Deckhand by Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker and Alan D. Millar: a short review

This is a brief (100+ pages) “as-told-to”, with Haydamacker the storyteller and Millar the transcriber/editor. Both did excellent jobs, and produced an interesting book about the day-to-day life of deckhands on Great Lakes freighters in the early 1960s.

Mickey Haydamacher was just out of high school and looking for a job. He grew up near (and on) the St. Clair River and had family members who crewed on lakers, so he applied for a job with the Interlake Steamship Company. This book is his retelling of his two years as a deckhand on Interlake ships.

The book’s subtitle, “Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes,” is a good description of its contents. This is a book about everyday life–fighting to open and close hatches, washing things down, surviving the weather, sharing a smoke, visiting waterfront bars. It’s also about friendships, growing up a bit, and getting on with life.

The author served on (then-)new boats–the Eldon Hoyt 2nd and J.L. Mauthe–and a “bucket of bolts”–Col. James Pickands–so he can make some valuable best-and-worst comparisons. He visited most of the upper lakes ports, and tells tales about a few of those. But mostly it’s a book about his ships, his shipmates, and the things he did every day on the ships.

It’s a different perspective than offered by most who write about lakes shipping. It’s well done, and worth your time.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Michigan State Ferries, by Les Bagley: a review

This is, I imagine, the sort of book Arcadia’s business model intends: A well thought out picture book whose captions actually tell a coherent story. Nicely done.

This book tells about the automobile ferries who worked the route the Mackinac Straits Bridge made obsolete. The boats are the book’s stars, of course; each is described in some detail, and there’s enough context to explain why each was built and what made each interesting. There’s also information about the cities at the ends of the route. This is much more a St. Ignace book than a Mackinaw City book, while the Island only makes token appearances. The St. Ignace emphasis is convenient for me, as I’m fairly familiar with the town’s modern waterfront; the book explains some of the features.

Excellent photographs, too.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

Pride of the Inland Seas by Bill Beck: a short review

A coffee-table book. And a well-researched and well-written history of the Duluth-Superior port and the activities, both at the port and away, which have made a fine harbor into a major port. Surprisingly good at describing the context of the issues driving the port’s history. And (of course) an array of excellent photographs. But it’s the text which makes this a worthwhile book, for anyone interested in Great Lakes history, whether or not that interest focuses on the Twin Ports.

One slight complaint: A few maps, showing the harbor’s changing usages, would have been helpful.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald by Raymond Ramsey: a review

Ramsay, one of the engineers who helped design the Edmund Fitzgerald, examines the evidence and concludes:

  • The ship was under-engineered.
  • The ship was probably poorly constructed.
  • The ship was poorly maintained.
  • The ship had a history of unusually hard use.
  • When she met an unprecedented storm, the poor worn out ship failed.

I have, of course, left out a lot of detail. This all seems plausible, and explains what happened on November 10, 1975, at least as well as the prevailing theories. And you really can’t fault the author’s credentials.

Nonetheless: This is an awful book. At the very least, it needed an editor; a better solution would have been a competent co-author. Much of the argument is poorly-sourced assertion. The author spends far too much time raving about conspiracies and coverups. Moreover, expecting families whose sons and husbands died with the Fitz to join his battle after all these years is almost certainly a lost cause. And hiding your arguments in disorderly, rant-prone, and opaque prose is an unlikely strategy for convincing anyone of your righteousness.

Worth reading if: You’re obsessed with the Fitz, or you really want an engineers’ perspective on the disaster. Otherwise a waste of your time.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Captain Ward

Eber Brock Ward was Michigan’s most famous and most innovative Rich Man for much of the 19th century; his best comp is certainly Henry Ford, who flourished about 75 years later. I don’t think anyone’s written a full-blown biography of Ward, but there are pieces of him all over my library.

Bruce Catton’s Michigan says this:

Men who ought to have known better feared that those who planned the new [Sault Ste Marie] canal were much too optimistic. E.B. Ward of Detroit was the lakes’ chief steamboat magnate, just then, and he wrote anxiously to a Michigan Congressman protesting that the locks, planned to measure 350 feet in length by 70 in width, were much too large; 260 feet by 60 feet would be ample, because steamboats too large for such locks would be too big to get up the St. Mary’s River, which had shallow places with hard-rock bottoms…. [page 120]

…Captain Ward, as competent a businessman as the lakes country afforded, had turned out to be a terrible prophet, not because he lacked intelligence, but simply because neither he nor the other men who were industrializing this wilderness had any notion how fast the process was going to go, once it got started. [122]

