Histories of steamers on the Great Lakes
For nearly 100 years the steam powered freighter ruled the waters of the Great Lakes. However, since the late 1960s the steamer began to be supplanted by the diesel powered ship. As of the 2009 season there were only twenty steam powered freighters remaining in operation on the Great Lakes.
Twilight of the Great Lakes Steamer tells the individual histories of each of these ships, some of which have been repowered or retired in the short time since this book was printed.
On January 4, 1971 the LEON FRASER picked up a delegation of United States Steel officials at Detour, Michigan for a trip up the St. Marys River to observe winter navigation in action. After departing the FRASER at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, these officials were taken back down the St. Marys the following day on the BENJAMIN FAIRLESS. In November of 1972, the LEON FRASER arrived at the Fraser Shipyards to have an experimental bubbler system installed upon her hull. Two diesel powered air blowers were installed in the forward part of the ship, and these pushed low pressure air as bubbles through angle plates installed on the hull in an effort to limit ice friction. Testing of this system continued through January of 1973.
During the early 1970s there was an energy crisis in the United States due to OPEC embargoes, causing the reassessment of alternative fuel sources. One of these was to create oil processed from shale rock, and in 1975 the EDWARD B. GREENE was chosen to use such a fuel on a trip starting in Cleveland to Marquette, and ending in Ashtabula. While on this voyage the GREENE flew a flag off of her forward mast with the words “SHALE OIL” affixed upon it. Though this trip proved that the use of shale oil was technically possible, the extreme cost difference when compared with conventional fuels made it very uneconomical.
Widely touted at the time as the “Prototype of Today’s Lakes’ Vessel”, this vessel ushered in a new philosophy in shipbuilding practices on the Great Lakes in both the American and Canadian designs for the next two decades. The construction of this steamer progressed with a steady pace at Lorain, with the ship’s name, WILFRED SYKES, being painted on the ship while still on the ways. The building of this ship was a hugely important event at the time, and attracted much publicity. It was against this backdrop that it was launched on June 28, 1949, following the traditional breaking of a champaign bottle against the bow of the ship.
With a lifelong interest in Great Lakes Shipping and military history, Raymond A. Bawal Jr. has written several books on these two subjects.