American Barge / McDougall-Duluth

Captain Alexander McDougall. (Image: Superior Public Museums)

Duluth has romantic place in Great Lakes shipbuilding history, mainly because of the extraordinary genius of Capt. Alexander McDougall, who comes into the story at this place because he also was involved in the Merritt failure, being the original principal of the American Barge Company, the more than thirty huge freight carriers of which company eventually passed to the Rockefeller interests.

The barge company, it was stated, “earned a net profit of twenty-two per cent on the par value of the company’s stock in 1892 and it certainly was unfortunate for Captain McDougall that he thought so confidently of the future of the Mesabi range that he consented to merge his shipping interests with the Merritt mining interests, so as thus to be sure of securing ample freight for his fleet. He adapted his shipbuilding to the Mesabi need, and no man knew Great Lakes shipping requirements, in general, better than he and his original trend of thought in reality put him so far ahead of his time that many of his inventions, in the way of freight and passenger vessels, were so unique, so unlike what the average mind had associated with sea-going, or lake voyaging vessels, that even their utility and proved practical success, could not overcome the average man’s prejudice against their unusual lines or designs. It was like the history of the cotton gin, so efficient and so sensational an advance on the hand method that for long it was thought of with suspicion. McDougall’s immense passenger boat “Christopher Columbus,” launched for the World Fair Trip, in 1893, was so economical in use, and carried such an enormous number of passengers that it was felt “something was wrong,” and the ship never really “came into its own.” The McDougall whaleback steamer, “C. W. Wetmore” (built at the Head of the Lakes in 1892, and looked upon wonderingly when she arrived in Liverpool, England, with the “track marks of Captain McDougall’s feet” found to be still in the wheat when the hatch was lifted to discharge the 90,000 bushels she had brought across the Atlantic with as little’ disturbance as though she had been ploughing through a mill-pond) should have brought the whaleback type of carrier immediately into world-wide favor, but its appearance was against it.

The whaleback Christopher Columbus—built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Exhibition—was the only whaleback outfitted as a passenger vehicle. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Nobody could gainsay its sea-worthiness, yet its submerged appearance when loaded-seeming to be but two steel buoys or cylinders with a bridge connecting-canceled its utility. The instinctive prejudice of sailormen could not be overcome.

But the emergency that came to the Head of the Lakes when the vast Mesabi ore deposits were uncovered, brought Captain McDougall to the fore with the proper type of ship for its economical carrying and expeditious trans-shipment.

T. W. Hugo, in his “Romance of Duluth,” wrote regarding Captain McDougall, in the Mesabi emergency, as follows: During this time the Great Weaver was busy with another bit of warp for Duluth’s magic industrial fabric. A Capt. Alexander McDougall, still a hale and hearty citizen of Duluth, conceived the idea of a new kind of ship, with which the transportation of grain and ore and coal might be facilitated.

This ship was nothing more than a huge barge, with living quarters for the crew and navigating apparatus at the extreme forward end, just over the bow, and the engine-room and all propelling machinery at the extreme stern.

This gave a clear midships area for the storage of cargo, and, because of its enormous carrying capacity, and the ease with which it could be loaded and unloaded, reduced charges to a minimum. *… This new type of boat made possible the development of a new type of dock for the loading of its cargo and the new type of dock for the unloading. The loading dock for iron ore is simply a huge platform, high above the water, onto which whole trains of ore cars are run. … They will go onto a dock between 1,000 to 2,500 feet long, having from 100 to approximately 400 pockets, or bins, directly under the railroad tracks, into which the ore is dumped as rapidly as the patent dumping cars can be tilted. The ore pockets of one of the new docks have a storage capacity of 112,200 tons of iron ore. These pockets are higher than the deck of the largest ship and are equipped with literally hundreds of chutes that are lowered into the holds of the vessel, as soon as it ties up, and the ore shot into the hold by gravity, the direction of the stream of ore being easily manipulated (so as to make hold-trimming, by hand, unnecessary).

290The unloading of the ore is accomplished by huge clam-shell buckets, of immense capacity, that are lowered into the hold and pick up tons of ore at one bite. Practically all coal is unloaded in the same manner from the type of ship Captain McDougall invented, and Duluth is the shipping point for all the coal used in the whole Northwest, boats going down the lakes with grain and coming back with coal.

Not in that emergency only was the genius of Capt. Alexander McDougall shown. Duluth then benefited, but in the recent great emergency—the World War of 1917-19—the nation also appreciably benefited by the shipbuilding enterprise of Duluth, headed at the outset by Captain McDougall and latterly by Julius H. Barnes. The Germans were sinking ships faster than they could be built, at least seemingly so, and certainly so under ordinary methods of building.

Then the fabrication of ships was thought of and the ships soon came from American yards at a rate that undoubtedly was nerve-wracking to the Germans, who had risked everything on the success of the ruthless and indiscriminate submarine campaign. ‘At Duluth, seemingly from nowhere, and with apparently very inexpensive ways, there soon were a dozen, or so, freighters of about 3,500 tons D.W., reaching completion, Captain McDougall’s plant at Riverside quickly finding employment for 4,500 men. During the period of pressure, the McDougall Duluth Company built forty ships of about 3,500 tons D.W. They went into the high seas by way of the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence River; some were torpedoed, but the bulk still belong to America’s merchant fleet. Duluth in shipbuilding, mainly through the initiative of Capt. Alexander McDougall, has gained a creditable place as a shipbuilding center. Today, there are five shipyards in the Duluth-Superior harbor, and with the passing from war-time building to peace-time requirements, the McDougall yards have been used for the building of freighters for European shipowners. Duluth has every prospect of becoming an important shipbuilding center, with “overseas” markets, if the proposed St. Lawrence Deep Waterway is carried through. That Duluth is capable of producing good ships quickly was proved during the war emergency. At one time during the most pressing period, a keel was laid at the McDougall yards every week or two, and the launching would take place three or four months later. For instance, the keel of the “Lady Helen” was laid February 26, 1918, and she was launched on the fourth of July.

The ships built at Duluth yards and eventually torpedoed were the “Maski,” renamed “Lakemoor,” and the “Lake Portage.” The “R. L. Barnes,” launched in 1917, was a striking instance of Captain McDougall’s originality of thought. The steamer has been described as “a sea-going canal boat.” The vessel, which is 258 feet long and proportionately broad, “was built without the use of bending rolls or furnace.” “The only furnace was a fire in a blacksmith shop, to heat a few plates for the stern of the ship. The erec- .tion was done by a couple of derricks, which hoisted the frames and plates into place. After the ship was built the two traveling derricks, which are mounted on wheels, were hoisted on board, and are now utilized for loading and unloading the ship. The “R. L. Barnes” is flat-bottomed, and went through the New York State barge canal into the Atlantic and proved a good seaboat. The “Scientific American” wrote as follows, in 1918, regarding the unique steamer: The “R. L. Barnes” is an example of utility carried to the utmost limit; and one misses of course the graceful, sheer and the faired-out lines of the standard type of ship; but after all this vessel is merely the logical and ultimate development of the typical Great Lakes freighter. … In this age of insistent demand for ships, the “R. L. Barnes” certainly offers attractive features in her cheap first-cost, great rapidity of erection, and large cargo carrying capacity. She probably will find it easier to breast the gales of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic than to make headway against the currents of incredulity and the heavy seas of human conservatism and hostility to the thing that is novel.

Duluth probably recognizes that in Captain McDougall they have a man who thinks ahead of his time., in matters of shipbuilding.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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