The historic meeting of vessels occurred on a cloudy day in early August 1984 in a harbor on the Michigan Peninsula. At Huron Cement’s small harbor, the world’s two oldest coal-burning steamships of their size met the world’s oldest operable steam-powered cargo vessels. It was a momentous occasion that hardly anyone noticed.
This all happened in the sleepy little Michigan city of Alpena (population 40,000), located on the shores of Lake Huron, one hundred miles south of Sault Sainte Marie, at the Canadian border. The area first belonged to the Chippewa Indians, who used it as a place to send their exiles. In the 1870s, lumbering was the main activity.
The Kinsman Independent steams into the Huron facility to load cement. – (photo credit: Judy Howard)
Then the town’s druggist discovered he could make the newly discovered Portland cement by experimenting with the local lime. The residents of Alpena found themselves sitting on one of the largest limestone deposits in the United States. The availability of the necessary ingredients for cement and the excellent nautical transportation route supplied by the Great Lakes ensured Alpena’s future. Today it is an attractive town whose main employer, Huron Cement, still relies on these resources. Besides its interest in the welfare of the community, Huron Cement is proud of its fleet of old steamships, which they keep in excellent condition.
The Kinsman Independent and the Crapo puff side by side at Huron’s Alpena plant. These ships are among the very few coal-fired steamships still working. They are the survivors of a vanishing species that once sailed all of the world’s oceans. (photo credit: Judy Howard)
On that particular summer day in 1984, Huron Cement’s coal burner, the S.T. Crapo (built 1927; 4,769 gross tons), was loaded with cement for delivery to the company’s Saginaw distribution terminal. Meanwhile, the coal-burning Kinsman Independent came steaming into the same harbor loaded with 14,000 tons of cement for Huron’s facility at Superior, Wisconsin. The Independent (7,490 gross tons) was built in 1923 by American Shipbuilding Company of Lorain, Ohio, and is part of the Kinsman Lines fleet belonging to George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees baseball team.
A side street in the little city of Alpena, Michigan, located on the shores of Lake Huron. (photo credit: Judy Howard)
While these two coal burners were puffing away in the harbor, Huron’s E.M. Ford idled just outside in a lay-up slip. Built in 1898 by Cleveland Shipbuilding Company, E.M. Ford is the oldest operational large freighter left in the Great Lakes, and probably in the world, still in her original configuration. At 4,575 gross tons, she is a quadruple-expansion steamer. The original 1898 engine remains, although the Ford was converted from coal to oil in 1975.
The following day, the George A Sloan also steamed into Huron’s terminal to discharge 13,000 tons of petroleum coke for the company’s power plant. The Sloan was built in 1943 and owned by United States Steel.
Alpena’s Fieldstone House, located on majestic, tree-lined State Street, was hand-built in the early 1890s. (photo credit: Judy Howard)
Together, these four ships constitute a sizable portion of the fifteen steam-powered cargo vessels left in the United States and Canada. The Crapo and the Independent, the only coal burners still operating there, are very likely the only large coal-burning cargo vessels of their age left in the world. Those of us who care about old ships certainly hope that at least one of these vessels will be preserved when her services are terminated. Perhaps this cement-producing town will someday have a floating museum, a permanent monument to their meeting in Alpena.
The E.M. Ford is one of the oldest cargo vessel of her size, still in its original configuration, operating anywhere in the world. (photo credit: Judy Howard)
A chart of the Saginaw River shows its channel to be 200 feet wide. For a ship the size of the Crapo, though, only 100 to 150 feet of the channel’s width are usable. If a large vessel nears a channel wall, the slope of the embankment and the suction created by the ship’s propeller would produce a vacuum that in effect, pulls the vessel’s stern into the bank until she grounds. This fact is common knowledge among officers and wheelsmen. But, as the crew of the Crapo soon learns, to be aware of a challenge is one thing, but to overcome it in the few seconds before a ship grounds is something entirely different.
0126 hours. The Crapo enters the curve of the Saginaw River adjacent to the James Clement Airport. Her speed is down to five knots, which is about the slowest she can go and still maintain good rudder response. The curve itself is ninety degrees and encompasses about a mile-and-a-half of river. About half-way through the curve is a straight stretch with a fort-five-degree turn at each end.
