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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LAKE TRANSPORTATION - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

LAKE TRANSPORTATION. The Great Lakes transportation industry has had a major impact on Cleveland, and conversely, the city has played a significant role in its development over the years. The south shore of Lake Erie provides the outlet for many rivers; historically, a town developed at the mouth of most of them. Only 3--Toledo, Cleveland, and Buffalo--emerged as major cities, with water transportation as the focus. For all 3, the catalyst was canal construction, with each serving as a terminal point. Although the inception of the railroad allowed other communities along Lake Erie's shore to compete with Cleveland for lake navigation business, the city's strategic location led to the development of a thriving shipbuilding industry. With the advent of large-scale steel manufacturing and its accompanying demand for large capital investment, lake transportation became more specialized. Dockside equipment and specially designed ships capable of handling heavy bulk commodities such as iron ore and coal were introduced. Thus, the historical relationship between the Great Lakes maritime industry and the local Cleveland scene experienced 3 relatively distinct stages.

The first 4 decades of lake transportation in Cleveland (ca. 1800-40) were typical of the lake trade generally. Even though the steamboat made its first appearance off the mouth of the CUYAHOGA RIVER in 1818, there was no noticeable impact until better harbor facilities were built. For another decade Cleveland remained largely a way port for the sidewheel steamers running between Buffalo and Detroit. The town basically was serviced by small 2-masted schooners, some of them locally built. They ranged in size from 44' to 90' in length, the size of a modern tugboat or good-sized yacht. Their trade was locally oriented; they brought manufactured products to the community and took on locally grown produce for their outbound cargo. Many schooners were owned on a percentage basis by local merchants and forwarding agents in consortium with their counterparts in Buffalo. Prominent among Clevelanders in this role were Charles M. Giddings and Noble Merwin.

In 1841 the Ericsson screw propeller Vandalia revolutionized lake steam navigation; the propeller wheel, located at the stern, pushed the ship through the water. The steam propeller, relatively cheap to build and to operate, had several advantages. It carried an increased payload, was more maneuverable, and was of a shallow draft, satisfying the physical limitations imposed by Cleveland's undeveloped river and lakefront harbor conditions. All of these characteristics tied in nicely with the warehouses, grain elevators, and other docks built along the banks of the Cuyahoga and the Old River Bed to accommodate the prosperous canal years. The screw propeller also made the steam tug feasible, which meant schooners could be towed through the narrow river entrance, along the winding river, past other vessels lying at docks, to their destination.

With the, added benefit of strong stands of white oak in central and southern Ohio, the Forest City became one of the leading wooden-shipbuilding centers on the Great Lakes, rivaling even Buffalo. Large numbers of both sailing vessels and propellers were built in Cleveland. Production of new ships during the period 1846-70 was influenced by 3 factors: rising freight rates, particularly in the grain trade; construction of railroad-owned lake fleets to serve as connecting links in transporting passengers and freight; and the replacement of ships in the lake fleets when disasters caused extensive losses. The emergence of Cleveland as a shipbuilding center, along with its advantage as a canal terminus and, ultimately, the north-south railroad connection to southern Ohio coal fields, ushered in the prosperous lake-shipping period that followed the end of the Civil War.

The exploitation of the iron-mining districts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in the 1860s through the 1880s made Cleveland the "hub" of the Great Lakes maritime industry, previously dominated by Buffalo and Chicago with their extensive grain interests. During the late 1840s and 1850s, 4 Cleveland firms and their predecessors were pioneers in this development. The CLEVELAND-CLIFFS INC., PICKANDS MATHER & CO., M. A. HANNA CO., and the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. (later American Steel & Wire) brought the steel-manufacturing industry to Cleveland. The complete regional bulk transportation industry, which included loading and unloading docks, river and harbor improvements, shipyards, fleets of specially designed bulk freighters, and RAILROADS required huge capital expenditures. All were necessary to transport iron ore, coal, and limestone from the mines to the steel plants in the most cost-efficient manner possible.

In 1869 the Cleveland shipbuilding firm of Peck & Masters built the first ship designed specifically for the iron-ore trade, the 211-ft. wooden-propeller R. J. Hackett, with the pilothouse at the bow, followed a year later by a schooner barge, the Forest City. During the same period, Clevelander Robert Wallace, of Wallace, Pankhurst & Co., built a portable steam engine to assist in unloading iron ore along the docks lining the Old River Bed, replacing horses and cutting the time in half. A 400-ton cargo now could be unloaded in 1 day. By 1880 federal harbor-improvement appropriations dramatically improved Cleveland's facilities, as a west breakwall was built into the lake to protect the river entrance from prevailing northwesterly winds and waves. In that same year, Cleveland docks received over 750,000 tons of iron ore. Clevelander Alexander E. Brown devised an improved hoisting machine that enabled the heavy ore to be unloaded directly from ship to railroad cars or to dock storage areas. By the late 1890s, the Hulett ore unloader had been introduced (see GEORGE H. HULETT† and ). With each innovation, the turnaround time was significantly reduced for ships, enabling them to head back up the chain of lakes for more cargo.

