Tag Archives: Great Lakes

Steamship City of Detroit III – A Floating Masterpiece

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

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.

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.

D-III’s Gothic Room Salon Lounge – Library of Congress
D-III’s Gothic Room Fore Deck with Chandler  – Library of Congress
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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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The Coast Guard Station In Harbor Beach – 1929

This is a rare photo of the Coast Guard Station in Harbor Beach in 1929. A decade later during the opening months of World War II, a review was made of the former station. This led to future updates of the facility as it held strategic importance in the Great Lakes.

The Huron Milling Dock Assessment During World War II

The Huron Milling Co. has dredged a channel from deep water in the harbor to its pier located about 2,900 feet west of the main entrance. The pier is used for receiving coal for company use. Local fishing boats also operate from it. It is a timber sheet pile, solid fill structure, partly capped by concrete, with dimensions and berthing space of 300 feet on the lower side, 195 feet on the upper side, and 165 feet on the face. Depths of water alongside are 15 feet at the face, ll feet at the lower side, and 13 feet at the upper side. The pier is lighted and is served by the Pere Marquette Railway, which has a 1,200-foot track in the center. It has a storage capacity of 8,000 tons of coal and by rehandling an additional 15,000 tons can be handled in the yard. Mechanical equipment in the yard consists of an l8-ton steam locomotive crane with a 55-foot boom and a 3/4 -cubic yard clamshell bucket for handling and a fireless steam locomotive for shifting cars.

The U.S. Coast Guard Station In Harbor Beach

The United States Coast Guard maintains a station at a steel sheet pile solid fill bulkhead wharf paved with concrete, about 3,400 feet northwest of the main entrance. The wharf lies offshore and has a timber approach 550 feet long and 5 feet wide. Small craft can be berthed at the north side of the pier where a 20-foot offset divides the width of the pier into 60-foot sections, with 8-foot depths of water alongside. An additional 70 feet of berthing space is available on the shore side of this pier with a 6-foot depth of water alongside.

Two small marine railways for handling the station motor-sailor and whaleboat run into the water on the front or face of the pier, which prevents its use for berthing. These railways are not available for private use and are not suitable for boats of any other type than those mentioned above.

Cover photo from the United States Coast Guard 9th District




USS Michigan – A High Tech Warship Patrolling the Great Lakes In 1844

The USS Michigan was the United States Navy’s first iron-hulled warship. Commissioned in August 1844, USS Michigan was considered a technical experiment using new techniques and materials as a working investigation for the U.S. Navy.

1844: First USS Michigan Enters Active Service on Great Lakes

USS Michigan Underway

Built in Pittsburgh and re-assembled in Erie, she was 167 feet long, displaced 450 tons, and was powered by side paddlers and sails. Michigan provided a formidable and grand naval presence on the Great Lakes. The ship served for sixty-eight years, the third-longest active service of any Navy vessel. Assigned to patrol the long U.S. border with Canada from Niagara to Duluth, she rescued dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors, enforced law and order throughout the upper Great Lakes, and recruited thousands of sailors for the Navy. 

Building the USS Michigan –  The Most Advanced Warship at the Time

Attacks by rebels on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes during the 1837 Canadian Rebellion led the British to arm two steam-powered gunboats stationed to defend their side of the lake. In response, the United States saw a need for an advanced U.S. gunboat of its own on the lakes.

For these reasons, the USS Michigan was commissioned. The ship was manufactured in Pittsburg and reassembled in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her powerplant was a steam-powered sidewheel. As was common in early steamers, the USS Michigan also had three masts for wind power to augment the steam engine. The combination of steam engines and sails was crucial for this technically advanced warship to further travel range and ensure the ship would be maneuverable in the event of a steam engine failure. The vessel was rated for speed 12 knots, an incredible rate in those days. The ship had a crew of 88 officers and men

The ship was assigned to patrol the Great Lakes from March to December. During the winter, the ship returned to Erie to stay for the winter. The ship was docked in Erie during the winter due to the ship’s inability to travel the frozen Great Lakes.

Action on Beaver Island

When United States District Attorney George Bates decided to arrest  King James Strang on Beaver Island in 1851, he asked President Millard  Fillmore to support the iron-hulled paddle steamer USS Michigan the most formidable warship on the Great Lakes. The Mormons had mounted cannon on a sailing ship that was hard aground in the harbor. When the USS Michigan’s arrived with its imposing black hull, menacing eight-inch battery,  and a full complement of Marines, it assured that there would be no resistance to the federal arrest warrants Bates carried.

The Timber Rebellion

USS Wolverine Towing the Brig Niagra in 1913

In 1853, the USS Michigan was assigned to stop massive timber thefts from federal land along Lake Michigan. During this period, the national government owned a significant amount of land in the western Great Lakes region. These federal lands were heavily forested areas primarily located along the coasts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. The government’s intentions with these lands involved harvesting valuable timber to construct U.S. warships.

