Tall Ships on Lake Superior: 1734 – 2013

This Month's Feature Story

A popular repost, originally published August 2013, in honor of this week’s 2016 Duluth Tall Ships Festival.
An idealized sketch of the Griffon, the second sailing ship on the Great Lakes, launched in 1679. (Image: public Domain)

While historic and modern sail-powered vessels converge on Duluth this month for the 2016 Tall Ships Duluth festival, ships first sailed the Great Lakes in 1679, when Robert Sieur de La Salle built a seventy-foot galliot (some considered it a brigantine) on Cayuga Creek on the Niagara River and named it the Griffon. Like other early Great Lakes vessels—brigantines, schooners, and sloops—the Griffon was modeled after traditional European designs. It was the first full-sized ship the lakes had seen, replacing the smaller, single-decked Frontenac, which LeSalle also built, which went down on Lake Ontario in January, 1679. The Griffon was built to help LaSalle find the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The forty-five ton vessel was armed with seven cannon. It’s maiden voyage carried LaSalle and Father Lewis Hennepin all the way to green Bay, Wisconsin, but never went beyond Lake Michigan. LaSalle sent it back to Niagara loaded with furs in September of that year, but it vanished before reaching Lake Huron. It would be another 55 years before a tall ship would sail on Lake Superior.

Until Louis Denis Monsieur de LaRonde arrived at Saulte St. Marie nearly midway through the eighteenth century, shipping traffic on Lake Superior was limited to canoes and barge-like batteauxs, flat-bottomed vessels propelled by a single sail that worked well on rivers and was used by both native tribes and French voyageurs and missionaries. In 1734 de LaRonde established a ship building community along the St. Mary’s River at Point Aux Pins, six miles west of Saulte Ste. Marie in what was then known as New France (today it is both Michigan and Ontario). That year he built a twenty-five-ton vessel rigged with two sails, hoping 
to cash in on the copper mines he established at Ontonogan, Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula. But Michigan’s copper mines wouldn’t be functioning at a high enough capacity for another hundred years.

In 1771, Alexander Henry and Alexander Baxter built another forty-ton ship at Point Aux Pins to once again exploit copper mining, but they were also too early for Michigan’s copper mining industry. Beginning in 1786 the Northwest Company, a fur trapping firm, built several forty- to sixty-ton schooners at Point Aux Pins named the Athabaska, the Otter, the Perseverance, the Fur Trader, the Invincible, and the Discovery. Two other North West ships, the Mink and the Recovery, were built at Fort William, Ontario.

These early schooners were typically two-masted vessels with one or two square sails on the foremast and a gaff topsail on the main mast. Smaller sailing craft known as Mackinaw boats were also used, particularly in the fur trade. Early Mackinaws were modeled after native American canoes—prized for their light weight, speed, and cargo capacity—but were adapted to be more stable when fitted with a mast and sail. Mackinaws were the rule on Lake Superior at this time—until the 1820s fewer than five sailing vessels were in service on the big lake at any one time. (After the demise of the fur trade, they Mackinaws became the vessel of choice for commercial fishing.)

Following the War of 1812, during which they were used heavily, schooners became the Great Lakes vessels of choice. Most merchant ships built after the war and prior to 1830 were two-masted schooners. About seventy feet in length, each carried approximately 150 tons of cargo and required a crew of three or four men. Beginning in the 1830s brigantines—similar to schooners but with slightly different rigging—became popular, remaining so until about 1850. But they proved difficult to maneuver and required a crew twice the size of a schooner’s, so they were too expensive to operate at a profit.

This Month's Feature Story

5 Responses to Tall Ships on Lake Superior: 1734 – 2013

  1. Hi Tom! Unfortunately, I do not have nay further information on the William Brewster of the 19th century, but there was another William Brewster made at Butler Shipyards in Superior in 1943 for Great Britain. There is information about it on the Great Lakes Vessel Index, here: http://greatlakes.bgsu.edu/vessel/view/000804

  2. Tony – so glad you’re reprinting some of these old stories. I missed this the first time around. Have you any further information on the William Brewster produced out of Madeline island? Here’s why: William Brewster was the chaplain on the Mayflower in 1620. Henry Wheeler married Sarah Caroline Brewster, a direct descendant, in 1847 in New Diggings, Wisconsin. My middle name is Brewster. Furthermore, Sarah sailed from Green Bay to Bayfield with three children, ages 6,4, and 18 months. Arriving in November, they then sailed to Duluth in an open Mackinaw boat to meet up with Henry. Such were transportation travails of the time.

  3. One of the owners of the Algonquin was Antoine Gaudin (later “Americanized” to Gordon) of LaPointe who was half French and half Ojibwe. Antoine left LaPointe to establish a stopping place on the St. Croix Trail, an ancient land route alternative to the Brule-St.Croix Portage that was later improved upon by the military as a stage coach and mail delivery route to connect Fort Snelling with Lake Superior at LaPointe. That stopping place became what is today’s Gordon Wisconsin at the southern end of Douglas County. The anchor of the Algonquin exists to this day in Gordon with a descendent of Antoine Gordon. What else is little known is that the original one room hewn log cabin of Antoine Gordon still exists as well, now just one room of what became a larger home in the center of Gordon. It’s exact date of construction is unknown, but is believed to be from around 1854, making it one of the oldest extant structures in the region. It too is owned by a descendent of Antoine Gordon. Gordon’s “Main Street” (Moccasin Avenue) is a segment of the original St. Croix Trail. Antoine also established a mission for the Ojibwe in Gordon that is today’s St. Anthony Catholic Church, the center portion of the building being that original log mission. Antoine was widely politically and socially connected and fluently spoke English, French, and Ojibwe. Antoine died in Gordon in 1907 and I believe was 94 or 95 years old when he passed. The Superior Evening Telegram did a number of articles interviewing or recognizing Antoine prior to his passing as one of the early important figures of the region. As Antoine’s date of arrival in Gordon is unknown, in 1960 a Centennial celebration was formed (better late than never!), hence the belief that Gordon was logically then founded in 1860; however the actual date is believed to be mid 1850’s. Few today outside of Gordon know of Antoine, the significance of Gordon as this important stopping place, that these early log structures still exist, or that the anchor of the Algonquin is in Gordon.

  4. Thanks, Grant! I only wish we had images of, and more information about, the vessels your family built.

  5. Thank you, Tony, for a fascinating history of tall ships Lake Superior.

    Grant Merritt, grandson of Alfred Merritt

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