There once was a time when it was not unusual to see operating lake vessels that had served for fifty or sixty or even more years, but the strange part of it all was that many of those ships had been built during the very early years of the development of steel shipbuilding on the Great Lakes. Today's new lakers have a much shorter lifespan in store for them, and many of the boats that were built in the 1950s are already making their way to the scrapyard. There was something about the natural lines and simplicity of design that made the turn-of-the-century lakers both beautiful and durable.
One of the early steel lakers that enjoyed a long and successful life was the steamer PENOBSCOT, which was best known for her service, late in life, for the Nicholson Transit Company of Detroit. PENOBSCOT was a beautiful steamer, despite certain "modern" touches that were added to her toward the end of her career, and also despite a tragic accident in which she was involved only a few years before her retirement.
PENOBSCOT, as was often the practice of the day, was launched in an almost completed condition. She ran her trials on Saginaw Bay on Thursday, August 15th, 1895, and entered service shortly thereafter. On the trial trip, her first master, Capt. Howard L. Shaw, recorded that there were more than one thousand visitors on board as guests of the management. PENOBSCOT did not have any exact sisterships (lakers were often built in "classes" in those days, with a large number of sisterships making up any one particular class) but she was one of six generally similar vessels turned out by the Wheeler yard. Of like dimensions was JOHN J. McWILLIAMS, while four slightly larger steamers of the same type were E. W. OGLEBAY and LAGONDA (375 feet), CITY OF BANGOR (372 feet) and L. C. WALDO (387 feet).
PENOBSCOT was a typical bulk carrier of her day. She had a full forecastle with a closed rail running back most of its length. A turret pilothouse, with seven windows in its front, sat directly atop the forecastle head, forward of the texas cabin which contained the master's quarters. Above the pilothouse, on the monkey's island, was an open navigation bridge, which was protected by a closed wooden rail and a canvas weathercloth. An awning was stretched above the open bridge when necessary to protect those on watch there from the hot summer sun.
The steamer carried three "doghouses" on the spar deck, the first two being spaced equally down the deck, roughly dividing it in thirds, and the after doghouse was located very close to the forward end of the boilerhouse, so close in fact that in photographs it appears to have been a part of the boilerhouse itself. This after doghouse, unlike the forward two, was not used for crew accommodation, but rather appears to have been an enclosed bunker hatch for the loading of coal fuel. Each of the forward two doghouses was, in reality, two small cabins, one on each side of the deck with a common roof in between them. This unusual type of doghouse was not uncommon in the vessels of the Eddy-Shaw fleet. A. closed steel rail ran back down the spar deck almost as far as the first doghouse. (Closed deck rails were much in vogue in the 1890s but soon passed out of style as technology developed.)
Aft on the flush quarterdeck was the after cabin, surrounded by a closed taffrail. The boat deck overhung the sides of the cabin to provide shelter from the elements, and the lifeboats were set atop the overhang, and were worked from radial davits. A tall and rather heavy stack, well raked, rose from the forward end of the after cabin. As built, PENOBSCOT sported three masts; the fore was stepped abaft the break of the forecastle, the main out of the second doghouse, and the mizzen just abaft the stack.
Somehow, certain sources have come to indicate that PENOBSCOT was one of several upper lakers built with an experimental midships location for their machinery . Such reports, however, are erroneous, and photographs taken of PENOBSCOT during 1895, her first year of service, clearly show that her engine and boilers were located in the normal aft position. Nevertheless, several steamers that were built at the Wheeler shipyard about 1893 did carry their machinery amidships, which necessitated the fitting of a propeller shaft approximately 135 feet in length. This unusual arrangement came about as a result of the loss of the early steel steamers W. H. GILCHER and WESTERN RESERVE, which foundered when their extremely brittle hull plating fractured. As well, several other early steel lakers, such as the sisters MARIPOSA and MARITANA of 1892, suffered from extreme vibration when first commissioned, and fears for their safety led to the fitting of additional hull strengthening. The experiment with midships machinery was designed to increase the strength and seaworthiness of the hulls so equipped, but the idea proved to be unsatisfactory, and the ships so constructed were soon rebuilt with engines aft.