A river and harbors act, passed by Congress in 1892, guaranteed a 20' channel from Duluth to Buffalo. By that time, Cleveland had added a central breakwall and had nearly completed an east leg to provide protection for the growing maritime trade of the city. By 1890 Cleveland also was well established as a principal builder of steel-hulled ships. Robert Wallace and his associates, owners of the Globe Iron Works, formed Globe Shipbuilding in 1880. In 1882 the Globe Works launched the iron-hulled Onoko, the prototype for the Great Lakes ore fleet, and 4 years later they built the first steel-hulled bulk carrier on the lakes, the Spokane. That same year, 1886, Cleveland ore receipts exceeded 1 million tons. The closest rival in the ore trade was Ashtabula, whose rail connections fed the steel centers of the Mahoning Valley. Between 1886-90 the number of steel-hulled ships jumped from 6 to 68--most were owned by Cleveland-based shipping companies.

Very early in this movement MARCUS A. HANNA† began the Cleveland Transportation Co., and Hanna Co. owned or operated vessels in the ore and coal trades up to the 1980s. As a sign of the times, the Vermilion, OH, trio of shipbuilders/vessel owners Philip Minch, Isaac Nicholas, and Alva Bradley moved their operations to Cleveland during the early 1880s, investing in steel-shipbuilding companies and steel-hulled ships. From that evolved the Kinsman Marine Transit Co. (See AMERICAN SHIP BUILDING CO.). Other prominent independent vessel owners and operators, each of which controlled several ships by 1900, were the WILSON TRANSIT CO., Gilchrist Transportation Co., Hawgood Transit, the Corrigan interests, Bessemer Steamship Co., Pittsburgh Steamship Co., Bradley Transit Co., and HUTCHINSON AND CO. Thus the pattern was established that lasted until after World War II. Steel-hulled ships replaced wooden ones, and sailing ships disappeared. Corporate mergers occurred, names changed, and new companies appeared. But Cleveland remained the center of the Great Lakes bulk transportation industry.

At the same time as the ore trade increased in Cleveland, so too did the shipping of bituminous coal. Coal often meant a return cargo for vessels heading back up the lakes, especially to Milwaukee and Lake Superior ports. From 1890-1945 Cleveland averaged annual shipments of over 1 million tons of coal, most of it transported in Cleveland-owned hulls. Until shortly after the turn of the century, another important commodity to Cleveland marine operations was the receipt of lumber from the upper lakes. Although Cleveland could not compete with Tonawanda, NY, as a lumber port, it reached its zenith in 1892 by receiving over 7 million board feet. After that, the trade dropped, off rapidly as the timber resources disappeared.

The Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Co. inaugurated regular overnight passenger service between Detroit and Cleveland in 1869. It lasted until 1951. The huge sidewheel steamers were a familiar and popular sight, first as they docked near the old Main St. bridge over the Cuyahoga River, and later at the elaborate terminal constructed on the lakefront at E. 9th St. The CLEVELAND & BUFFALO TRANSIT CO., incorporated in 1892, also operated sidewheelers--to Buffalo, Toledo, the Lake Erie islands, and Cedar Point until it ceased operations in 1939, the victim of the automobile.

As the Great Lakes shipping industry became more organized and centralized in Cleveland, the city also became the regional headquarters of various support organizations. In 1880 the Cleveland Vessel Owners Assn. was formed to protect and to promote the interests of the shipping companies, evolving into the LAKE CARRIERS ASSN. in 1892. The U.S. Coast Guard 9th District, covering all of the Great Lakes, has its headquarters in Cleveland, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also maintains a depot at the foot of E. 9th St.

The period following World War II has seen many changes in the Great Lakes shipping business. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, and many agents maintained offices in Cleveland. The appearance of the lakefront docks changed as warehouses and coal docks were dismantled to make way for other dock facilities to better serve the ocean-going vessels. The lake's transportation industry underwent dramatic changes because of restructuring in the steel industry. Iron ore shipments dropped dramatically in the 1970s. Several fleets disappeared, including those operated by M. A. Hanna and Cleveland-Cliffs. The last of Cliffs' vessels is now a museum ship docked at the E. 9th St. Pier (see STEAMSHIP WILLIAM G. MATHER MUSEUM). Others in the 1980s reduced the number of vessels in operation. The increase in size of lake vessels offset some of the reduction in numbers of ships. Diesel-powered 1000-footers were built at nearby Lorain shipyards and elsewhere. These vessels were much too long and wide (105') to navigate the Cuyahoga River. Smaller vessels of 600-700' now carry iron ore to the modernized LTV Steel mills. Economic recovery by 1994 resulted in the movement of 115 million tons of cargo on the Great Lakes by the 58 U.S. flagged ships--the highest total since 1988. Stone, cement, coal, and iron ore remain mainstays of waterborne transportation in Cleveland. The GREAT LAKES TOWING CO., incorporated in 1899, once held a near monopoly on lake towing. The company operates a repair yard on WHISKEY ISLAND. Four Hulett unloaders stand at the adjacent Cleveland and Pittsburgh ore dock, no longer in operation because self-unloading vessels replaced the older, "straight deckers." Revival of the traffic in bulk cargo, primarily iron, ore, has kept Cleveland at the heart of the transportation industry on the Great Lakes.

Richard J. Wright (dec.)

Timothy J. Runyan

Cleveland State Univ.

Havighurst, Walter. The Long Ships Passing (1972).

Thompson, Mark L. Steamboats and Sailors of the Great Lakes (1991).

Last Modified: 19 Aug 2002 06:55:18 PM

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