June 25, 2017

The Whalebacks

Dana Mathewson

We got a glimpse into tough way of life. Took a tour yesterday of the only surviving "whaleback" steamer, the SS Meteor, moored in Superior, WI. Launched in 1896 as the next-to-the-last of its kind, it stayed in service longer than any other whaleback, finally being taken out of service in the early 1960's and converted into a museum. In its last manifestation it was an oil carrier, and it had most of the modern amenities such as radar and radio. Looking around, it appeared to be pretty comfortable, all things considered (after all, they wanted to keep the same crewmen coming back to sail on her). The beds didn't have mattresses but they looked decent enough. Certainly a lot nicer than the hammocks the British Navy used to use! The tour guide blew the whistle and they must have heard it twenty miles away! What a beautiful sound!

Her designer, Capt. Alexander McDougall, had a number of innovative designs to his credit, not limited to the whaleback steamship and whaleback barge. (In the late 1800's, the best way to haul a lot of cargo was with a loaded steamer towing a loaded barge.) Later, as locks were widened and deepened, it became more economical to build larger ships, and due to their design, whalebacks could only be built to a certain length. After 1896 or so, no more were built.

Among other things, McDougall designed a very innovative rudder. Also some ahead-of-their-time warships and machinery that never were put into production.

Whalebacks were designed for the Great Lakes, but -- mission creep being alive and well in those days too -- one actually went down the St. Lawrence (in the days before the Seaway, basically acting like a whitewater raft), down the Atlantic Coast all the way to Cape Horn (this being in the days before the Panama Canal), through the Straights and up the Pacific Coasts of South and North America to eventually deliver cargo to the Pacific Northwest. McDougall would have been proud of that feat!

Great Lakes ships tended to do poorly out on the ocean because the distance between swells is greater there and it stresses hulls differently. Nowadays ships can apparently be designed for both environments. My mother and my aunt once watched a couple of "salties" pass eastward through the Welland Canal. The first was a Danish cargo hauler that, I later learned, had been on Superior and had helped search for the Edmund Fitzgerald the night she went down.

And that's your nautical lesson for the day.

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