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Goderich, ON, February, 2003.

Mike Nicholls

Great Lakes Fleet Page Vessel Feature -- Willowglen

By Brian Ferguson

The Great depression that had strangled the finances and spirit of the nation for over a decade came to an abrupt end on December 7, 1941.  World War II had been raging in Europe and the Far East for some time but it was when the Axis Forces conducted a surprise attack on the United States Navy’s Pacific base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii that a spark would be made to light the inferno that was the nation’s industrial core.  Soon raw materials were in demand at record levels.  Mines and steel mills could not turn out products fast enough.  The war would lead to the re-commissioning of several obsolete, retired, and in some cases un-seaworthy vessels.  Sailors were needed to crew U.S. ships both in military and merchant capacities.  Those men not going overseas to fight would have no problems locating employment either on a vessel, in a mill, or at a shipyard.  Never in the history of the nation had people joined together in such unity for the same cause.    

With the prospect of a long conflict and the demand for raw material seemingly unquenchable, it was absolutely implausible that the current U.S. flagged Great Lakes fleet could keep up with the demand.  United States Steel Company’s Pittsburgh Steamship Company lead the way in new vessel construction with the christening of their AA “Super” class vessel.  In 1942 five ships of this class were added to the U.S. side of the lakes, the first being the Leon Fraser entering service on June 21, 1942.  Shortly after the Frasier sailed, the Enders Voorhees, Benjamin Fairless, Irving S. Olds, and the A.H. Ferbert would enter service.  Each vessel was approximately 640 feet (195.07m) long, 67 feet (20.42m) wide and have a depth of 35 feet (10.67m).  They were powered by steam turbines and had the ability to carry over 16,000 tons (16,257 tonnes) of iron ore.

As well supported recycling drives came up short, ships that were declared “total losses” and left abandoned around the lakes were cut up on the spot for scrap steel.  On June 23, 1942 the 33 year old Pittsburgh Steamship Co. “Tin Stacker” Eugene J. Buffington ran aground on Lake Michigan’s Boulder Reef.  United States Steel ordered the crew of the disabled vessel to strip and scuttle her.  After crews flooded the ship, she broke in half and eventually settled on the reef.  Already dealing with the ever increasing shortage of hulls, the U.S. Shipping board ordered the vessel to be salvaged and returned to service.  The need for more ships was never more apparent. 

In 1943, the U.S. Maritime Commission went forward with the construction of a new class of Great Lakes bulk carrier.  The new breed of vessel would be best known as the “Maritime Class”.  This class of ship would forgo the decorative appointments that others launched before enjoyed.  This new form of ship would be a utilitarian work horse.  Each vessel would be approximately 620 feet (188.98m) in length, 60 feet (18.29m) wide, 35 feet (10,67m) deep and boast a cargo capacity in excess of 15,000 tons 15,241 tonnes).  This would make them larger than most ships built prior to the war but slightly smaller than the AA class ships.  Unlike the AA vessels, most of the Maritime class would be powered by obsolete but reliable 2,500 i.h.p. triple expansion steam engines.  A few of the ships in the class were equipped with Lentz-Poppet 4-cylinder 2,500 i.h.p. steam engines.  The unrefined method of propulsion was due to the fact that the more favored high pressure steam turbines were reserved for war ships that were in greater need of speed.  

Sixteen vessels in two different variations slid down the ways at four different shipyards.  Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, MI and Ashtabula, OH constructed ten of the L6-S-B1 models [roughly meaning lake vessel, 600-699 feet (6), steam powered (S); "A" or “B” referring to design and the "1", a sub-design], and American Shipbuilding would complete six, of the L6-S-A1 models at their Lorain, and Cleveland, OH yards.  To this day you can still tell the difference between the few B1 and A1 Maritimers left sailing by the shape of the forward cabins.  The American Shipbuilding A1 type has a rounded appearance while the Great Lakes Engineering Works B1 type has a block style forward cabin.     

An inauspicious maiden voyage cast a shadow of doubt over the new vessel class, as a design flaw threatened the safety of more than one ship.  In September 1943, the George A. Sloan (a L6-S-B1 model) suffered a crack across her deck on her first trip in modest seas while transiting Lake Huron.  After the incident, her hull was reinforced with three feet wide by two inch thick steel strapping.

At that time it was not expected to be a class wide problem and the remaining vessels in operation continued with out the modifications.  Less than one month later, on her first trip across Lake Superior, the Sloan’s fleet mate Robert C. Stanley (another L6-S-B1 version) developed a significant deck crack as well and was forced to check her speed. Mooring cables were run between the stem and the stern to provide support and the ship reached port safely.  After this second instance of the same problem, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered all Maritime Class boats to be reinforced in a similar fashion to the Sloan.  Although the sixteen vessels would have their shares of mishaps on the lakes, no Maritime Class vessel would ever founder. 