The CCC’s Michigan Guide tells us:

Early in 1853, Captain Eber B. Ward, a Detroit shipping magnate, purchased the [John] Biddle estate [in Wyandotte] and established the Eureka Iron and Steel Company on the waterfront, the first plant of its kind in the Detroit area. A blast furnace and rolling mill were built, and a settlement was platted. In the next 20 years, Wyandotte pioneered in the steel industry with two important firsts: the first steel analysis laboratory in the United States (1862), and the manufacture of the first Bessemer steel [properly, this was Kelly-patent steel] in America (1864)…. Because of the mill’s position between the ore beds of upper Michigan and the coal fields of Ohio and Indiana, it seemed probably that it would become one of the most successful plants in the Nation; but Ward had overreached himself. When he fell dead in Detroit in 1875, his partners, hit by the panic of 1873, permitted the mill to fall into ruin…. [T]wo years before his death, Captain Ward had drilled an oil and gas well on his property, which, although it proved unproductive, revealed the existence of an immense salt bed of good quality and not too deep to be exploited commercially. [470]

Ward gets quite a bit of attention from Jean McHugh in her biography of Alexander Holley; here’s one paragraph:

Ward’s sole aim was to build the experimental plant and to rush it into operation. He was a strange person. To his credit, he rarely interfered with Durfee’s operation [Wyandotte’s Kelly-patent mill]. He has been described as a man of extremes: self-controlled and passionate, shrewd and credulous, persistent yet changeable. He was not an ironmaster in the true sense of the word and had little real understanding of the details of Durfee’s experiments. In his anxiety to make a financial success of the venture, Ward seemed always ready to listen to any suggestion, no matter how ridiculous. He probably had no intention of creating difficulties for Durfee, but seemed unable to resist trying out a persuasive scheme, especially if it were put forward by those unfriendly to Durfee. [175]

He’s mentioned four times in James C. Mills’ Our Inland Seas; this one is typical:

The large steamer Planet, built by Captain Ward at Newport, in 1855, and which was a leviathan of the time, was added to the [Goodrich] line about 1863. She was of twelve hundred tons, and splendidly furnished, but ran only until 1866, when she was taken off the line and dismantled. [240]

Finally, and most surprisingly, Ward and his sons show up in Peter Morris’s wonderful Baseball Fever:

For five years, Ward tried desperately to make businessmen of his sons, but failed miserably. He put Charley in charge of a business in Toledo, and Charley proceeded to run up thirty-seven thousand dollars in debts. Captain Ward bailed him out, and Charley ran up another two hundred thousand dollars in debts that his father again had to make good. E. B. Ward made similar attempts with Milton, with no more success. Milton ran up large bills in Ludington, Milwaukee, and Ripon, Wisconsin, without making much pretense of following his father’s instructions. Both sons of the state’s “first real captain of industry” became notorious for their “questionable industry,” though it’s unclear whether this should be attributed to insanity, rebellion against their father, or mere laziness. In 1874, the Detroit Evening News announced that “Milt Ward has at last found his strong point. He says that he can sit in a chair, and balance longer on the two hind legs than any man in the West.” [235-36]

I’ve no plan to write Ward’s missing biography, but I’m intrigued enough that I’ll be posting some things about him in this Journal from time to time.

Engineer’s Day

On one day a year, you can get close to the Soo Locks:

Engineers Day

Camera: Nikon D70

In June of every year the Corps of Engineers holds an open house at the Soo Locks, and thousands of fans show up to explore the grounds, view the passing ships from an unusual perspective, and look over the exhibits. Yesterday was that day, and Joan and I were among the crowd. Here we see some of the visitors crossing the massive gate which holds back Lake Superior at the the downriver end of the 105 foot wide Poe Lock.

While Sault Ste. Marie is an ancient city by North American standards–the first white settlers arrived in the 1500s, and there’s been a city at this location since 1638–the event which defines the modern Sault occurred on June 18, 1855, when a ship named the Illinois traversed the then-new Soo Locks and opened traffic between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes–thus connecting the Lake Superior iron and copper mines to the eastern United States. The locks have been rebuilt and expanded since then, but the traffic’s been constant, and constitute an important part of the American economy.

They’re celebrating the sesquicentennial this summer, and the celebration began yesterday. We missed the opening ceremony, but had a fine time wandering the grounds and watching as St. Clair and Herbert C. Jackson passed through the locks yesterday.