More of a Train than a Boat

The Incan Superior

The Incan Superior’s sleek, low profile sometimes made her tough to spot when moving through the harbor. Her basic black and white paint job was offset by just a touch of blue in the logos painted on each end. The top of the car deck was actually mineral red. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)

One of the most unique lake vessels to sail through the Twin Ports was the M/V Incan Superior. While it operated from 1974 to 1992, this vessel and its operations are often overlooked in the history of shipping on Lake Superior. She was a railroad car ferry—a flat decked rail car carrying ship—that operated on the big lake hauling railroad cars between Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada and Superior, Wisconsin. Essentially, the Incan Superior was more of a train than a boat.

The Lake Superior Terminal & Transfer Railway—or Terminal—operated exclusively within Superior, Wisconsin with their main headquarters located in Superior Union Depot. Its colorful locomotives featured a Great Northern Railway inspired paint scheme and their bright red cabooses couldn’t be missed. The Terminal’s role was to service harborfront properties, including the Incan Superior dock, and to deliver railroad cars to and from the other railroads in Superior. Since the Terminal handled cars to all the major railroads in Superior the traffic base could go any direction out of Superior. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)

The Incan Superior was a Canadian vessel owned by Incan Ships, Ltd. and built by Burrard Dry Dock Company in North Vancouver, British Columbia and designated as a ferry. With twin screw propellors powered by twin General Motors diesel engines of 2,150 horsepower each, she was capable of reaching speeds of 30 knots, making her the fastest freight carrying ship on the Great Lakes. Made of steel, she was 373 feet long, 66 feet wide, had a depth of 23 feet, with a gross tonnage of 3,838. Flat-decked railroad car ferries like the Incan Superior have served railroads since the turn of the last century. Most of them were locally built, slow moving, worked across rivers, bridged islands, or connected two communities—sometimes in different states. But none were as streamlined, as powerful, as fast, or as widely traveled as the Incan Superior—not during her days on Lake Superior.

Car ferry operations usually include several empty cars used as idlers between the locomotive and the revenue freight cars. The idea was to keep the very heavy locomotive off of the loading apron while loading and unloading cars. This view shows the four ex-Northern Pacific boxcars that were used as idlers at the Incan Superior dock. They were stenciled Incan 1, 2, 3, and 4 with car 4 just ahead of the locomotive and car 1 being first onto the boat. In later years of operations these old 40 foot cars were scrapped and replaced by 50 foot cars from the Chicago & North Western Railway. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)

Launched on February 28, 1974, the Incan Superior made the long trip from North Vancouver down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, up the eastern seaboard, down the St. Lawrence Seaway, and across the Great Lakes to her new home in Thunder Bay. Upon arrival a crew quickly readied her for her first loading. The whole reason for Incan Superior‘s existence was to allow the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) to create a revenue stream from the blossoming paper industry. Large quantities of newsprint paper were needed in the U.S. Although Thunder Bay’s Great Lakes Paper Company was producing paper and pulp needed south of the Canadian border, CP had no direct rail route into Duluth or Superior to ship those products to the U.S. So instead of building a new railroad line CP created a direct rail-water link using a car ferry system between Thunder Bay and Superior.

The Incan Superior was designed to load and unload from the aft end of the vessel. On approach to her slip, the boat would turn in the harbor basin, then gently back into the loading dock. Once snug against the dock the apron would be lowered to align the tracks on the ground with the tracks on the ship’s deck. The special pulleys and cables were part of a modernized version of the old Lidgerwood Company’s electric friction-drum winches specially designed to handle the needs of car ferry operations. As the boat was loaded or unloaded the angle of the apron would tilt and shift. Wind, weather, and water levels could effect things too. The Lidgerwood winches would automatically tighten or loosen their grip on the apron and vessel to keep the tracks aligned to prevent derailments of the train cars as they moved on and off the boat. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)

