Throughout the history of shipping on the Great Lakes the trend for shipbuilding has been to build larger and more elaborate vessels. Each decade since the construction of the present Soo Locks Vessel Managers have stretched there respective ships to fit the maximum amount of cargo from Lake Superior through the limited space offered by the cannel’s walls.
This trend towards larger more efficient vessels met its’ peak in the late 70’s. At this time
1000-foot vessels were the norm at most shipyards. To stay competitive most major fleets were building or planning to build a new “super ship”. The new “footers” with their 105-foot beams could carry and unload, as much as
three World War II era vessels, with an equal or smaller size crew. The self unloader eliminated the need for steel mills to provide shore side unloading equipment. To keep vessels on the lakes required self-unloading capabilities, almost overnight the 600-foot straight decks that had been the iron horses of the Great Lakes were paraded one by one to the scrapers torch.
Although the new 1000-foot ships could carry more then predecessors they did have a major drawback. Few ports could handle the massive size of the new ships. With some of the Great Lakes steel industry’s biggest customers on the narrow and twisting Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio something had to be done.
At first ideas were a bit extravagant and unpractical. A conveyor system was one thought. Ships would unload at Cleveland’s lakefront. Then the highway of conveyor belts would carry iron ore to the mills up river. This idea was quickly dismissed due the technical nightmare construction, and maintenance would be.
The most practical idea was to build a new “River Class” sized ship. This would be the first ship in decades not built to maximum Soo or Saint Lawrence lock size. The proposed ships would be between 600 and 640 feet in length, with beams of around 68 feet. Vessel depth would be 36 to 40 feet, far less then the giant “footers” but more then the previous 600-foot class.
Kinsman Marine Transit who had a contract with the Cleveland based, Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. would lead the way, and build two new “River Class” ships. The first of the two vessels would be the M/V William R. Roesch, which was launched in 1973. The second ship would be the Paul Thayer.
The Paul Thayer (U.S. 552395) was constructed at American Shipbuilding’s Lorain Ohio yard (hull #00902), in 1973, for Union Commerce Bank, Trustee, Cleveland, Ohio. Managed by Kinsman Marine Transit the vessel was one of
three twins built under title XI of the 1970 Merchant Marine Act, at the Lorain yard. Along with the Thayer and Roesch, was Oglebay
Norton’s Columbia Transportation Company’s Wolverine. All three would share similar size and appearance along with aesthetic similarities to American Steamships larger M/V Roger M. Kyes (later Adam E. Cornelius). The Thayer would be 630 feet long, 68 feet wide and 36 feet 11 inches deep. Her 5 compartments could hold a capacity of 19,800 gross tons loaded through her 17 hatches. She was also equipped with a 260-foot unloading boom that allows her to unload at a maximum rate of 4000 tons per hour. While underway she would be pushed along by two 2,800bhp V-16 cylinder two stroke cycle, single acting Alco diesel engines, giving her a rated service speed of 14 knots. She would also have a 1000hp-bow thruster for added maneuverability.
In 1975 management of the Thayer and Roesch changed hands to the Oglebay Norton Company. This was no simple task as the unlicensed crewmembers on the two vessels belonged to the Seafarers International Union. Oglebay Norton’s Columbia Transportation Division houses their employees under Local 5000 of the Steelworkers. Rather then attempting to merge the unions, a subsidiary was made to operate the vessels under, and in 1975 the sisters were put under the management of Pringle Transit, although realistically the same group that operated Columbia managed them.
Oglebay Norton would engage the two ships in the lower lakes stone and coal trades. As a result in July 1977 her tonnage was changed from 10,343 gross tons (gt) to 9,639 (gt). This was due to modifications to her Oglebay Norton preformed during lay up. The work configured her hold for her new trades.
Her management and ownership would again change to the Wilmington Trust Co. Trustee, Wilmington, DE in 1994 when the vessels of both, Columbia and Pringle, united under the Oglebay Norton Marine banner. At this time the Paul Thayer was renamed Earl W. Oglebay and the William R. Roesch was renamed the
David Z. Norton. The vessel has most recently been involved in a 15-year sale lease back agreement to Oglebay Norton.
With her smaller “River Class” size her versatility is endless. The Oglebay stays active every season in the stone and coal trade. She can been seen most often on lake Huron, Erie, and Michigan, and should be a mainstay for years to come.
On August 2, 2006, Oglebay Norton Marine Services Co. completed the sale of the
Earl W. Oglebay and her 2 "river class" fleet mates Wolverine and David Z.
Norton to the Wisconsin and Michigan Steamship Co. of Lakewood, OH for $18.7
million. With this sale, Oglebay Norton Co. phased out its subsidiary
Oglebay Norton Marine Services Co. and removed itself from the marine shipping
industry thus bringing to a close a long tradition of service on the Great
Lakes. The Wisconsin and Michigan Steamship Co. is a subsidiary of Sand
Products Corp. owned by the McKee family. Renamed Earl W. in early 2007,
the vessel was
commercially operated by Lower Lakes Transportation Co. of Williamsville, NY
under a time charter agreement with her new owners with an option to buy the
vessel off charter being extended to Grand River Navigation, the U.S.
vessel-owning affiliate of Lower Lakes Transportation. Her trade routes
have remained essentially the same.
On February 13, 2008, Rand Logistics of New York, NY, the parent company of
Lower Lakes Towing, Lower Lakes Transportation and Grand River Navigation,
announced that Grand River Navigation had exercised its option to buy the Earl
W. Also purchased were the Earl W. fleetmates David Z.
and Wolverine for an "all in" sum of $20 million. Shortly after,
the self-unloader was registered under the new name Manitowoc out of the port of