Steamship City of Detroit III – A Floating Masterpiece

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In Thumbwind’s popular post;  Great Lakes Cruising History – Luxurious Times, it pointed out that by the 1870s competition was forcing shipping companies to go beyond the bare bones of transport and create an experience for the traveling passenger or tourist.

It was the golden age of steamboat travel in the early 20th century. The race was on to get bigger, faster ships on the water, and Detroit’s City of Detroit III exemplified that elegance in both design, stature, and luxury with features that included a luxurious dining room, the only promenade deck, beautiful woodwork, gaslighting, and a parlor. The era ended with the last of these ships being burnt as firewood by a railroad magnate in the mid-1900s.

By the early 1900s, the golden era of steamship travel was in full swing and the race to put larger ships into service was evident. The steamship City of Detroit III exemplified that elegance.  

One of the Largest Sidewheel Steamships on the Great Lakes

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City of Detroit III – Underway- Library of Congress

The steamship City of Detroit III was part of the Detroit & Cleveland Steamboat Line. The steamer was designed and built in 1911 by Frank E. Kirby. Kirby was considered the greatest naval architect of the Great Lakes. Called the “D-3” the ship operated from May 1912 until 1950.

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D-III Ran from Detroit to Buffalo New York – Library of Congress

The ship was built by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company in Wyandotte, Michigan, and launched on Oct. 7, 1911. Costing an estimated $1.5 million, ($32m today) it was the largest paddlewheel ship on the Great Lakes at the time.  Standing over 50 feet high with a hull length of 455 feet. The paddle wheel was about 30 feet across and 8 feet wide. 

The style of the steamship City of Detroit III made it one of the most beautiful and luxurious ships on the Great Lakes. With a capacity to carry 2,000 passengers, this floating masterpiece was the first iron-hulled ship to operate on the Great Lakes. It became a favorite for tourists, who appreciated its large dining salon and bevy of amenities including an electric lighting system.

A Luxurious Interior Matching Ocean Liners – the Gothic Room

One of the highlights of the ship was the men’s smoking lounge called the Gothic Room. Situated around one of the smokestacks the work and glass made the lounge a standout for the traveling public.

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D-III’s Gothic Room Salon Lounge – Library of Congress
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D-III’s Gothic Room Fore Deck with Chandler  – Library of Congress
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Tiffany Stained Glass of de LaSalle – Library of Congress

A highlight of the interior is a stained-glass window celebrating René-Robert Cavelier de LaSalle’s landing in Detroit. The lounge also contained a pipe organ and fireplaces for chilly days. 

The Staterooms Elegance on the Great Lakes

For overnight trips between Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo staterooms were available.  There were 25 parlor staterooms each with its own bathroom and veranda. Trimmed in local hardwoods and equipped with state-of-the-art electric fans and lights. It was a first-class accommodation by today’s standards.

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City of Detroit III Presidents Stateroom – Library of Congress

The Steamship City of Detroit III also had 21 semi-parlors with private baths and 477 small staterooms. Travelers in the small rooms would have a bunk and share a bathroom.

The Palm Court

The Palm Court offered travelers an open sheltered area to get out of the chill and wind of the outside decks.

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City of Detroit III Palm Court Looking Aft – Library of Congress

Located in the upper deck in the stern, it was furnished with wicker chairs and decorated with fresh flowers and an ivy-covered trellis with leaded glass along with the upper sconces of the walls.

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City of Detroit III Palm Court Looking Forward – Library of Congress

The Grand Salon

Boarding passengers would pass through the Grand Salon on their way to their assigned staterooms. The Salon of the Steamship City of Detroit III was the focal point of the ship and boasted a gorgeous mural of Siren with Pan.

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City of Detroit III Grand Salon Foreward – Library of Congress

The room was decorated with oak paneling and wicker furniture that impressed those who saw it and made them feel like they had been transported to a luxurious resort.

Two grand staircases on each end were graced with large classical paintings topped with a frieze.

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City of Detroit III Grand Salon  Ceiling – Library of Congress

On the fore-end, with two prone women with tridents. The walls hosted smaller paintings of nymphs and angels.

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City of Detroit III Grand Salon Aft – Library of Congress

Noted muralist William de Leftwich Dodge lead the effort to beautify the salon using mythical characters and soft colors that brightened the interior.

The focal point of the Salon was a mural of Siren with Pan. Dodge created the Siren mural inspired by the beauty of America’s first supermodel, Audrey Munson

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City of Detroit III Grand Salon Mural of Siren with Pan – Library of Congress

The painting shows a nude Siren sitting on a rock, with Pan playing in the background. The painting is painted on canvas and then set against the wall in a plaster frame. Audrey Munson was recognized as America’s first supermodel because she appeared in many advertisements and calendars, including the famous silent film Purity. She also posed for several famous sculptures, including Civic Fame and Diana of the Tower. Munson lived most of her life in New York City and died in obscurity at the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, where she was treated for depression and schizophrenia, for 65 years. She died there in 1996 at age 104.

Dodge used his experience creating murals to create this masterpiece to enhance the interior of Detroit’s finest ship. He was born in 1867, became an artist at 15 years old, and traveled to Europe to study art when he was 25 years old. He studied under William-Adolphe Bouguereau at Académie Julian in Paris from 1892 – 1895, and then returned to Detroit.

The sheer volume of art onboard this vessel is astounding, from murals to paintings on canvas (including one by George Grosz), to sculptures and ornate fixtures such as chandeliers that were sculpted with copper reliefs depicting sea life.

On Deck of the City of Detroit III

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City of Detroit III Pilot House – Library of Congress

With the popularity of rail travel in the early 1900s, steamship companies recognized that the customer was looking for more than the basic transportation experience.  The City of Detroit is a great example of how the upper crust could take their summer journeys from mucky, dusty stagecoaches and rail trips to leisurely excursions on luxurious floating palaces. The ship’s amenities would have rivaled those of many grand hotels and coupled with unparalleled service, making it a favorite among its patrons. Great Lakes tours at this time drew visitors from around the world.

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City of Detroit III – Hurricane Deck – Library of Congress

The Tragic End Of the SS City of Detroit III

The “final trace of wood” was scraped off the City of Detroit III in early November 1956, and its remains were sent to the Steel Corporation of Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, and destroyed in late March 1957. The cost of stripping it was significant due to the massive dismantling of all the woodwork and plaster required to access the steel structure. It was so high that alternate methods were explored to scape the other two steamers, Greater Detroit and the Eastern States. Tugs hauled the couple out onto Lake St. Clair in December 1956, and they were set on fire. Burning away all the beautiful woodwork and plaster made it easier—and less expensive—to get to the steel.

D&C Navigation was incorporated by the Denver-Chicago Trucking Company in 1960 thus ending the era of steamship travel on the Great Lakes.

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