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Edition #218  March 15, 2014

Imagine This

Photographer: Walter Schmidt

                                                                                           Photo by Walter Schmidt

Imagine This

Imagine; after years of talking about it, my friend Kevin Scanlon and I were finally off on our boatnerd photo adventure.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it is the maritime equivalent of railfan - at least for followers of the tankers, ore and grain boats that navigate the Great Lakes.  Kevinís interest in lake boats grew out of his work recording the railroads and the steel industry they served in and around his native Pittsburgh, PA and mine from exploring the grain elevators, working or abandoned, still standing around my home in Buffalo, NY.

Our destination was Sault Ste Marie on Michiganís Upper Peninsula and the locks where ship traffic passed from Lake Superior into the Saint Maryís River on the way to Lake Huron and sites farther down the Great Lakes or back up to pick up a new load of stone, taconite pellets or grain from the Midwest ports.  But we also kept our plans open on the way up and back in order to react to any interesting subjects, should an opportunity arise.  Unlike the tighter scheduling required on the rail lines, ship schedules tend to accordion.  They are more sensitive to outside influences; along with the weather, on-board equipment failures, a malfunctioning lift-bridge or heavy lock traffic can throw the schedule off with little notice.  That said, we did have a second goal a specific ship that we hoped to catch a glimpse of somewhere along the way.   

The development of ship design parallels the locomotive.  Steam has all but given way to modern power plants.  Ship size/capacity has constantly expanded to where the largest purpose-built lake ore boats can reach 1,000 feet and carry a cargo ranging from 60,000 to 80,000 tons.  These behemoths are in fact so large as to be lake-locked; that is, they are too large to pass through the Welland Canal, St Lawrence Seaway locks, so they can never leave the Great Lakes. 

In contrast, there has been one notable exception.  She is still steam-powered, has a modest length of 552 feet and even more modest cargo capacity of 10,200 tons.  Christened the William P. Snyder when she was put into service in 1906, the current St. Marys Challenger has been quietly going about her job for 107 years!  Kevin provided me with a little historical perspective on this; at that time, stage coaches were still running out West and there were only 45 States in the Union.  We were still 6 years away from the Titanicís sailing and 8 years until WWI.  Since that long ago time, the St. Marys Challenger continued to perform her seemingly unremarkable service - but in doing so she has set a benchmark that certainly is remarkable - and likely never to be eclipsed!  The next oldest lake boats are some 40 years newer.  That seems to be the normal life expectancy on the Great Lakes, which makes the St. Marys Challenger quite unique.

We both had hoped to have a brush with this living historic survivor and we were fortunate, not once, but twice.  Our first stop was in Sarnia ON, across from Port Huron MI.  It is here that Lake Huron waters empty into the St Clair River, on the way to Lake Erie.  Right at dusk we were to have our first glimpse of the humble carrier as she glided quietly downbound towards Detroit.  We had to move on to the Soo locks, and a couple days of boatwatching, but, as we prepared to depart the UP, we noticed that the Challenger was heading back to its base at the St Marys Cement dock in Charlevoix, Mi.  It was a no-brainer that we would try one more time to see the lady.  As luck would have it, the timing, weather and light were perfect as we broke out of the woods along Lake Michigan and caught site of her just off the shore as she was waiting for a tug/barge to leave the dock.  I must admit that the excitement of the moment I panicked and started shooting at an ISO of 6400, left over from the previous night!  Fortunately, Kevin pointed out that the boat was doing a stately 2 knots and that I might want to settle down, so Iíd caught the error in time to come away with better images than I deserved.  Later that day, on our homeward journey, we reflected on the moment and how lucky we had been. 

Unfortunately I have to relate that in November, as we were discussing preparing this submission, the Boatnerd website brought the not unexpected, but still sad news that the St. Marys Challenger was finally being taken out of service due to the expense of converting her to a propulsion system that meets current emissions standards.  She has now completed her last voyage under her century-old steam plant.  Her fate is to be converted into a barge her power plant removed and the after section reworked to allow a tug to be permanently teamed up with the hull.  Sad perhaps, but, after further reflection, it may be the best solution for her.  She could have ended up being towed halfway around the world, only to be cut up for scrap, but this way she can quietly continue to go about her job on into the new millennium.  Imagine that!   

I apologize for the digital trickery of the image - simulating an old-time Ambrotype print - but I chose it to honor the lady and acknowledge her history.  She has earned the respect.

Walt Schmidt

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