The CP handled the railroad switching chores in Thunder Bay, moving empty train cars off of the boat and placing loads back in their place. The Lake Superior Terminal & Transfer Railway (LST&T or Terminal) in Superior performed the exact opposite ballet, taking the loaded cars off the boat and replacing them with empties. Vessel loading and unloading was always accomplished under the watchful eye of the ship’s captain. The deck of the Incan Superior was fitted with five tracks that could carry up to 32 40-foot boxcars or 26 50-foot boxcars. Loaded cars carrying newsprint paper rolls would make the southbound trip from Thunder Bay to Superior.; empty boxcars made the return trip from Superior to Thunder Bay. In later years of operation the cargo carried by Incan Superior wasn’t strictly newsprint. Chemical tanks cars and covered hopper carloads of grain and fertilizer occasionally made the trip as well. This was especially true after newsprint revenue began to decline during the 1990s due to increasing all-rail and truck competition. Generally speaking it took about four hours for the railroad crews to unload and reload the vessel at either end of the trip. The Incan Superior usually left Thunder Bay at about 8 p.m., arriving in Superior pretty close to noon the following day.

At Superior the loaded cars from Thunder Bay have already been removed in this view. Each track of cars was taken to the top of the hill and left parallel to Winter Street. The cars at right are the empty cars that will return to Thunder Bay. They were placed here earlier in the day by the Terminal’s switch crew. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)

The first voyage to Superior occurred June 12, 1974. Captain Dick Metz, who sailed on the Incan Superior during her first seven years as Mate—making 693 trips and racking up 277,200 miles between the two cities—recounts many stories about his work on the Incan Superior in his book Sea Stories—Recollections of Life on the Great Lakes. Of the events on June 12, 1974, Metz wrote, “On our first trip to Superior, we had a deck load of only one rail car as a test. As we entered the break wall at Superior with flags blowing steadily into the wind, a group of small craft came out to escort Incan through the piers and along the inside harbor to Duluth. Television helicopters flew overhead taking pictures, various tugboats and ships blew whistle salutes, and high-pressure water hoses shot streams of water far into the air.”

Passing through the Superior Entry with an escort was one thing, but properly docking a floating portable rail line for the first time was a tense undertaking, as Metz explains:

“The Captain backed Incan up to the [loading] ramp. Now the big test was to begin. The rail track on the ramp was built in Superior, Wisconsin. And the track on the ship’s deck was built 2,000 miles away in Vancouver, British Columbia. When the ramp was lowered to the deck of the ship, the tracks were supposed to match up so the rail cars could be loaded or unloaded. But would they? All the bigwigs scurried up the ramp to check on the track lineup. To their great surprise, each set of tracks lined up perfectly. A loud cheer went up, and everybody was congratulating everybody else and slapping each other on the back. The one lonely rail car ran over the tracks, down the ramp, and onto the shore. Everything worked. The bigwigs headed [downtown] for their cocktails and feast, and we secured the ship for the night. Our crew went uptown for beer and pretzels.”

The Incan Superior’s car deck had five tracks. In order to keep the ship from capsizing during loading the first track to load was always the center track, then the two outboard tracks since they were the two shortest tracks, and finally the tracks in between. Here we see a man pacing the cars as they are loaded onto the boat. He will radio the engineer on the locomotive to slow down and stop as the cars approach the nose of the boat. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)

The slip that Incan Superior operated into in Superior was known during its day as the Incan Railcar Transfer Dock. Prior to that it was known as Berwind Fuel Company Dock No. 1, where bituminous and anthracite coal was off-loaded from ships and stored on the ground for railroad, industrial and home heating use. Today this location is known as Hallett Dock 8 located just west of the huge Midwest Energy Resources coal trans-loading facility. Historically, railroad tracks of the Terminal, Great Northern, and Burlington Northern have served this dock.

