers were converted from coal to oil fuel, and she was equipped with a bowthruster, all of this work utilizing equipment salvaged from the scrapped Columbia self-unloaders HURON and WYANDOTTE (II), (a) CONNEAUT (62). The removal of her coal bunkers caused SYLVANIA to ride very high in the stern, but this problem was at least part-ly remedied by placing 400 tons of coal in her after end. The addition of the bowthruster, however, resulted in more permanent prejudice to the steamer's appearance, for the vent pipe for the thruster's diesel engine was run up the port side of the pilothouse, and greatly detracted from the classic form of the entire turret forward cabin.

The thruster, however, undoubtedly prolonged SYLVANIA's life and reduced her use of tugs. She always required tugs, however, when arriving at the Trenton Edison plant, for any ship entering the Trenton turning basin must make a very delicate 180-degree turn, the manoeuvre being complicated by a strong current, a bridge, and a rather marked lack of space in general.

On Saturday, July 31, 1976, SYLVANIA was downbound in the Trenton Channel with coal. She struck the end of the turning basin, heavily damaging her propeller and rudder. After an initial survey of the damage was completed by divers, SYLVANIA's engine was blocked and she was towed to the AmShip yard at Lorain. The steamer laid up there and was awaiting space on the drydock when, on Friday, August 20, 1976, a fire broke out in her cargo hold. It was quickly contained, without any major damage resulting. When SYLVANIA finally got on the dock for repairs, it was found that her hull was quite sound and that she would probably be able to operate until her next five-year docking.

SYLVANIA returned to service in due course of time, but her area of operation was severely restricted from that point onward. As a result of her age, it was deemed prudent not to run her above Port Huron after 1976, and thereafter she spent most of her time in the coal trade out of Toledo, running almost exclusively to the Trenton and Monroe Edison plants, although she did find time to sneak in a few other trips on Lake Erie. During the 1977 season, she made a grand total of 170 trips and carried 1,757,437 tons of cargo!

By 1979, it had become apparent that Columbia Transportation's four oldest self-unloaders, SYLVANIA, G. A. TOMLINSON, J. R. SENSIBAR and W. W. HOLLOWAY, were living on borrowed time. All would soon be due for their five-year docking for survey and inspection, and it was expected that each would require extensive repair and maintenance work, whose cost could no longer be justified. The TOMLINSON was retired at the close of the 1979 season and was sold for scrapping at Ashtabula. The SENSIBAR was retired and then sold out of the fleet in 1981 and, as CONALLISON, has since been sold for scrapping at Humberstone. W. W. HOLLOWAY, (a) HENRY A. HAWGOOD (12), (b) C. RUSSELL HUBBARD (37), is still owned by Columbia but has not operated for several years. It was rumoured during 1983 that a buyer might be found for her, but no sale has yet taken place, either for operation or for scrapping.

But despite the wear and tear that SYLVANIA suffered on her short coal runs, and she was a difficult ship to work on as a result, she operated through the 1979 season and, after wintering at Toledo, fitted out again in the spring of 1980, regardless of the worsening economic conditions. All signs pointed to the probability that SYLVANIA would operate for the entire season, which was her seventy-sixth. She had already outlasted her near-sistership HENNEPIN (II), (a) SOCAPA (15), (b) GEORGE G. BARNUM (37), which had followed SYLVANIA off the ways at West Bay City in 1905 as Hull 6l4, and which looked very much like SYLVANIA during her whole life. HENNEPIN also became a self-unloader in her later years (the conversion was done in 1957 at Lorain), and she latterly operated for the Redland Steamship Company and the American Steamship Company. She also "flattened out" (lost her hull sheer with age) just as did SYLVANIA, and she too was kept below Port Huron during her last few years of service. HENNEPIN was sold for scrapping in 1975.

But by mid-May, 1980, SYLVANIA's name was no longer appearing in the vessel reports for Toledo. This in itself was not so very unusual, for she would occasionally take a coal cargo to an eastern Lake Erie port, but the silence was ominous, particularly in view of the fact that the depressed economy had forced other more modern boats into lay-up barely a month after fit-out. In fact, SYLVANIA was at Toledo, although she was no longer running. She had come home to stay and, on Sunday, May 11, 1980, the veteran ship, lying at a lay-up berth in Toledo's Frog Pond, let down steam for what was to be the last time. The Frog Pond was to be SYLVANIA's resting place for the following three and a half years, while larger Columbia self-unloaders took over her old Toledo - Detroit coal runs. (As a matter of interest, MIDDLETOWN and RESERVE held down that route as recently as the 1983 season).

