Friday, May 11, 2007

Whale of a tale

This odd-looking beauty is the James B. Colgate, a "whaleback" freighter built in 1892 for service on the Great Lakes.

I've been absorbed by the tube-shaped whalebacks lately because I've been researching the Colgate, which went down in the "Black Friday" storm on Lake Erie in 1916, for my manuscript.

The design, by shipbuilder Alexander McDougall, a Scottish immigrant who worked his way up from the very bottom of the lake shipping trade, was initially viewed with skepticism (hence its early nickname, the "pigboat"), but there was certainly method to McDougall's madness. The hull was simple to build, cheaper than other vessels, and more efficient, mainly because their unique shape made the whalebacks resistant to high seas. So much so that they could make their way through the worst of Great Lakes storms without even having to slow down.

But the lakes are never slow to rise to a challenge, and the storm that gathered on Lake Erie on October 20, 1916 was the worst that had been seen in many years. But up in the Colgate's wheelhouse, Captain Walter Grashaw wasn't worried. He had been a mate on the Colgate for more than ten years before being promoted to captain two weeks earlier, and had seen a good number of of blows. He confidently steamed out of Buffalo at midnight, heading toward the Detroit River with a load of coal.

It wasn't long before Grashaw's confidence was put to the test. At around four in the morning, with the Colgate off Long Point, the wind started to pick up, pushing the waves into a steady chop. But the captain, trusting completely in his ship, pushed onward. It would be a fatal mistake.

By eight o' clock, the winds were lashing the Colgate at hurricane force and the waves now towered over ten metres high. By seven in the evening, they had penetrated the cargo hatches. As the Colgate began to list, it became obvious that she was in her final hours. But with no safe harbour in sight, the crew fought on. Finally, at around ten o' clock that night, the freighter mounted an oncoming wave and, while descending the trough, buried her bow deep in the frenzied water. It would not resurface. The Colgate was doomed.

In an ironic twist, when Grashaw stepped out on deck, one of the giant waves broke across it, sweeping over the side and dumping him into the water next to an overturned lifeboat that three of his crew had managed to get away. All night the frozen, terrified men clung to it, capsizing many times while trying to do so. An unbelievable thirty hours later, when a car ferry arrived on the scene, the captain was the only one left alive to greet his rescuers. There had been twenty-five men aboard the Colgate when she left Buffalo.

The rest of the whaleback fleet remained in service into the 1960s, by which time they had been largely replaced by newer, larger ships. The only surviving vessel, the S.S. Meteor, now converted into a floating museum, remains docked at West Superior, Wisconsin.

These unique ships, perhaps a little too far ahead of their time, are one of the stranger details of Great Lakes history.

For more on the whalebacks, click here.

For the S.S. Meteor whaleback museum, click here.

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