Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ships from the Past (Part 2)

Recently, while going through my parent’s photos, I ran across a handful of old ship photos.  My mother, Elizabeth, was widowed when my dad, Ronald, was killed in action right at the end of WWII, and they’d only had a few years together.  My mother always told me that despite the fact that I only knew my father for a couple of years, but as adults, we have a lot in common.  These included trip planning and exploration, a love for geography and an interest for boats and ships. 

My dad took these photos sometime between 1938 and 1942.  The actual photos are tiny but they are interesting.  This looks like some kind of ferry boat crossing one of the Great Lakes. 

This next photo is of a barge and a tug or canal push boat…I can’t even guess where in Michigan this might have been taken.

I kept looking for photos, hoping to find some pictures where the ships being photographed could actually be identified. 

I came across two photos taken by my stepfather, Hugh Thomson, in about 1952… He had wanderlust as well!  It sticks in my mind that these ship photos were taken in New Brunswick Canada.  Above is a photo of my mother, myself and my little brother, Robert posing in front of a derelict schooner.

These photos were from our pre-interstate highways and 'pre-motel' trek from Michigan up through Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Sidney.  Hugh had emigrated here as a youth with his family, then he worked in the nearby coal mines.  On our return journey, we drove back down through the USA to Michigan.  It was 2-lane highways and cabins all the way.

My stepfather and my mother were both artists.  Based on the nice composition of this photo, I’m sure that Hugh intended to paint this picture.  I don’t think that he ever did though… 

This is another photo from our Canadian trek… I’m not sure what’s going on the deck of the ship…but it’s possible that Hugh caught someone in "flagrante delicto".

Then I finally got lucky!  My dad Ron had collected this photo of the S.S. Alabama in the Duluth Minnesota/Superior Wisconsin harbor.  So I went on the Internet to see what I could find about this ship. 

Not bad!  This is a publicity shot of the S.S. Alabama…on the Isle Royale Route for the Chicago, Duluth and Georgian Bay Transit Company.   This ship was built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in 1906.  She was 275’ long with a 46 ½’ beam.  The Alabama drew 17’ 1” of water and was powered by 3 coal burning Scotch Marine Boilers generating 2,200 horsepower.   

The original owner was the Goodrich Transit Company.  That company went bankrupt in 1933.  In 1946, the Georgian Transit Company sold the Alabama for conversion to barge service.  Her top was cut off…and in 2005, her remnant hulk was towed to LaSalle Ontario and it was scrapped.

This next photo of my dad’s was even more interesting… Although it was a small photo, I could make out the name of one of the ships moored dockside above.  It was the S.S. South America.

I had no trouble finding this photo on the Internet.  This is the South America in its prime, en-route to some port on the Great Lakes.  This ship was built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in 1913 and it was launched in 1914.  She was 314’ feet long with a 47’ beam.  She drew 18’ of water and her power plants were identical to those of the S.S. Alabama. 

This ship caught fire in 1924 in its winter lay-up at Holland Michigan.  The upper works were then rebuilt and she was converted to oil.  The South America was retired from service in 1967, with a last run to Montreal that same year for the World’s Fair.
In 1968, she was sold to the Seafarer’s International Union for use as a dorm and classroom for the Union’s school of seamanship.   She was towed to Camden New Jersey where she failed her Coast Guard inspection.  She never left Camden for her destination in Piney Point Maryland.  Instead, she rotted at her mooring in Camden and was finally scrapped in 1992.

And then I found this photo on the Internet, updated by a few years but virtually the same scene as photographed by my father.   Here we have the S.S. South America and her sister ship, the S.S. North America.  The North America was a year older than the South America.  She too had been purchased by the Seafarer’s Union but in 1967, while in tow to her berth in Maryland, she sank northeast of the Nantucket Light.  She was located in 2006…140 miles off the coast in 250’ of water.

All three of these Passenger Liners were operated by the Georgian Bay Transit Company.  They operated on regular seasonal schedules between Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Mackinac Island, Chicago and Duluth.  The S.S. South American and the S.S. Delta Queen were the last two long distance cruise ships operating under the United States flag.  Today, only the Delta Queen flies the US flag and it continues to operate after major refitting and under special exemption from the Coast Guard.
Have a great day! 


  1. Great info Dave - I love digging thru the old photos

  2. Dave, this was really interesting. First, learning more about your father through his photos and the history of these ships. It's sad to know that so many sank or rotted and then scrapped.

  3. Dear Dave, I love looking and reading about these ships. My Dad loved boats and fishing. I was his fishing partner and helper. He died when I was a young girl, but the love for boats, salty water and fishing is never gone. These photo's help to keep them alive and vibrant. It also brings a longing.
    Thank you for your visits and taking time to leave a comment. I appreciate it very much.
    Many blessings for you and your family, Catherine

  4. The ferry photo is one of the old Straits of Mackinac ferries operated by the State of Michigan prior to the completion of the Mackinac Bridge. This particular ship--MACKINAW CITY, I believe--was built for the US Army as a transport during the first Great War and purchased by the state sometime after. The State of Michigan had quite a fleet crossing between the upper and lower peninsulas back in the day, but, of course it all came to an end with the opening of the bridge.

  5. Mike, Thanks for identifying that ferry boat! It makes complete sense as my father was a MI conservation officer who spent a fair amount of time at Wilderness State Park near the straits. I know that I took a ferry across the straits before the bridge was built. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave