Detroit River Transportation
(This is the only paper from Sister Aniceta's 12th grade English class that has a name on it. Does anyone know Lawrence Meier?)
Term Paper, Sister Aniceta
January 5, 1959
Detroit River Transportation
By Lawrence Meier
People today think of the Detroit River as a connection between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, but, in reality, the river is the busiest river in the world. This can be better explained by the fact that one lake freighter passes Windmill Point at Detroit on the average of every six minutes.
For three hundred years, the sounds of travel have echoed along the shores of the Detroit River, from the schooners’ signal cannon to the deep-voiced freighters of today.
Long before the city of Detroit was established, the native Red Men had learned to navigate the inland lakes and streams in bark canoes. When the French settled along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, they were quick to recognize the usefulness of the bark canoe in carrying on their explorations. These French adventurers, fur traders, and missionaries gradually uncovered the secrets of the vast land and waters of Michigan.
In 1679, LaSalle set forth from Niagara in the Griffon, the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes. As he passed through the Detroit River, flocks of wild geese and swans circled the vessel curiously. Seeing this and the densely wooded area, LaSalle gave high praise for the Detroit River by saying “one of the finest prospects of the world.” Little did he realize at that time that this area would one day be the manufacturing capital of the world.
As time went on, the French developed stronger craft such as the pirogues and bateaux. Pirogues were large hollowed out trees. They were used extensively for fur trading. At first the bateau, a French word meaning boat, was known as any flat-bottomed boat used for timber and freight transportation, a shelter, and other purposes.
In 1701 Cadillac, a Frenchman with a fleet of twenty-rive bark canoes, founded Fort Detroit. The dark and forbidding wilderness which reached almost to the palisades of the little post made transportation by land impractical, and for years the bark canoes furnished the only dependable means of communication with distant settlements. Gradually, however, the canoes disappeared, and ships like the Griffon were making their debut in river travel.
At the close of the War of 1812, there were numerous ships on the lakes, but all were operated by the Government, since military needs received first attention. Private passengers often were refused transportation and Detroit merchants found it difficult to obtain shipping space.
This situation stimulated interest in shipbuilding. Within a short time schooners were coming off the stocks at almost every port along Lake Erie. Most ports turned out an average of two or three ships a year by the old hand method.
The City of Wyandotte was one of the better known shipbuilding ports. In its production yard, between 1872 and 1920, over one hundred and twenty five schooners and steam ships rolled into the swirling waters of the Detroit River from the ship yards at the south end of Wyandotte. A few well known ships that were build by the J.C. Clark, Eber Ward, and Lewis Scofield Shipbuilding Companies of Wyandotte were the E.B. Ward, Grace McMillan, Wyandotte, Frank E. Kirby, and Michigan.
Other famous vessels on the river were the Jay Cooke, Riverside, Gazelle, Pearl, Evening Star, and the Walk-in-the-Water. The Walk-in-the-Water was famous because it was the first ship to carry on trade between Buffalo and Detroit.
On August twenty-sixth, 1813, the Walk-in-the-Water entered the Detroit River. Some settlers said the sailing craft was drawn by sturgeons and some believed it. At Detroit the entire populace came down to the landing. Among that crowd was Judge Woodward, proprietor of the Steamship Hotel, whose sign had just been freshly painted for the occasion, and a knot of Indians who took to their heels when the engineer let off a head of steam. With completion of her first run, confidence in the Walk-in-the-Water was established, and she was given a contract to carry U.S. mail.
On November 1, 1821, the Walk-in-theWater left Buffalo for Detroit in threatening weather and shortly thereafter encountered a violent gale. Even under full steam the vessel was unable to make headway, so the captain ordered several anchors thrown out in an endeavor to hold fast until the storm abated. Unfortunately, the anchor cables parted and the ship was cast upon the shore near Buffalo. No lives were lost, but the hull was damaged beyond repair. The engine was salvaged and put in a new vessel which was built in Buffalo during the winter.
