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Oldest Great Lakes Freighter to be scrapped

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DULUTH, MINN. — The John B. Ford survived the Mataafa Storm of 1905 and powered her way though the fury of the Great White Hurricane of 1913. But the oldest active freighter on the Great Lakes has finally lost the battle against time.


On Oct. 9, the 111-year-old ship made her final voyage. Under sunrise clouds, a pair of tugboats towed the J.B. Ford two miles across the Duluth harbor. Today, she awaits her fate at Azcon Metals, her last stop en route to the great scrapyard in the sky.


"It's not a terribly happy ending," said Steve Haverty, a Minnesota boat nerd who in 2012 launched the nonprofit Great Lakes Steamship Society in a failed bid to preserve the venerable ship as a museum.

"But we gave it our best efforts."


The cost of removing old asbestos insulation was the final nail in the coffin for the Ford. The ship had weathered not only storms, but more than a century of ownership changes and evolution in the Great Lakes shipping industry and cargo markets to remain in active service since her Dec. 12, 1903 launch in Lorain, Ohio.


The raw materials she hauled fed the nation's industrial might for 81 years. The ship moved iron ore south, coal north and picked up an odd cargo of limestone, wheat or grain here and there. That iron ore became steel for early automobiles and war materials in Michigan's "Arsenal of Democracy." Her last year transiting the Great Lakes was 1985, when she was finally benched with engine problems. The Ford has been a dockside cement storage vessel since then.


Her elder years haven't been glorious, but usage as a stationary storage and transfer vessel in Chicago and Superior, Wis., was enough to keep her in the active service category, said Marquette maritime historian Fred Stonehouse.


18990797-large.jpgThe J.B. Ford during her early years as the Edwin F. Holmes. The ship was launched in 1903, in Lorain, Ohio.Courtesy | Roger LeLievre Collection

"Until they put her to the torch, she could be brought out," he said. From an operational perspective, though, "she's too small, too slow and just too old."


Today, the J.B. Ford is the last of her kind, a turn-of-the-century leftover from a class of steam-driven freighters built for the Hagwood & Avery Fleet during a time when advances in iron construction allowed shipbuilders to make larger, safer and more efficient vessels that were easier to maintain.

She outlasted fleet mates like the Henry B. Smith, which sunk with all hands in Lake Superior during the great 1913 storm under the command of Capt. James Olson, who was previously appointed captain of the Ford in 1906 during her early years sailing under the name Edwin F. Holmes.

The ship was named the E.C. Collins between 1916 and 1958, when the Huron Portland Cement Co. of Detroit converted the vessel to a self-unloading cement carrier, painted her hull dark green, and renamed her the John B. Ford.


Cement hauling helped the Ford find work amid competition from larger, newer ships long after her sister ships were cut for scrap, said Stonehouse. Her cargo during those years was eventually molded into the nation's interstate highway system.

"It's truly the passing of an era," he said.



Since 2001, the Ford has occupied the Lafarge North America dock at Conners Point in Superior, Wis. Haverty incorporated the steamship society a few years ago when he learned the company wanted to retire the aging vessel. Lafarge, he said, was willing to donate the ship if $500,000 could be raised to remove asbestos.


To convert the ship to a floating museum would have been a $2 to $3 million endeavor, he said. Unfortunately, Haverty was only able to reach about $50,000 in donations and most of that was pledged money.


Unfortunately, the Ford also faced competition as a museum ship. The William A. Irvin is already moored as a floating museum in Duluth. Other Great Lakes museum ships include the Valley Camp in Sault Ste. Marie, the William G. Mather in Cleveland and the Col. James M. Schoonmaker in Toledo, Ohio.


Most freighters that live a long life undergo major interior upgrades over the years and the Ford was no exception. But the ship's historical integrity was in her living quarters, which retained lots of original 1904 cabin woodwork, Haverty said


The Azcon yard, which hasn't scrapped a ship in decades, has promised to try and save some of the woodwork, he said. "They seem willing to work with us."


Haverty said the Great Lakes Steamship Society hopes to have greater success with preserving other vintage lake freighters. The group has its eyes on the S.T. Crapo, an 88-year-old idled bulk cementer freighter in Green Bay, Wis.


As for the Ford, she may sail again in another way. Scrap steel is often used in fabricating automobiles, aircraft and shipping containers. Stonehouse said her steel could be used in a number of different ways "depending on where it's sold."

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I'm reasonably sure I saw this ship in the Sault back in the 70's, and may have some pics.

Will have to ask the parents to dig them out.

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