A fireman uses a hoe to rake out the burned coal from the fireboxes. The used coal, called “clinkers,” must be removed before it can plug the air passages between the grate bars and retards the furnace’s efficiency. After it’s raked onto the deck, the clinkers are extinguished with a hose. The fire room fills with ash when the fireboxes are raked. The fireman break up fused clinkers with a slice bar to keep the fire burning evenly.
Captain Ralph Knechtel lines Jim Stanley on a light at the Block Marina in hopes of keeping the Crapo on the port side of the river, since he’s well aware that the dredge, Northerly Isle, will be jutting into the starboard side of the channel at the other end of the curve. Then Knechtel orders Stanley to come to a white light on the center of the Cheboyganing Creek Bridge, which lies at a creek entrance outside the channel. As planned, the Crapo sails slowly into the straight stretch at the center of the curve. Visible finally are two white lights flanked by two red ones atop the Northerly Isle’s pilothouse. But because the dredge is sticking out into the channel at the apex of the turn ahead, the Crapo cannot cut the corner.
Still in the straight part of the curve, Knechtel advises, “Alright, Jimmy, come to the center of the billboard.” Jim quickly brings the wheel around, nearly a full turn to starboard, in order to align the bow with a lighted billboard on adjacent Highway 13.
There is a moment of hesitation, and another. Suddenly Stanley swings the wheel all the way over to starboard. “Cap, nothing’s happening,” he cries. “I’ve got the wheel hard right and she’s not answering!”
Meanwhile, the Crapo’s stern and midsection are being sucked further and further into the channel’s bank, and about 300 yards ahead is the second turn. If the Crapo does not hit the bank, she will certainly plow directly into the Cheboyganing Creek Bridge ahead.
The “black gang” poses midway through their watch. Except for the addition of an automatic stoker for shoveling coal into the fireboxes, the fireman’s job has changed little in the past hundred years.
The captain moves instinctively to the engine telegraph. Without hesitation he rings “full ahead” on the telegraph and shifts the bow thruster hard left. He tells his wheelsman, “Keep the wheel hard right, Jimmy.”
Brown water boils at both ends of the Crapo and Jim Stanley is in anguish. “She’s still moving left, Cap! She’s not coming at all!”
“Marv!” the captain orders, “tell John to give us everything he’s got.”
Marv Kerr is already at the engine-room phone. “John,” he yells to the third engineer, “give us everything you’ve got! Maximum rpm’s!”
Almost immediately a maelstrom erupts aft of the Crapo’s propeller as tons of water thrash over the rudder. The ship tears itself away from the bank and cuts into the turn at speed.
Jim Stanley rapidly swings the wheel back to port as “slow ahead” rings out on the telegraph, and the Crapo flashes by the Northerly Isle with less than fifteen feet to spare.
The oiler checks a crosshead bearing on the Crapo’s main engine.
Two curves up the Saginaw River and an hour and fifteen minutes later, the Crapo reaches her destination. At 0310 hours, the lines are out, the Crapo is secured alongside the dock, and a very tired Captain Knechtel rings, “finished with engine.”
Name of Vessel/Nationality: S.T. Crapo/ USA
Built in/ Year: River Rouge, Michigan/ 1927
Name of Builder: Great Lakes Engineering Works
Hull Material: Steel
Length/ Breadth/Draft: 402’/ 60’/22′
Net/Gross/Deadweight Tons: 2942/4,769/8,800
Number and Type of Engines/ Cylinders/Horsepower: 1 Reciprocating Steam/3/1800
Description of Engine Builder: Same as Ship
A long freight blends into the rust-colored metal of the Detroit-Mackinaw Railroad Bridge up ahead. The train crawls across the bridge above river so slowly that it hardly seems to be moving at all.
Captain Knechtel jerks his head up at Mac’s announcement, sees the train, and rings “stop” on the engine telegraph, then “slow astern.” The Crapo is now only 400 yards from the bridge and neither the engine nor the caboose is visible. She slows noticeably but continues to coast closer toward the span. Knechtel rings a long and a short on the whistle for the bridge to open and a roaring hunnh hunnh vibrates over the river.
Jim Stanley and Ralph Knechtel work as a team to get the Crapo backed out of the cramped Huron Cement harbor.
