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Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company

C. Roger Pellett

Great Lakes, Maritime Studies, Business History

Great Lakes Books Series

Printed Paper Cased
Published: May 2018
ISBN: 9780814344767
Pages: 216 Size: 7x10
Illustrations: 56 black-and-white illustrations
eBOOK
Published: May 2018
ISBN: 9780814344774

The whaleback ship reflected the experiences of its inventor, Captain Alexander McDougall, who decided in the 1880s that he could build an improved and easily towed barge cheaply by using the relatively unskilled labor force available in his adopted hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Captain McDougall’s dream resulted in the creation of the American Steel Barge Company. From 1888 to 1898, the American Steel Barge Company built and operated a fleet of forty-four barges and steamships on the Great Lakes and in international trade. These new ships were considered revolutionary by some and nautical curiosities by others. Built from what was then a high tech material (steel) and powered by state-of-the-art steam machinery, their creation in the remote north was a sign of industrial accomplishment.

In Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company, Roger C. Pellett explains that the construction of these ships and the industrial infrastructure required to build them was financed by a syndicate that included some of the major players active in the Golden Age of American capitalism. The American Steel Barge Company operated profitably from 1889 through 1892, each year adding new vessels to its growing fleet. By 1893, it had run out of cash. The cash crisis worsened with the onset of the Panic of 1893, which plunged the country into a depression that mostly halted the ship-building industry. Only one shareholder, John D. Rockefeller, was willing and able to invest in the company to keep it afloat, and by doing so he gained control. When prosperity returned in 1896, the interest in huge iron ore deposits on the Mesabe Range required larger, more efficient vessels. In an attempt to meet this need, the company built another vessel that incorporated many whaleback features but included a conventional Great Lakes steamship bow. Although this new steamship compared favorably with vessels of conventional design, it was the last vessel of whaleback design to be built.

Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company objectively examines the design of these ships using the original design drawings, notes the successes and failures of the company’s business strategy, and highlights the men at the operating level that attempted to make this strategy work. Readers interested in the maritime history of the Great Lakes and the industries that developed around them will find this book fascinating.

C. Roger Pellett is a retired business executive with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business administration. Pellett has many years of experience managing the fabrication of heavy industrial components, as well as a formal education and training in naval architecture and marine engineering. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where the first whaleback ships were built, and since retiring has worked as a volunteer for the SS Meteor, the world’s only survivor of the fleet of forty-four whaleback barges and steamships.

Pellett weaves a powerful and enthralling story of inventive engineering and professional management amid the uncertainties of the business cycle and the unvarnished business dealings of the titans of industry at the turn of the 20th century America. The story is a captivating ‘whodunit’ of this exciting period. The patented design, construction, and operation of Alexander McDougall's unique whaleback ships is traced within the burgeoning development of the American iron and steel industry. This book is a must-read by the students of ships, shipping, and American industrial development.

– Jim Sharrow, PE, director of port planning and resiliency, Duluth Seaway Port Authority

The author has carefully researched the history of Alexander McDougall, the American Steel Barge Company, and the Great Lakes' unique whaleback ships, and he has very successfully captured for modern readers their colorful story. Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company is a fascinating and very informative account of their place in regional history. It's a must-read for modern shipping enthusiasts and history buffs.

– Patrick Labadie, prior director of the Saugatuck Marine Museum and Duluth's Canal Park Museum

Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company by C. Roger Pellett is a timely release. One of Alexander McDougall’s whalebacks, Clifton (formerly Samuel Mather, 1892–1924), and a similar vessel known as a straight-back, Choctaw (1892–1915), were recently discovered in Lake Huron. As a result of these discoveries, the nation’s fascination with these unique vessels has been rekindled. More than just a book on the technological aspects of the whaleback, Pellett sets the historic context in which the vessels were designed and constructed in the late nineteenth century. The use of wood to construct large Great Lakes bulk freighters was rapidly coming to an end, yet traditional shipbuilders continued to produce steel vessels along the same lines as their wooden predecessors. Alexander McDougall broke that mold. Pellett explores McDougall’s life, his business aspirations, and the lack of traditional biases that helped him develop an innovative design that, although relatively short lived, had a tremendous impact on Great Lakes maritime heritage.

– Wayne R. Lusardi, Michigan state maritime archaeologist

Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company is an exceptionally researched, thorough examination of these icons of the Great Lakes. Pellett has written a landmark work that will quickly become the standard, classic reference on the whalebacks.

– James P. Delgado, former director of maritime heritage, NOAA, and founding director of the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Park Service

Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company by C. Roger Pellett is a timely release. One of Alexander McDougall’s whalebacks, Clifton (formerly Samuel Mather, 1892–1924), and a similar vessel known as a straight-back, Choctaw (1892–1915), were recently discovered in Lake Huron. As a result of these discoveries, the nation’s fascination with these unique vessels has been rekindled. More than just a book on the technological aspects of the whaleback, Pellett sets the historic context in which the vessels were designed and constructed in the late nineteenth century. The use of wood to construct large Great Lakes bulk freighters was rapidly coming to an end, yet traditional shipbuilders continued to produce steel vessels along the same lines as their wooden predecessors. Alexander McDougall broke that mold. Pellett explores McDougall’s life, his business aspirations, and the lack of traditional biases that helped him develop an innovative design that, although relatively short lived, had a tremendous impact on Great Lakes maritime heritage.

– Wayne R. Lusardi, state maritime archaeologist for Michigan