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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Outside the Box

Ships have been with us for a long time. We all know what they look like - a long rectangular box with a pointed bow and rounded stern. A few structures somewhere on the top of the long box to provide a place for the crew to live and to operate the ship.  A smokestack sticks up somewhere - usually towards the rear of the ship.  What could be more ordinary?  But why does it have to be that way? Why not think, if you allow me the little pun, outside the box?

Take a look at the ship in the picture below.  Something just looks... well... different about this ship, doesn't it?  Whose slightly delirious dream was this?

Steamer A.D. Thompson
Library of Congress Collections


The ship in the picture is the A.D. Thompson and it is a class of ship known affectionately to those who sailed them as a whaleback.  Whalebacks were never used for whaling.  Most of them (but not all) sailed on the Great Lakes.  The name (nickname, really) came from the shape of the hull which looked like a whale's back sitting low in the water when the ship was fully loaded.  The name was intended to be descriptive, even complimentary.  If you look at the way the bow comes to a little flat point, you can immediately understand the origin of the other, more derogatory nickname - the pigboat.

The whaleback design was the brainchild of ship's master, serial-entrepreneur, and inventor, Alexander McDougall. McDougall was born in Scotland in 1845.  His parents emigrated to the Lake Huron region of Ontario when he was a young boy.  His father died when McDougall was only ten and he took up a variety of odd jobs to help feed his family. By his late teen years, he had signed on as a deckhand on a Great Lakes freighter.  Being talented and hardworking, he rose rapidly and got his ship master's license when he was just 25, one of the youngest captains on the Great Lakes.

In the latter decades of the 19th century, the Great Lakes were the Northern highway for bulk freight traffic as lumber, iron ore, and grain were shipped from the western regions to the population centers in the East. The Great Lakes were home to hundreds of ships.  At first, these were schooners and other forms of sailing ships, but steam engines rapidly took over as the means to power these ships.  The size of the ships wasn't initially limited by the steam engines, it was limited by the small canals, channels, and locks that the ships had to navigate.  To increase the amount of tonnage that could be hauled on each trip, smaller ships began towing small barges (sometimes called consorts). McDougall was an experienced captain and he knew the difficulties of pulling these unpowered hulls, often through large waves and high winds.  Towing a barge could be a decidedly tricky task, more-so as the weather got bad.

McDougall began thinking about how to design a better barge. He wanted the most volume for the least perimeter, the least resistance to winds and waves, and a shallow-draft design that could be moored at docks with only a limited depth of water.  His innovation was his patented hull design, later dubbed the whaleback.  McDougall built his first consort, named simply Hull No. 101, over the winter of 1887-1888.  It was a technical success. But when McDougall tried to raise capital to build more consorts using his novel design, he was met with derision by the experienced businessmen around the Great Lakes.  Undaunted, he headed to New York where he enlisted the financial backing of several Eastern capitalists including John D. Rockefeller.

Two whaleback consorts in tow out of Poe Lock
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Library of Congress Collections

McDougall founded the American Steel Barge Company in 1889 and began building his cheap, efficient barges in Duluth, Minnesota. After he had built five whaleback consort vessels, McDougall moved his entire shipbuilding operation next door to Superior, Wisconsin.  In 1890, McDougall built his first self-powered whaleback steamer, the Colgate Hoyt (named for one of his first financial backers).  This ship cost just a little more than twice the cost of one of his unpowered barges and could steam at 16 knots - very respectable for its day.

In 1893, McDougall built his only whaleback passenger ship, the Christopher Columbus.  The ship was used to ferry passengers from downtown Chicago, six miles south to the World's Columbian Exposition.  Following the Exposition, the passenger ship was placed in regular service between Cleveland and Chicago.

S.S. Christopher Columbus
Only Whaleback Passenger Ship Ever Built
While McDougall's innovative vessels proved themselves to be workable, the design never caught on.  Whalebacks suffered from a few practical limitations: the curve of the hull made the hatch openings smaller than on conventional ships and barges. This also made the hatches more prone to being bent in the loading and unloading process.  The hatches were expensive to repair. The design also lacked a protected passageway below decks from the front to the back of the ship making it difficult for the crew to communicate in rough weather (remember that this was before radio was invented).  Mostly though, the design just didn't look good to the more established shipping company owners.  The American Steel Barge Company was eventually absorbed into the American Ship Building Company in the late 1890s.

McDougall, ever the entrepreneur, didn't limit himself to ship design.  He operated a company that managed over a thousand stevedores on various Great Lakes docks. He owned an insurance company that wrote policies on Great Lakes shipping. He sat on the board of directors of several electric companies. And in 1899, after selling the whaleback company, he bought the Collingwood (Ontario) Shipbuilding Company, reorganized it, and ran it successfully for many more years building conventional ships.

McDougall died in 1924.  While his vision of a new type of hull did not have the impact that he had hoped for, he was able to demonstrate that his technical ideas were highly workable.  The whaleback ships were gradually scrapped out over the years.  One, the Thomas Wilson, lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan just outside the Milwaukee harbor entrance and is a popular diving destination.

Now, only one whaleback remains in existence.  The S.S. Meteor has been slowly rusting away as a museum ship in Superior, Wisconsin, where it was built in 1896.  When she's gone, none of these daring and innovative ships will remain.  But the old photos still tell the tale of the days when the whalebacks were the talk of the Lakes.

S.S. Meteor
Superior, Wisconsin

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