The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


June 17, 2012

Launching an industry

Great Lakes Engineering Works launched its first Ashtabula-built, steel vessel 100 years ago

Shortly after midnight on Sept. 26, 1941, German  U- boat No. 203 fired four torpedoes into convoy HG-73 north of the Azores.

Two torpedoes found their target in the Varangberg, a Norwegian steam merchant ship of 2,842 tons. Owned by Reinhart Mithassel of Oslo, the ship was loaded with 4,100 tons of iron ore.

The cargo never reached its destination. The torpedoes, which hit port side at number one hatch and forward of the bridge, sent the Varangberg to the bottom of the ocean within minutes. Master Edward Steen Stenersen, 19 crew members and a passenger were lost. There was no time to launch lifeboats, and the six crewmen who survived did so by holding onto debris and rafts that floated free. The HMS Jasmine eventually rescued them.

Less than seven months later, April 2, 1942, the David H. Atwater came under attack from U-552 between Cape Charles and Cape Henlopen off the U.S. Eastern coast. It was the height of the U-boat offensive against United States merchant shipping (the Second Happy Time), but the Atwater’s captain, Willliam K. Webster, disregarded the warning  to not depart from Chesapeake in the afternoon, which did not give the ship enough time to make Delaware Capes before nightfall.

Thus, around 9 p.m., the Atwater came under fire. The U-552 had been following the Atwater under water, and when night descended, the U-boat’s commander, Erich Topp, surfaced about 600 yards from the freighter and opened fire without warning. One of the first shells fired at the Atwater took out the bridge and killed all eight officers. At least 50 shells from the 88mm deck gun and automatic weapons struck the Atwater, which soon sank.

Killing the officers and sinking the ship was insufficient for Topp, who ordered the U-boat’s crew to fire upon the Atwater’s survivors as they attempted to man the lifeboats.

When the U-boat’s assault was completed, the Atwater was at the bottom of the Atlantic and only three crew members, who dove overboard and swam to a lifeboat, were alive. The Atwater incident gave further credence to the belief that U-boat crews were deliberately murdering survivors of the ships they sank.

The Atwater, originally launched as the Crabtree, and the Varangberg, shared more than a common agent of death; both were born in Ashtabula Harbor, at what became known as the Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW), Ashtabula yard.

Located where Jack’s Marina is along the Ashtabula River (Great Lakes Avenue), this shipyard operated from 1911 to 1961. On April 6, 1912, the shipyard launched its first vessel, the Louis R. Davidson, a steel cargo carrier.

Steel became the shipbuilding material of choice in the United States as the 19th century drew to a close. Non-flammable, strong and long-lasting, steel was superior to wood, which also suffered from design limitations. The discovery of ore and limestone deposits in the upper Great Lakes region accelerated the acceptance of steel as a material for building ships, including those that worked on the Great Lakes. With greater cargo capacity and therefore larger profits for the owners, steel ships soon eclipsed the wooden schooners that had dominated the lakes during most of the century.

GLEW was a Detroit-based shipbuilding firm that embraced the steel-ship paradigm. Formed in 1902 with the purchase of Riverside Ironworks, the company’s first shipyard was at River Rouge, Mich. The purchase of a second shipyard at Ecorse, Mich., in 1903, expanded the company’s capacity and advanced its president’s goal to create an immense shipbuilding enterprise in the Great Lakes. