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|Goderich, ON, February, 2003.
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
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
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
Sixteen vessels in two different variations
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.
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
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,
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.
|| 620'06" (189.13m)
||16,300 tons (16,562 tonnes)