PENOBSCOT proved to be a worthy addition to the fleet of the Eddy-Shaw Transit Company, operating successfully for the firm. Her hull was a dark colour, most likely black, while her foresactle [sic] and cabins fore and aft were white. The doghouses appear to have been an off-white shade, perhaps grey or buff, and the stack was all black. The fore and main masts were buff, and the mizzen was black. We know of only one untoward incident that befell PENOBSCOT during her Eddy-Shaw years. On Saturday, August 19th, l899, the steamer ran aground during foggy weather off Knife Island in Lake Superior, some twenty miles northeast of Duluth. She suffered severe bottom damage in the stranding but was quickly salvaged by Capt. Inman, the Duluth tug operator.
PENOBSCOT went through a change in ownership midway through the first decade of the new century. It was in 1905 that the Eddy-Shaw Transit Company became the Lake Transit Company, to which she was transferred. The new firm was incorporated at Duluth, with a capital of $500,000, on March 8th, 1905, by E.H. Eddy, G. A. Tomlinson and W. H. Stanford. The operating manager was Captain Howard L. Shaw of Bay City. By 1905, PENOBSCOT'S port of registry had been changed from Port Huron to Duluth, and it is entirely possible that this change was made at the time of the reorganization of the fleet.
In 1906, not long after the ownership change, PENOBSCOT was sent to the yard of the Toledo Shipbuilding Company, where she was lengthened to 454.0 feet. This rebuild caused her tonnage to increase to 4077 Gross and 3530 Net. The reconstruction was noteworthy in that, although a number of steel-hulled lakers had gone through the lengthening process as technology developed, none had ever been fitted with such a large new midsection. At the same time as she was stretched, PENOBSCOT had her two forward doghouses removed, and the old mainmast was lifted from the spar deck. Thereafter, the old mizzen served as the main. As well, PENOBSCOT was fitted with a rather rudimentary wooden upper pilothouse; flimsy in the extreme, and with its large windows still protected by a weathercloth, it did little but provide the most basic shelter from the elements for the officers on watch. It was probably at this same time that the closed rail was removed from the spar deck forward.
One exception was that, about the time of World War One, she was given a more permanent and handsome upper pilothouse, complete with a sunvisor, and her forecastle head was sheltered by the addition of another section of closed rail which was mounted on top of the existing rail.
The two ships were successful in their new trade, but only PENOBSCOT would enjoy a lengthy career carrying autos. Unfortunately, CITY OF BANGOR stranded to a total loss on the Keweenaw Peninsula on November 30, 1926, and the wreck was particularly spectacular in that the same storm that put her on shore piled tons of ice on and around the vessel. Salvagers attended at the scene during the following winter and were able to recover many of the 248 Chrysler autos that the ship was carrying, by chopping them out of the heavy ice that covered them. CITY OF BANGOR was driven so far up the shore when she grounded that the ship remained where she lay for many years until the hull was finally cut up for scrap during the Second World War.
Meanwhile, PENOBSCOT continued to operate for her new owner. The Nicholson Universal Steamship Company had been formed back in 1922, when Capt. William Nicholson merged his Nicholson Transit Company with the Universal Car-loading and Distributing Company. Captain Nicholson sold his interest in Nicholson Universal in 1927, agreed not to engage in automobile transportation for a period of twenty years, and then re-established his old Nicholson Transit Company for the carriage of steel products and general cargo.
In later years, the New York Central Railroad became the major shareholder in Nicholson Universal, hut as such the New York Central was in violation of the Panama Canal Act of 1915, which forbade U.S. railroads from owning shipping companies which operated competing services. Under pressure from the U.S. government, the New York Central was obliged to divest itself of its interest in Nicholson Universal, and thereafter the Overlakes Freight Corporation became the dominant force in the fleet. Through Overlakes, Troy H. Browning of Detroit was able to take over the line, and in the late 1940s the Nicholson Universal Steamship Company became known as the Browning Line.
