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March 16, 1845: Birth of Alexander McDougall

On this day in 1854, future Duluthian Alexander McDougall was born on Scotland’s Isle of Islay. He moved to Canada with his family as a boy. In 1861, sixteen-year-old McDougall took his first job as a deckhand on a Great Lakes freighter; by twenty-five he had command of his own ship. For twenty more years he worked the Great Lakes, adopting Duluth as his home. In 1888 he dove head-first into the shipbuilding industry. He designed and built a steel boat with a flat bottom “designed to carry the greatest cargo on the least water.” He rounded the top deck so water would run off and gave the bow a spoon shape to better cut through water; deck turrets allowed passage inside the ship’s hull. The design earned the vessels the nickname “Pig Boats,” but McDougall gave them a more noble title: “Whaleback.” McDougall’s American Steel Barge Company, first in Duluth and later in Superior, cranked out forty-three of them by 1898, when the last whaleback built, the Alexander McDougall, was launched. McDougall had grander plans for his boats beside transporting goods on the Great Lakes, including building a transatlantic mail carrier and a man-o’-war, but the whaleback design lost popularity. Size limitation doomed the future of whalebacks, but many of McDougall’s advances were employed in the modern ore boats that replaced his whalebacks. McDougall died in 1923. The last surviving whaleback, the S. S. Meteor, rests at Barker’s Island in Superior, Wisconsin, and has been restored as a museum. Read more about shipbuilding at the Head of the Lakes here.

Captain Alexander McDougall. (Image: Superior Public Museums)