Passenger ships on the Great Lakes

Some of the first immigrants to the Great Lakes were Irish men who came without families. They built railroads and canals, and they sent for their families once they earned enough money. Scandinavians came with families to settle and purchase land. Others came to work the copper mines and for lumber companies.

Immigrants entering the Great Lakes via Canada landed at Quebec or Montreal. Many immigrants came by canal boats. The American route through New York City and the Erie canal would take them to Oswego, Rochester or Buffalo where they would book passage on a ship west.

By the 1840s settlement was along the shores of the Great Lakes except for Lake Superior where west of the Sault they still had primarily trading posts. After copper and iron ore were discovered, more immigrants from Europe moved to Canada and America in droves, as political upheaval or crop failures occurred throughout Europe.

There were famous passengers who sailed on Great Lakes ships. Charles Dickens crossed the Atlantic in Cunard’s ship the SS Britannia, and sailed on the Great Lakes on the SS Constitution. When Dickens sailed on the paddle wheeler Britannia, he was always sea sick.

Mark Twain sailed on the SS North Land bound for Mackinac Island and Duluth. Thomas Alva Edison sailed on the SS Ruby. Ernest Hemingway was often a passenger on Great Lakes steamers. In 1959 Queen Elizabeth II and President Eisenhower were together to celebrate the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Before the building of the canals around the Lachine Rapids in the St. Lawrence River, about 1820, passenger and freight ships could “shoot the rapids”! That made for an exciting passage! The first person to design a ship capable of shooting the rapids was shipbuilder and carpenter John McQuade from Ireland who settled in Kingston, Ontario, with his family.

A tidbit of early history about a passenger ship was in 1864 when Confederate raiders seized the Philo Parsons and the Island Queen to attempt to rescue Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island.

The whaleback Christopher Columbus was built in 1892 for the World’s Columbiana Exposition, a World’s Fair. She could carry 5,000 passengers. A whaleback was a type of cargo steamship of unusual design, with a hull that continuously curved above the waterline from vertical to horizontal. When fully loaded, only the rounded portion of the hull of the "whaleback" could be seen above the waterline. With sides curved in towards the ends, it had a spoon bow and a very convex upper deck.

The zenith of the Great Lakes passenger ship era was the 1850s to the 1950s. In Detroit, Michigan, in 1905, eight million passengers crossed Detroit docks. The ships carried freight as well as passengers.

The largest of the ships were the Greater Detroit and Greater Buffalo. They were 550 feet long and had 1,500 berths. The City of Cleveland III was built in 1907 and was an overnight sidewheeler between Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. It had magnificent murals, common rooms and accommodations.

The SS Aquarama, previously the Marine Star, became a WWII troop ship for the U.S. Navy. It had made only one trip across the Atlantic before hostilities ceased.

The Greater Buffalo, an aircraft carrier, was renamed the USS Sable; together with the Wolverine, they helped train 17,820 pilots in 116,000 carrier landings. One of the pilots who qualified on Sable was the 20-year-old Lt.(jg) future President George H.W. Bush in 1944.

Unfortunately, there were too many disasters on the Great Lakes. Six ships had fatalities, about 4,900 people died in seven disasters.

One of the worst was when The Eastland, based in Chicago and used for tours as well as passengers, rolled over alongside the dock when the passengers all moved to one side, unweighting the opposite side. About 848 passengers and crew were killed in what was the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

After the Eastland was salvaged, it was sold to the US Navy. Following restorations and modifications, the Eastland was designated a gunboat and renamed USS Wilmette. 

The era of the passenger ship ended for several reasons. These include the depression of the 1930s, ease of railroad travel, popularity of the automobile, and the desire of many to travel by aircraft. Fortunately, today there are new opportunities for people to see the lakes for short trips on small excursion boats from several Great Lakes cities. In Cleveland it is on board the Goodtime III. 

In conclusion, for those fortunate to have the money and time to travel, there will be several ships and companies from which they can choose. In 2023 there will be several passenger ships on the Great Lakes. They are Viking expeditions, Hapag Lloyd cruises, Pearl Seas cruises, and several others. 

George Ryan

A resident of Bay Village since 1975; retired as President Lake Carriers' Association; Master Mariner, interested in nature, politics, history, poetry and community affairs. He is an avid reader and appreciates the Bay Village Library.

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Volume 15, Issue 1, Posted 9:54 AM, 01.17.2023