An increasingly large assembly of criminals, tagged with the name of Timber Pirates, saw the stockpiles of government-owned wood throughout the region as easy profit. These pirates and rebels were a relatively unorganized group of criminals who scoured the Great Lakes region to search for timber to steal from existing government stockpiles. Their goal was to steal and smuggle government-owned wood from the area to be sold for profit elsewhere. Her crew captured several “timber pirates” who were then sent by train to  Detroit for trial before U.S. District Judge Ross Wilkins.

Collision with the Buffalo 

On May 5, 1853, there was a collision between the USS Michigan and the largest steam-powered timber ship to sail the Great Lakes. The USS Michigan was kneading south on Lake Huron off Port Sanilac headed for New York for her yearly resupply. At 3 am, while the two ships were passing, the timber ship Buffalo suddenly vired 90 degrees into the  USS Michigan. While the collision badly damaged both ships, both were able to continue to sail. 

Commander Bigelow of the USS Michigan had woken up to the sound of the ship crashing into his. Incensed at this seemingly intentional collection, the USS Michigan turned around and pursued the timber steamship. He brought the warship alongside the steamer Buffalo and asked if the steamer’s crew needed any assistance. The unit indicated that they required no help, so Bigelow let the Buffalo continue her journey. Finally, however, he turned and followed the ship back to Chicago, where the USS Michigan was out of commission for two weeks of repairs. 

After repairs were made, the USS Michigan captured several timber pirates with US Marines’ aid. These operations are credited with ending the 1853 Timber Rebellion in a federal victory. But the illegal logging trade continued as late as the 1870s.

Murder on Beaver Island

USS Wolverine at Port in 1913

The USS Michigan was moored to the dock at Beaver Island Harbor on  June 16, 1856, when two fallen-away Strangites assassinated their “king.” James Strang on the pier just in front of the ship.  After the murder, the killers surrendered to the Michigan captain, who delivered them with the sheriff at Mackinaw Island, the nearest civil authority not controlled by Strang’s men. However, the men were never convicted.  One theory is that the Michigan captain, Commander William Inman, knew of the plot. 

Civil War Service

During the first two years of the Civil War, the USS Michigan toured Great Lakes ports, enlisting four thousand sailors for the Union Navy.  In 1863, rumors of Confederate plots to invade the North from Canada caused the Navy to increase Michigan’s armament to fourteen cannon, including six powerful Parrott rifles. In October 1863, Michigan was assigned to guard the Union prisoner-of-war camp on Johnson’s Island just inside Sandusky Bay. While she was there,  Confederate agents did make two attempts to seize her and release the prisoners, but neither attempt was successful, and no Confederate force ever came within range of her guns.

Ironically, the government often used Michigan’s armament and crew to keep civil order rather than repel British or Confederate invaders. For example, during the Civil War, Michigan was called upon to use her imminent appearance to check draft riots in Detroit, Milwaukee, and  Buffalo. In 1865, her crew helped put down armed strikes by iron and copper miners at Marquette and Houghton just after the war. A year later, she thwarted a raid into Canada by hundreds of members of the  Fenian Brotherhood, Irish-Americans. In this battle of Fort Erie, the Irish planned to occupy Canada until Britain freed Ireland.

Final Years as A Training Ship

One of the last pictures of the Wolverine in 1941 – Courtesy Erie Maritime Museum

The USS Michigan was renamed the USS Wolverine in 1905. The ship remained in service as a training vessel until 1923. One of her last acts as an active warship was in 1901, when she was sent to Buffalo after the assassination of President McKinley due to the fear of riots. The Wolverine was recorded to have reached its record speed of 14 knots during the voyage to Buffalo.

The Final Days of the USS Wolverine

USS Wolverine at Misery Bay, Erie, Pa in the 1920s

When a new battleship, the USS Michigan, was commissioned in 1905, the old battleship was renamed the USS Wolverine. The Wolverine had the privilege of pulling the recreated Niagara across the Great Lakes in a wonderful patriotic celebration during the 1913 Centenary commemoration of the Battle of Lake Erie.

On May 6, 1912, the USS Wolverine was decommissioned. She was transferred to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia, where she served for 11 years, undertaking summer training voyages for the US Naval Reserve. in 1923 mechanical failure in the engine doomed the ship and it was moored on a sand bar in Misery Bay in Erie.

Despite the personal pleas of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the USS. Wolverine was scrapped in 1949. But, for years, the ship’s prow was saved and displayed on State Street in Erie.

The prow was relocated to the Erie Maritime Museum’s First Mezzanine Level on February 26th, 1998. Welding, scraping, painting, and refitting her scrollwork were all part of the lengthy repair of the bow. Erie locals, naval enthusiasts, and historians can view at least part of the old USS Michigan/Wolverine today in Pennsylvania.

More Reading on the USS Michigan/Wolverine

Erie’s History and Memorabilia – USS Michigan – USS Wolverine

History of the Wolverine




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