During her later years with the Nicholson Universal fleet, PENOBSCOT underwent several changes in her appearance. The upper portion of her forecastle rail had been removed, and the forecastle again became white. Her name had previously been carried in fancy letters on a nameboard mounted well back on the forecastle rail, but it now was painted in large white letters on the hull below the forecastle, with the owner's name in smaller letters beneath the name. The tire insignia had disappeared during the 1930s. The old doghouse/bunker hatch was joined to the boilerhouse, and the boat deck was extended well forward of the hatch in a prominent overhang that provided shelter for the winch area beneath. The overhang was surmounted by a very high closed rail, on which the ship's name was prominently displayed. A new doghouse was placed right aft on the boat deck, and the stack was given a new design, green with a black smokeband and a red flag on which appeared the letter 'N' in white.
During the Second World War, PENOBSCOT was reconverted to a bulk carrier. This work was done by the American Shipbuilding Company at Buffalo, New York, (although certain sources have described the job as having been done by AmShip at Superior, Wisconsin) and was completed in June of 1942. That same year, PENOBSCOT was taken over by the U.S. War Shipping Administration but, unlike several other lakers that were so requisitioned, she was not sent to salt water. Instead, she was chartered back to the Overlakes Freight Corporation (successor to Nicholson Universal) from 1942 to 1946. Overlakes actually purchased the steamer in 1946, and in 1947 she was transferred to the T. H. Browning Steamship Company of Detroit, at which time the letter 'N' on the flag on her stack became a 'B' .
In September of 1948, PENOBSCOT was acquired by the Nicholson Transit Company, Ecorse, Michigan, and once again she was refitted as an auto carrier, complete with a freight elevator. It was about this time that she was considerably modernized and given a new profile. She was again given an upper section to her forecastle rail, this new section running about three-quarters of the length of the main closed rail. Her old forward cabins were removed, and in their place were fitted a large new texas cabin and a much more spacious pilothouse, both of which were squarish in shape. As well, the old foremast was removed and in its place appeared a very short new spar. It would appear that it was also at this time that the old doghouse on the boat deck aft was removed, and a much larger steel structure erected in its place.
PENOBSCOT became the flagship of the Nicholson Transit Company, and she looked very smart in the fleet colours. Her hull was black with the company name painted in large white letters down the side. The forecastle and cabins were white, and the stack was black with a large white letter 'N' on it. The above-deck frame of the cargo elevator was painted silver. In these striking but traditional colours, PENOBSCOT operated very successfully, despite her relatively advanced age.
Monday, October 29, 1951, was not a good day for PENOBSCOT, for it was on that day that she was involved in the most serious accident of her entire career. PENOBSCOT normally carried grain downbound from Duluth for Buffalo, and after unloading would run light to Detroit, where she would load autos for Duluth. On that unfortunate day in October, she finished unloading a cargo of 200,000 bushels of grain at the Pillsbury elevator, and then backed down the Buffalo River and at its mouth turned around with the assistance of harbour tugs.
At about 9:20 p.m., PENOBSCOT was turned and was just off the foot of Georgia Street, near the north opening in the harbour breakwater. Just at that same time, the tug DAUNTLESS NO. 12 was inbound at the north entrance, pushing the barge M0RANIA 130, which was loaded with 19,200 barrels of gasoline. The tug and barge were rounding the corner from the outer harbour, with the intention of crossing the mouth of the Buffalo River and heading into the Erie Basin and eventually the Black Rock Canal, bound for Tonawanda. PENOBSCOT blew the required warning whistle as she approached the junction area, and hearing no reply from any vessel, assumed that it was safe to proceed.
Just then, the bow of the barge poked out around the U.S. Coast Guard station, making the crossing of the river mouth. The tug sounded a two-whistle passing signal, but it was too late for any evasive action, and the bow of the steamer penetrated the barge in the fifth and sixth cargo tanks on the starboard side. Reports indicate that M0RANIA 130 was seriously holed, and that there was a strong smell of gasoline in the area, indicating that the barge's cargo was spreading across the water of the harbour.