When World War II subsided the steamships Frank Armstrong, Sewell Avery, J. Burton Ayers, Cadillac, E.G. Grace, J.W. Hillman JR, John T. Hutchinson, Champlain, Lehigh, Clarence B. Randall, Richard J. Reiss, George A. Slone, Robert C. Stanley, Steelton, Frank Purnell, and Thomas Wilson continued to serve their respective owners well into late the 1970’s.  In the post war era several were bought, sold, renamed, re-powered, converted to self-unloaders, and sadly in the early 1980’s many entered long term lay up due to the slumping steel market never to see service again. 

A handful of vessels were converted to self-unloaders and were later re-powered, staying competitive in the smaller but lucrative stone and coal market and still trade today.  Six Maritime Class vessels exist today, although two are not actively trading and one has been modified with a newer vessel's diesel powered stern.  The Mississagi (George A. Sloan), Cuyahoga (J. Burton Ayers), Richard Reiss, Canadian Transfer (fore section, J.W. Hillman JR, aft section Canadian Explorer), C.T.C. No.1 (Frank Purnell), and Willowglen (Lehigh) are still providing services on the Great Lakes after 60 years. 

Of the six remaining examples of the once common vessel, the Willowglen has remained closest to her original configuration.  The Willowglen was launched as the Mesabi (US 244505) hull # 00295 in 1943 at Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, MI.  She was a L6-S-B1 model delivered to the Bethlehem Steel Company.  Bethlehem rename the vessel Lehigh (2), the former Lehigh being the William A. Rogers, which was renamed Johnstown (1).  The Lehigh spent a good portion of her career delivering iron ore to Bethlehem’s blast furnaces near Buffalo, New York, as was the routine for most Bethlehem ships.  This routine was broken on the night of November 29, 1966 when fleet mate Daniel J. Morrell and the majority of her crew were lost during a storm on Lake Huron.  Later it was discovered the very same storm had damaged the Bethlehem steamer Edward Y. Townsend beyond the point of repair. 

In 1969, the Lehigh experienced one of two historical firsts in her career.  September 11 of that year she became the first vessel to deliver cargo to the new Bethlehem mill at Burns Harbor, IN.  Shortly after this, the Lehigh and many other U.S. flagged straight deckers found a new trade route on the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Runs of grain from Toledo to Canadian Seaway ports became more frequent.  After off loading her grain cargo the Lehigh could return to the Lakes with a load of hi-grade Seaway iron ore. 

Her second historical first came in 1981 when she became the first Maritime Class vessel to sail under a foreign flag.  When Bethlehem Steel unveiled the Great Lakes first 1,000 foot (304.80m) super ship, the Stewart J. Cort, an era of change on the lakes began.  With the addition of two more “footers” in the form of the Lewis Wilson Foy and Burns Harbor, the Lehigh became a surplus hull for her managers.  She was dealt to Pierson Steamship Company of Thorold Ontario, Canada.  Her new name was Joseph X. Robert and the Seaway would become her life.  Her main cargo consisted of grain from Thunder Bay and other Canadian ports to locations on the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Much like her latter Bethlehem days, the return trip would bring ore for the steel mills on Lake Michigan.  In 1982 the Robert would change hands again as Pierson folded and their vessels were sold to P&H (Parrish & Heimbecker) Shipping of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.  Willowglen was her new name but her trade routes remained unchanged.  She sailed for P&H for the next decade (later part under the command of author and historian, Captain Richard Metz). 

The Willowglen laid up for the last time in December 1992 at Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada.  In 1994, she was sold to the Goderich Elevator Company, in Goderich ON.  Like a number of vessels before her (including but not limited to F.H. Dunsford, Lionell Parsons, C.S. Band, K.A. Powell (1&2), D.B. Weldon (1&2), and the John A. Roebling), the Willowglen would be employed as a floating storage silo.  She has filled this role for the last 10 years.  In October 2002, the Canada Steamship Lines bulker Teakglen, the former Mantadoc (2), arrived and was moored along side the Willowglen to serve as a storage silo as well.  

It is uncertain how long both hulls will be used, but until that time the Willowglen remains an unmodified  monument to a historic class of vessel that unceremoniously saw America through some of its darkest days and finest hours.


Overall Dimensions (metric)
Length 620'06" (189.13m)
Beam 60'00" (18.29m)
Depth 35'00" (10.67m)
Capacity 16,300 tons (16,562 tonnes)
Power (steam) 2,500 i.h.p.

Willowglen underway. Luke Collection

Downbound at the Soo Rob Burdick

On Lake St. Clair, July 7, 1991.
Skip Meier

At Goderich. Todd Davidson

Goderich summer 2001. Mike Nicholls

Summer 2002. Rob Farrow

Underway. Don Coles

Lehigh downbound the Maumee River from the Cherry Street Bridge. She just finished loading grain at one of the Elevators upriver. Jim Hoffman

Lehigh with the bumboat "Deweys" alongside loading a grain cargo at the Midstates Elevator in Toledo. The grain cargo will be going out the Seaway and she will return back to the Lakes with a load of high grade ore loaded at a Seaway port. Jim Hoffman

Stern view.  Mike Nicholls.

From across the harbor.  Mike Nicholls.

Goderich, ON June 2002.  Don Coles

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