The Incan Superior ended her operations on Lake Superior in 1992 after her last run from Superior to Thunder Bay on November 19, 1992. It was the last leg of an astonishing 2,386 trips between the two Lake Superior cities. This end became inevitable when a competing land-based railroad route, operated by Canadian National Railway became a less-expensive method of moving the same cargoes. A new U.S. federal tax was to go into affect, applied to each rail car carried over the water between the two countries by vessels such as the Incan Superior. The tax rendered the vessel unprofitable to operate, and the entire program was quickly abandoned.

In November 1992 the Seaspan Costal Intermodal Company became the new owner of the Incan Superior. Seaspan brought her back to British Columbia, again via the long trip through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Panama Canal. There she began car ferry operations for CP in the Straits of Georgia, hauling rail cars and road vehicles between Vancouver and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Her appearance changed a bit when her bow was cut down to allow loading and unloading from either end of the vessel. She continues in this type of service today.

During her career on Lake Superior, countless onlookers watched the Incan Superior pass through the Superior Entry or the Duluth Ship Canal, and many snapped a picture or two as she glided by. While she is no longer part of the activity of the Twin Ports, she is still in service and remains an important part of Duluth-Superior’s transportation past.

[Scroll down for more photos…]

Each month on Zenith City Online Jeff Lemke traces the ongoing history of railroads that served the Twin Ports from 1870 to today. Catch up with his past installments here, and visit his fascinating site, Twin Port Rail History, here.

The operating bridge of the Incan Superior formed a partial tunnel over the rail cars. While many other modern car ferries had fully enclosed car decks this one was built with a minimalist approach to keep the boat light and fast. When she was in service on Lake Superior she could make 30 knots with her twin propellers and twin General Motors 2,150 HP diesel engines. Each of the white deck anchors are where chains would be applied to hold fast each rail car. If rough weather was expected enroute there was a great deal of work to be done to secure each car. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)
Here’s a close-up view of the chains and ratchets used to secure rail cars to the deck. Believe it or not, during good weather, the ship usually ran with just a couple of cars tied down at either end of each track. But airbrakes and handbrakes were available on each rail car too so there was always more than enough effort put into securing the deck load to make sure it stayed on the boat. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)
Here’s a view of the Incan Superior’s Captain supervising the loading of cars at Superior. Even though the boat and apron seem to be fighting a losing battle against the weight of the freight cars, he’s hardly concerned about the pitch of the vessel at this point. Everything will be fine when they’re finished loading—a process this boat’s various crews experienced 2,386 times between 1974 and 1992 while the ferry was in operation on Lake Superior. (Image: Jeff Lemke, Twin Ports Rail History)
Railroad car ferries began operating almost as soon as railroads were built. There was always a need to move rail cars across bodies of water, especially rivers, and the car ferry system eliminated the need to build expensive bridges that would otherwise end up as hazards to navigation. Ferries like the steam powered paddle-wheel Ontario pictured here were the forerunners to modern era, diesel powered boats. Simple designs persevered. The car ferry was always about moving freight from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
No railroad or marine operation began without a source of revenue. For the Incan Superior that revenue came from moving large rolls of newsprint paper (and paper pulp) from the paper plant in Thunder Bay to many points across the United States. (Image: Twin Ports Rail History Collection)
A terrific location in Duluth for boat spotting has always been the Duluth Ship Canal. The organized loading of the Incan Superior’s five deck tracks is obvious in this view taken from the operator’s cabin of the Aerial Lift Bridge. Rail cars were loaded and unloaded from the same end. The high bow was designed to cope with Lake Superior’s winds and waves as the ship journeyed between Canada and the US. (Image: Courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
Always loaded to maximum capacity the Incan Superior handled up to 32 forty-foot boxcars when she first went into service. In later years, as the aging fleet of forty-foot railroad cars were retired, more modern fifty-foot cars were used instead. She could handle 26 of these cars at one time. (Image: Courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
View of the Incan Superior’s first load at Thunder Bay on June 12, 1974—a single railroad car. If you look closely you’ll see that the car is not only chained down but also has diagonal metal braces bolted to the deck to hold the train car in place. Nobody was sure if things would work properly on the first run from Thunder Bay to Superior so things were done very carefully to insure a good outcome. In the end, everything worked just fine, and that single railroad car rolled safely onto the shore at Superior, Wisconsin to begin a new adventure in commerce within the Twin Ports. (Image: Courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
With the sun setting in the west the Incan Superior makes another journey north to Thunder Bay. After loading she left her slip in Superior, carefully navigated by the old Wisconsin Draw Bridge, passed under the Blatnik High Bridge, made her way through the Duluth Harbor Basin, and exited the Duluth Ship Canal under the watchful eye of the operator on the Aerial Lift Bridge. Countless thousands of visitors to Canal Park watched the Incan Superior pass by too. Many of them may have wondered what her story might have been. To be sure, it was a story of success. As with all things—nothing lasts forever. Incan Superior had a good run in the Twin Ports and is another legend of transportation that won’t soon be forgotten in Duluth or Superior. (Image: Courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)


