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Tall Ships on Lake Superior

Detail from a photograph of the John S. Parsons—the last three-masted schooner launched on the Great Lakes—sailing among the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands ca. 1892. (Image: Richard F. Palmer)

Despite this, some historians regard the Algonquin as “the first vessel to trade at the head of the lakes.” The schooner was built in 1839 and in 1840 it was portaged around the rapids of the St. Mary River, which connects Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, using “rollers” (likely logs). Some claim that until the locks at Saulte Ste. Marie opened in 1855, the Algonquin monopolized commercial traffic on Lake Superior, but according to the city of Saulte Ste. Marie, the vessels built at Point Aux Pins and at least nine other schooners were on Lake Superior in 1846. (The Algonquin was abandoned in 1865 at Superior, Wisconsin.)

By the time the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe opened Lake Superior’s North Shore to American settlement and the locks at Saulte St. Marie opened the following year, the shipping world was already transforming from sail to steam. The financial Panic of 1857 and the onset of the Civil War a few years later delayed most settlement—and therefore ship traffic—in the region until the mid-1860s.

A boom in ship-building followed the Civil War, and during this time shipwrights made three-masted barquentines 150- to 170-feet in length—nearly double the size of their predecessors—indicating a shift in shipping. As the country became crisscrossed with more and more railroads, the lakes would become the highway for salt, grain, coal, and lumber. The new vessels were designed as freighters to carry these and other bulk goods.

In March 1870 Duluth first became a city. That same year the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad finished its connection from Duluth to St. Paul and built a warehouse, grain elevator, dock, and breakwater at the very corner of Lake Superior, along the shore between Third and Fourth Avenues West.

A year earlier shipbuilding had begun in Duluth. Lewis Merritt, his son Alfred, and Henry Ely built the Chaska, a seventy-two-foot-long, forty-nine-ton schooner—the first vessel built at the Head of the Lakes and the largest ship in Duluth at the time. The Merritts used her to haul stones from Basswood Island to Ontonagon, Michigan, where the federal government used them to build a new pier. The Duluth Minnesotian heralded the Chaska’s arrival at Duluth’s Citizen’s Dock on its maiden voyage from Oneota (now part of West Duluth) in the May 21, 1870 edition of the paper, predicting that “in a decade, when innumerable vessels crowd our docks, all will point with pleasure to our first maritime offering—the ‘Chaska.’” But in 1880, there would be no Chaska to point to: The vessel encountered a “northeastern gale” was battered to pieces among the rocks off the shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on August 28, 1871.

In 1874 the Merritt’s built a smaller vessel, the 29-ton Handy, which Alfred Merritt described as a “scow schooner.” With this new vessel, the Merritts spent three summers trading up and down the north shore and along the south shore all the way to the Copper Country of the Upper Peninsula. There is no mention of the Handy after 1878, the same year the Merritts purchased the tug John Martin.

The Lyman B. Davis was the last true sailing vessel to serve on the Great Lakes; it was purposely destroyed in 1934. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index)

By this time, schooners were already on their way out. Throughout the 1880s, bulk freighters powered by both sail and steam and steam-powered vessels such as the Meteor took passengers and goods to and from Duluth. In 1878 Napoleon Grignon opened his first shipyard along Minnesota Point at Buchanan Street in what is today the Canal Park Business District, later moving his operation to the foot of Eleventh Avenue West. By 1880 his focus had already moved away from wooden sailing vessels as he purchased Henry Wheeler’s dry dock facilities and incorporated the Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Company, turning his attention to metal-clad, steam-powered vessels.

The construction of fully-rigged sailing vessels on the Great Lakes declined heavily in the 1880s, and 1891 saw the launching of the last large schooner on the lakes, the 115-foot, three-masted John S. Parsons. It was converted to a steam barge just five years later, and by 1910 was used as a toe barge. She foundered off Oswego, New York, in November 1913 and broke up.

Any sail-powered craft built for the Great Lakes after 1891 had short masts and were used as tow-barges; few of these measured up to three hundred feet. A handful of schooners continued into the twentieth century, but were rarely profitable.

Schooners Our Son and Lyman M. Davis were the last commercial sailing vessels to ply the Great Lakes. Our Son was built in Loraine, Ohio, in 1875 by Captain Henry Kelly. Her name came out of tragedy: Kelly’s son George had fallen overboard and drowned while the vessel was still under construction. She served the great Lakes for 55 years, foundering on Lake Michigan 30 miles of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on September 26, 1930; its seven-member crew was rescued by the steamer William Nelson.

Built in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1873, the Lyman M. Davis worked the Great Lakes even longer than Our Son. On June 29, 1934—despite efforts to preserve her—she was burned “as public spectacle” at Sunnyside Park, Toronto, Ontario. She had been loaded with dry wood and “tinder-like crates” and soaked with eight barrels of coal oil; her deck and rigging had been outfitted with “powerful bombs and rockets.” A tug towed her away from shore and at midnight she was set ablaze while a crowd of thousands looked on. The local newspaper described the destruction: “As the fire burned into her vitals, the bombs and rockets were ignited. The explosions fanned out in great sheets of flames and sparks and out from the burning ship rockets rose high and cut into the blackness of the upper sky.” Before she even burned to the waterline, the Lyman M. Davis was towed to deeper water; dynamite blew a hole in her hull and she dropped to the bottom. She was the last commercial schooner in commission on the Great Lakes.

The Leif Erikson replica Viking ship passing through the Duluth Ship Canal on June 23, 1927. (Image: Tom Kasper)

Since that time, sailed vessels that have visited the Zenith City (or have called the port home) have for the most part been small pleasure craft or reconstructions of historic vessels. In fact, a few years before the loss of Our Son, Duluth celebrated the arrival of the first reconstruction of a historic sailing vessel to reach Duluth: the Leif Erikson.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.