In an effort to avoid disaster, PENOBSCOT backed away from the barge, but the scraping of the metal of the two damaged hulls apparently caused a spark and ignited the freed gasoline. The barge exploded almost immediately, and the flames were said to have leaped' some 200 feet into the air. The blaze soon spread across the water on the cargo that had escaped from M0RANIA. 130, and DAUNTLESS NO. 12 was quickly enveloped in the conflagration. The flames also reached the bow of PENOBSCOT, setting her afire as well.
On the bridge of PENOBSCOT, Capt. Louis Guyette of Port Huron, and his wheelsman, Roy Richardson, also of Port Huron, realized that their steamer was in grave danger. With the flames spreading through the bow section of PENOBSCOT, Guyette managed to back his ship until she reached the Coast Guard dock. Despite damaging her rudder in the process, she was made fast, and 32 of her crew of 34 reached shore safely . The fire aboard the steamer was confined to her forward end and was eventually extinguished, but not before all of the forward cabins were completely gutted. When the fire was out, the bodies of two men, "crisped beyond recognition", were located in the pilothouse; they proved to be those of the master and his wheelsman, whose courageous efforts had saved the lives of the rest of PENOBSCOT'S crew. The men on the tug and barge were not so fortunate, and nine of them died in the accident.
The master of DAUNTLESS NO. 12, who survived, was subsequently found responsible for the accident, in that there was no lookout posted on the barge, and no warning whistle was sounded at the required point. It was also found that there were no lights on the bow of the barge, but the master could not be censured in that respect as regulations did not require such lights, although they might have prevented the collision had they been in place.
It was fortunate for PENOBSCOT that the damage was confined to her forward end, and that lake tonnage was much in demand in 1951, for otherwise she most certainly would have been sent to the breakers. As it was, however, repairs were considered to be justified, and PENOBSCOT was towed to the River Rouge, where she was rebuilt the following winter. After the reconstruction, she looked very little different than before the fire and her bow was restored to its previous appearance. The only major change appeared aft, where an upper extension was built atop the bunker hatch rail, adding much extra coal capacity but giving the bunker a most peculiar appearance. (PENOBSCOT, however, was not the only Nicholson boat with such a large bunker hatch.)
During the mid-1950s, the Continental Grain Company, which operated elevators at Buffalo, developed a large fleet of storage barges at the port, for in those days Buffalo received considerable grain by ship each year. Buffalo, it must be remembered, was then a port of grain trans-shipment, for the new St. Lawrence Canals had not yet opened. Several U.S. fleets were beginning to cast off their older and smaller ships, which were perfect for Continental's storage purposes. Many of them were bought by the firm.
It was one of Continental's subsidiaries, the Omega Lake Ship Company Inc., Buffalo, that bought PENOBSCOT from Nicholson Transit. To facilitate the job of towing PENOBSCOT back and forth through the tortuous channels of Buffalo's harbour, her propeller blades were removed, and she was then reclassified as a barge. Gradually deteriorating in condition, but still showing proudly her good lines, PENOBSCOT served as a storage barge for seven years.
With the opening of the Seaway in 1959, Buffalo's grain elevators began to fall on hard times, and there began a decline that lasts to this day. Much of the need for grain storage facilities at the port disappeared, and Continental Grain gradually disposed of its storage hulls. PENOBSCOT'S turn came in 1962, when she was sold to Marine Salvage Ltd., Port Colborne, for scrapping. On Friday, November 16, 1962, the G-tugs LAURENCE C. TURNER and NORTH CAROLINA, which brought her over from Buffalo, towed her into Ramey's Bend. PENOBSCOT lay untouched during the winter, but cutting began in July, 1963, and by 1964 the hull had been completely dismantled.
Your Editor never managed to observe PENOBSCOT in actual operation, and only saw her in the last period of her life, when she was but a shadow of her former self. Even then, however, PENOBSCOT cut a handsome figure. One of the earliest steel hulls still in existence on the lakes, she had lasted longer than might have been expected, and her longevity was a credit to the expertise of the Wheeler yard at West Bay City, which had put her together so many years earlier. It was indeed unfortunate that the shipyard itself had a lifetime so much shorter than that of this famous ship that it had produced.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.