The Incan Superior

10 Responses to More of a Train than a Boat

  1. Hi John –
    I would consider that highly unlikely given the simple fact that this car ferry was being used under contract to move rolls of paper between Canada and the US and it only made one trip each day. It handled some grain too. But that traffic would have been stopped completely to load passenger cars onto the boat. Frankly, very few passenger cars would have been able to fit onto her deck. Meaning that the boat would have been tied up for weeks and weeks in order to transport that kind of load, instead of her usual consignment. Given the limited capacity of this boat and the commitment it had to satisfy existing contracts to move standard freight I can’t imagine a scenario where that would have been possible. My photo collection includes no images of Mexican passenger cars in Superior, Wisconsin and had they been there I’m pretty sure someone, including the local newspapers, would have taken photographs of such an unusual cargo. But as they say, nothing is impossible. Thanks for your question. Cheers!

  2. Great article. A question to field: did the Incan Superior transport newly built railcars from the Hawker Siddeley plant to Superior for transfer to US railroads? Most specifically would like to know if the 200+ coaches built for National Railways of Mexico during the late 1970’s were ferried to Superior and then rode the rails to their final

  3. In its heydey, the PRR operated a similar vessel across the mouth of the Chesapeak Bay, connecting the Delmarva Peninsula and Virnginia’s Tidewater region; and inching the PRR a little further south than its noted Washington, DC southern terminus.

  4. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for enriching this story with your experiences as a Burlington Northern switch man. Whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living, of course I tell them I work for the railroad. Then they always ask the same question: “So what exactly do you do on the railroad?” As your story indicates Joel, we do a lot of things that nobody could ever imagine, like breaking ice off of railroad cars and ships with hammers! The #1 job on the railroad is staying safe. The #2 job is, I think, problem solving.

    Great addition to my story. Thanks.


    Jeff Lemke

  5. I loaded and unloaded the Incan as a BN Switchman perhaps a dozen times. One was quite noteworthy. They came in from a big late season storm on the lake. The cars were coated with 5″-6″ of ice all on one side. The boat had a scary-bad list and the crew was never so glad to get to dock. They easily could have been new statistics for the gails of November!
    We had a terrible time unloading because of the “listing”. We also spent hours with ballpeen hammers knocking the ice off the nuckles and hoses to connect the cars back together.

  6. Hi John –

    I suppose that it sounded a lot like two diesel locomotives running flat out. If you look closely in one of my photos you can see the two exhaust stacks, near the rear of the boat, where the logos were painted on. Inside the harbor at Duluth it was a quiet boat. But on the lake making speed I’m sure it was something of a noise-maker. Thanks for your input.


  7. I remember I could tell she was coming before I could see her. I lived on the lake just north of Two Harbors and it was the noisiest ship I ever heard.

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