Before the Crapo stops, the caboose clears the bridge and the two sections of the bridge rise and open. The Crapo continues on, hardly missing a beat.
Knechtel orders Mac to steer the Crapo at the center of the bridge’s draw, then to the center of the right-hand draw. The bridge opening is ninety-four feet wide, the Crapo sixty. Marv is outside, on the starboard wing of the ship’s bridge. As the Crapo slides through, he shouts, “Nineteen feet port side forward, fifteen feet starboard side forward, Cap.” From high on the pilothouse wing, the distance between the Crapo’s hull and the bridge abutment looks like the width of an eyelash. Marv, now facing aft, repeats the distance, then calls, “Stern clear, Cap.” The Crapo steams ahead, white clouds of smoke billowing above her in the summer evening sky.
But there’s another curve and two miles past that, another bridge the Crapo must pass under. The Independence Highway Bridge is a main traffic artery between Bay City and Essexville, and as the Crapo approaches, warning bells ring and the traffic gates go down. Motorists get out of their cars and lean over the bridge, gawking at the huge steamship passing beneath them.
Looking aft at night from the Crapo’s bridge house. Each hatch will take a loading pipe, which means loading can be accomplished very quickly. The winch next to the deckhouse is used to take in mooring lines when docking, alleviating the need for a tugboat.
5 August—0011 hours. The watch changes. Marv stays on the bridge until the first mate joins the vessel at Saginaw. Knechtel also stays onboard until the Crapo reaches her destination. Jim Stanley is now the wheelsman. He is twenty-eight years old, but in his cutoff jeans and sneakers he looks about eighteen. But having sailed for nearly ten years, Stanley already has his mate’s license. He’s paid his dues and he is trusted for it: five miles upriver lies the Airport Curve, potentially the most hazardous spot on the Saginaw River yet.
Next (post 4) >>
Captain Ralph Knechtel quietly joins the two men in the wheelhouse. He is a kind man who looks as though he would be happy running a candy shop. In 1942, he joined Huron Cement’s vessel the John W. Boardman right out of high school, working as a deckhand. The following year he went into the Navy and was on the cruiser Savannah for the U.S. invasions into Sicily and Salerno. Of that time, he says, “the third day of the Salerno invasion we were hit by a radio-controlled bomb that killed everybody up forward. My entire division was killed while I was on lookout on the bridge. We came back around Christmastime. In 1946 I returned to the Huron Cement fleet, working my way up from deckhand to watchman to wheelsman, then to third mate, second, first, and skipper.”
Captain Ralph Knechtel sits in his beautiful oak-paneled office. Like most of the interior spaces on the Crapo, his quarters have been restored to their original condition.
Knechtel was skipper for nine years, all on the Crapo before becoming captain. In his gentle way, he chuckles as he describes his only major collision: “Some years ago I hit a roof in Milwaukee. My father-in-law couldn’t believe it. Of course it was in a canal where the buildings extended over the wayer. The bow hit the roof. A single-story house. People were in the building and I guess it shook them up a little. It was kind of embarrassing—I had to report it to the Coast Guard. “
As the Crapo leaves the channel and enters the Saginaw river, the atmosphere inside the pilothouse changes. The banter stops. Knechtel takes over the con from Marv and moves to the port-center window. He spends the next four hours standing there, giving orders to the wheelsmen and the engine room.
The Crapo is a unique vessel: she is powered by a coal-fired reciprocating steam engine. The triple-expansion engine is still the original equipment from when the ship was built in 1927. It operates from three fire-tube boilers under 175 pounds of pressure. A small engine at the end of the third cylinder powers its reversals.
Second mate, Don Ghiato, poses by the engine telegraph as the Crapo makes her way down Lake Huron.
The Crapo was built for carrying cement. Loading bagged cement by hand originally took over a week; now it’s done by air slides in five hours. The pumps can discharge nearly 9,000 tons of cement from the holds into 400-foot-high silos in less than twenty-four hours.
Huron Cement operates the Crapo and five other ships to carry cement from its Alpena plant, the largest cement facility in the United States and second largest in the world, to thirteen ports around the Great Lakes. Most of the operation’s 700 employees have worked for Huron Cement for over a decade—not a bad testimonial.