After the opening of the Erie Canal, Detroit and Southern Michigan grew rapidly in population. Soon the trade consisted of people and their belongings sailing up the river, and farm produce, furs, and lumber going down the river to Buffalo. This rush on transportation facilities brought larger and faster ships to the scene. As the ships grew larger, it was very dangerous and difficult for them to pass through the narrow river in full sail, so steam tugs came to the aid of the vessels and pulled them through in strings to the ports along the Detroit River.
Inner river trade was also carried on. Smaller vessels using the western channel made regular stops at Amherstburg, Sugar and Hickory Islands, Grosse Ile, Wyandotte, Ecorse, and Detroit. Ships using the Canadian channel, stopped at Amherstburg, Windsor, and Detroit. Smaller ships, making entry from the East Coast via Lake Erie, stopped at Put-in-Bay, then on to Detroit River ports.
However, despite the wonderful waterways, early transportation was hampered by violent gales on the Great lakes. The worst storm that ever hit the lakes was on November 28, 1905. The storm took thirty ships and nine-tenths of their crews. The most sensational disaster was the smashing of the Matalfa on the piers of Duluth. The ship broke in two, separating the crew. Rescue units could not reach them. Thus, most of the men froze to death as four thousand looked on. In the morning Duluth was covered with six feet of snow and two inches of ice had formed on everything along the shore.
On November 19, 1958, the worst storm in recent years struck the waterways of Michigan, sinking the 615-foot Carl D. Bradley. The winds came in gusts from sixty to one hundred miles per hour. Forty foot waves smashed the freighter into the two parts. Only two men out of thirty survived the sinking of this large ship.
Because of these tragedies, fortunes in copper, iron, ingots, whiskey, machinery, shingles, coal, limestone, tobacco, corn, and wheat rest beneath the traffic lanes. Off the mouth of the Detroit River, the steamer Clarion sank with a load of locomotives. Near her lies the schooner Lexington loaded to her hatch covers with barreled whiskey. A legend still persists of a mysterious vessel that sank off Poverty Island, near Escanaba, with four and a half million dollars in her safe.
In spite of storms, fog, and other navigational hazards, men were willing to risk their money in shipping. Commerce had increased considerably, and ships were the best means of transportation. Today there are many kinds of cargo carried by freighters on the Detroit River. In early times cargo consisted of whiskey, lumber, coal, and farm produce. Over one thousand different kinds of cargo are shipped out of the Port of Detroit to many ports of the world. Detroit imports over five hundred different kinds of cargo from foreign ports.
Perhaps this transportation history of the Detroit River can be better understood if we regard the nature of the river itself. The Detroit River flows from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. It is a thirty-one miles long, three-fourths of a mile wide at Detroit, and widens to three miles at Amherstburg. The average depth of the river is twenty four feet at present, and it will be deepened to twenty seven feet upon completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. At present one hundred and seventy-two thousand cubic feet of water passes down the river per second.
The river is dotted with numerous small islands ranging in size from Little Fox , about an acre in extant, to Grosse Ile, which is large enough to accommodate a naval base and an entire community. In Ecorse, the river widens and is separated into different navigable channels by a group of islands which begin with Fighting Island, dividing the Canadian Bob-Lo channel from the neutral Amherstburg channel.
Situated near the channels are the islands of the Detroit River, which are important from various standpoints. Some are natural; some have been formed by dredged-out channel sand and industrial waste. These islands are Belle Isle, Grosse Ile, Fighting Island, Sugar Island, Bois Blanc, and Zug Island. Belle Isle and Bois Blanc are better known for their recreational facilities. Zug Island is used by Great Lakes Steel as part of its plant.
Between Detroit and Canada the Ambassador Bridge is the only complete structure that crosses the Detroit River. It is high enough for any vessel to pass under it. Five thousand cars per hour can pass between Detroit and Sandwich, Ontario, on the Canadian shore. This suspension bridge is used by vacationers, working men, and truck transportation.
Beneath the river is the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. It was opened in 1930, and crosses between Detroit and down town Windsor. This vehicular tunnel is used by busses, vacationers, working men, and for truck transportation.