Rumours about her reactivation flew thick and fast during SYLVANIA's first year of idleness. The increased demand for bottoms to carry coal eastward to Quebec, for trans-shipment in salt water vessels, brought hope that the old steamer might fit out for that trade. But with her original steam equipment, she could not operate economically down the Seaway. Her hull remained relatively sound and it was suggested that she might be converted to a motorship for further service. (It would have been a shame to see her steam engine removed, but to true SYLVANIA fans, the advent of a diesel engine would have been small price to pay to see the ship remain in service). Rumours even had her sold to operate as a barge in the Amazon River basin, or even on the Ohio, Mississippi or Sacramento Rivers. With each rumour came a hope for SYLVANIA's reactivation, even if she were sent to a far-away place, but none of the alleged sales ever came to fruition, and it began to be evident that none ever would.

By 1983, with the Depression at its deepest, it had become obvious that SYLVANIA would go nowhere except to the scrapyard. She was woefully deteriorated in condition, and she huddled, seemingly even smaller than she actually was, between the Cleveland-Cliffs straight-decker CHAMPLAIN and the Amersand Steamship Company's self-unloader McKEE SONS, still in the Frog Pond. She had been stripped of much equipment, and even the Columbia star that she had worn so proudly was gone from her stack. She had left little but her famous name, and her pride in the job that she had done so well for so many years.

The autumn of 1983 brought with it the final demise of the old steamer. During mid-October, SYLVANIA was sold to Joseph Behr and Sons, Rockford, Illinois, a firm of scrap dealers for whom the ship would be broken up by Triad Salvage Inc. of Ashtabula, Ohio. SYLVANIA was originally scheduled to be towed out of Toledo on October 25 or 26, but the tow had to wait, for Lake Erie was being treated to a spell of windy autumn weather with brisk temperatures. But the winds died on All Hallows' Eve, and SYLVANIA's fate was sealed. At about 4:45 p.m. on October 31, the Toledo harbour tugs ARKANSAS and WYOMING tied up to the old girl's stern and commenced pulling her out of the Frog Pond. By 5:30, in the last red rays of daylight, she had been taken over by the larger tug OHIO for the long tow down the lake.

SYLVANIA reached Ashtabula at 10:58 a.m. on Tuesday, November 1st, 1983. She was towed slowly up the Ashtabula River, taking almost three hours to make this final leg of the trip. She had an audience for these last moments, too, for almost three hundred people had gathered to watch SYLVANIA's last, sad, arrival at their port. True still to her reputation, SYLVANIA made her trip up the river an eventful one and, perhaps as a last gesture of defiance, put her stern in the mud just as she was making the turn into the Triad scrapyard. The grounding delayed the inevitable for only about an hour, and the Triad shipbreakers started the dismantling of SYLVANIA very shortly after her arrival. At last report, the work was progressing rapidly.

The demise of SYLVANIA, and the passing also of CONALLISON, (a) FRANK C. BALL (30), (b) J. R. SENSIBAR (81), leaves on the lakes only one freighter from amongst the many that were once operated by the great Tomlinson fleet. The sole survivor is OAKGLEN, (a) WILLIAM H. WARNER (34), (b) THE INTERNATIONAL (77), (c) MAXINE (81), (d) J. F. VAUGHAN (82).

But parts of SYLVANIA may live on. It is hoped that the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority will be successful in obtaining SYLVANIA's turret forward cabin and also, perhaps, her stack and ventilator cowls, for incorporation into a marine museum which is to be developed on Water Street, under Toledo's Cherry Street Bridge, as an extension of Promenade Park. It is also said other organizations are attempting to obtain the ship's triple-expansion steam engine, as well as the beautiful wooden panelling from her officers* dining saloon, for public display.

Goodbye, SYLVANIA. We will always remember you for the job that you did so well for so many years, and for the touch of class that you brought to that job despite the bumps and bruises that you suffered in the line of duty.

Ironically, you were done in not by accident, but by economic conditions over which neither you nor your owners had any control. Ave atque vale, old friend.

(Ed. Note: This feature is the result of our appeal for assistance from our members in preparing "Ship of the Month" articles. Although Ye Ed. has added certain details to the basic story, the feature was prepared for our readers by member Gretchen E. Driftmyer of Toledo. Gretchen has long been a SYLVANIA devotee and was able to obtain for us considerable information that we could not have developed ourselves. We sincerely thank Gretchen for her kindness in submitting this timely feature for inclusion in "Scanner".)


Previous    Next

Return to Home Port or Toronto Marine Historical Society's Scanner

Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.