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Whale Back Ships of the Great Lakes.

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Published on May 17, 2010

See slides of the uniquely designed. "Whale Back" ships of the Great Lakes. Invented in the 1880's by Scottish designer Colonel Alexander McDougall. These ships had a submarine shaped hull. The Pilot House and fore cabin were built on large pipe like cylinders above the deck. Entrance to the upper cabins was done through these cylinders. The idea was that high waves would simply wash over the submarine shaped hull rather than crashing into them like traditional ships. This would make the vessel more seaworthy in rough seas. They also were designed as "Shallow Draft" ships allowing more cargo to be carried in shallow waters. They carried a wide variety of cargo including, Iron Ore, Limestone, Coal, grain, petroleum products and even people. Only one Passenger Whale Back ship was built. It was the Christopher Columbus and ferried about 1,000,000 people to the Chicago Worlds Fair. This was a design that could have revolutionized the Great Lakes Shipping Industry. But the Whale Back design limited the size of cargo carried and was useless on large cargoes. By the 1930's they were obsolete. Despite good intentions, they were subject to the mercies of the "Inland sea" and the James Colgate (built in 1896) became the 1st Whale Back to sink during a storm in Lake Erie. Later another Whale Back sank in shallow waters in 1917. It was re floated and renamed the Henry Cort which was built in 1892, 17 years later, it was to hit the North Break Water of the Muskegon {Mich) Channel in 1934. All 24 crewman survived. They were hoisted to the break water by lines connected to a boseman's chair then walked ashore over the break water.It was scrapped in 1935 as a "navigation hazard".
The only death, involved the coast guardsman who died in the rescue. He remains to this day the only US Coast Guard death on the Great Lakes. You can scuba dive the wreck of the Henry Cort today. Another Whale Back I remember was the Metero. Converted from a cargo ship to an oil tanker, It made frequent trips up the Grand River in Grand Haven Michigan where a petroleum tank farm as located. It sailed from Whiting Indiana to Grand Haven, Muskegon and other ports where there was an oil terminal. It was retired about 1969. The Metero is THE last surviving Whale Back vessel in the US and likely the World. It is preserved and docked in Superior Wisconsin and is available for tours.

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