Another means of transportation between the United States and Canada at this point is the railroad car-ferry. The most famous is operated by the Wabash Railroad Company.
The Wabash car ferry Manitowoc heads downriver from its Windsor dock toward its Detroit terminus with an average cargo of thirty freight cars. The Manitowoc and two companion ships operate around the clock daily and through winter and summer. The three car ferries make twenty-five round trips in a twenty-four hour period, transporting an estimated eight hundred freight cars, or eight full trains daily. The trip up the river takes fifteen minutes, the down bound passage twelve minutes. The whole trip including loading and unloading, consumes two hours.
Cargos are carried up and down stream by lake freighters which are propelled by different methods. Boats of yesteryear were either sailing vessels or steam boats. In recent years only coal and oil have been used as fuel. The sleek freighters of tomorrow will probably use atomic power. A good example of a modern freighter is the Edmund Fitzgerald. This vessel, employing diesel engines, was recently constructed and launched by the Nicholson Boat and Dock Company of Detroit. Its length towers higher than the Penobscot Building. The ship is surpassed by only six other ocean-going vessels.
The following statistics indicate the importance of river transportation. In 1957, during the navigational season of April 15 through December 1, 49,213, 831 tons of cargo came into Detroit from foreign ports. Also in 1957, 57, 712, 260 tons of cargo left Detroit for foreign ports. At present Detroit only handles high-priced cargo, and from this trade the city of Detroit makes $12.50 a ton profit. The Detroit metropolitan area stands to lose nearly one hundred and ten million dollars in income during the next five years if adequate port facilities are not built to handle the expected increase in foreign cargo during that period. This is caused because the Detroit Terminal can only accommodate six small ships at a time. From these facts, it is apparent that new docks will have to be built to provide for the extra shipping load expected with the opening of the Seaway.
Present prosperity for Detroit is shown by the fact that twenty-five scheduled ship lines run from Detroit to the foreign ports of Antwerp, Belgium, Rotterdam, Netherlands, Hamburg, Germany, LeHavre, France, Copenhagen, Denmark, Helsinki, Finland, London, England, Genoa, Italy, and Le Guarra, Venezuela. There are three hundred and ninety-five non-scheduled lines running from the Port of Detroit. Frequent regular steamship sailings and arrivals help to keep the cost of transportation down. Customers can also have cargo put aboard up to the sailing time. Total import travel time to the Port of Detroit via the direct all-water route is approximately the same as the combined ocean-rail time to Detroit from the East Coast. The same is true for experts. An approximate ten to twenty per cent reduction in transportation cost alone, if cargo is shipped via the all-water route from the Port of Detroit, has been shown by recent survey.
Having taken a synoptic view of Detroit River transportation, let’s take an imaginary trip from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Detroit on one of the modern lake freighters, by means of the newly-constructed St. Lawrence Seaway. Leaving the Atlantic Oceans, a ship enters the Gulf of St. Lawrence which narrows to form the St. Lawrence River. It travels along this unrestricted waterway for one thousand miles to Montreal. Immediately above Montreal the present canal and lock system of the St. Lawrence River has its beginning. This ship winds its way through these canals and locks until it emerges into Lake Ontario. After crossing Lake Ontario, it traverses the Welland Canal and locks which connect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, thus bypassing Niagara Falls. Cruising westward over Lake Erie, it would enter the mouth of the Detroit River. here, on the most extensively used waterway in the world, a few miles north of Lake Erie is located the port of Detroit.
Little did Sieur de Rene Robert Cevelier LaSalle realize that such a trip would ever be possible nor how prophetic his words upon discovery of the Detroit River would be. He thought of the river as having a fine prospect for the future. That future is with us today. It is a well-known fact that more ships pass up and down the Detroit River than all the ships using the Panama and the Suez Canals combined. Upon completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, cargo tonnage will increase still more. Even though it is the shortest, the Detroit River is truly the busiest river in the world.
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