Three of the Crapo’s sister ships are also steamers. The E.M. Ford, built in 1898, has one of the few quadruple-expansion engines left in the world. Unfortunately the Ford is laid up in Milwaukee awaiting business. Both the other sister vessels, the John W. Boardman and the Louis G. Harriman, were built in 1923, a cement carrier and a general bulk carrier, respectively.
In the fire room deep in the bowels of the ship, three firemen work in what can only be described hell. The heat is suffocating. Flames shoot high into the air of the cramped space as the firemen rake out old, burned coal from the fireboxes onto the deck. Coal ash hangs like fog. In spite of forced ventilation, if the fireman touched any metal surfaces in that room, their skin would be scalded off their hands. Yet, these men are not unhappy with their work. Fireman Joy McKay explained, “I’ve been doing this for twelve years. I don’t mind the heat and I like the money. I could never make this much anyplace else.”
Fireman Joe McKay stands before an open firebox door.
He and the other two firemen make between $30,000 and $35,000 a year. Others might say that all the money in the world couldn’t make them do this work, then again; but these people may never have been out of work. The firemen see the job’s unpleasantness as a small price to pay for their financial security and freedom.
Outside the fire room, the Crapo is doing six knots as she approaches the first bend in the Saginaw River, opposite the Bay Harbor Marina. Knechtel tells his wheelsman, “Start her left, slow, Mac. Head her on the red buoy.”
Mac turns the large, spoked wheel a quarter-turn and replies, “Steady on red buoy, Cap.” The Crapo slowly eases into the first turn.
“Now come left on the green range, Mac,” Knechtel says while looking at a range light beyond the turn. When the ship nears the middle of the curve, he says again, “Start her right, Mac. I’ll steady up.
The wheelsman answers, “Coming right slow, Cap,” as the vessel leaves the curve and faces a straight stretch of river.
Almost immediately out of the turn, Marv catches sight of the Detroit-Mackinaw Railroad bridge ahead, standing closed. “Cap,” he bursts,” there’s a train on the bridge!”
Next (post 3)>>
August 4, 1984—2150 hours. Third mate Marv Kerr glances at the first set of lighted buoys as he speaks rapidly into the radio-telephone, “WB6252, S.T. Crapo, calling Saginaw River Coast Guard. We’ll be at the front range light approximately one hour. Please advise on visibility and traffic movement.”
The channel buoys slide by at mile intervals. Third mate Kerr stands at the pilot-house window picking them out with binoculars and relaying course changes to his wheelsman when another radio call comes in. It is the dredge Northerly Isle to inform the Crapo that she’s dredging the river between buoys 40 and 42, and is projecting fifty feet into the river channel. Unfortunately, this was the most dangerous curve in the Saginaw River. The two men are nonchalant but thoughtful. Marv Kerr logs the call and the position of the Northerly Isle.
Wheelsman John “Mac” McClinton keeps one eye on the compass and the other on the river in front of him. The seriousness with which he takes his work
shows on his face.
Currently, the 402-foot Crapo (pronounced Cray-poe), is loaded with 6,900 tons of bulk cement and making its way through the channel leading from Lake Huron into the Saginaw River. She has come from Alpena, farther north on the Michigan peninsula, and she will continue on to deliver her cargo to Huron Cement’s Saginaw River Distribution Terminal, seventeen miles upriver.
While the Crapo sails over most of the Great Lakes, navigating the Saginaw River at night is one of the most difficult parts of the journey. Not only is the river narrow with sharp bends, there are also a number of tight bridge openings under which she must squeeze, as well as making room for the occasional vessel heading downstream or obstructing the channel.
Tonight the ship’s officers and wheelsmen are especially alert. They know they have only seconds to correct any error if the Crapo went aground, or worse, crashed into a bridge or another vessel.
John “Mac” McClinton, a cheerful, graying ex-Canadian, is the wheelsman on the Crapo. Together, he, Marv, and the captain have more than 125 years of sailing experience among them. Each man also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Marv on destroyers and Mac on merchant ships followed by the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill. After the war, Marv sailed for eighteen years on the Great Lakes, and Mac sailed on freighters and tankers all over the world. Marv also considers Ralph Knechtel to be one of the best ship handlers on the Great Lakes.
Tonight he will need to be.
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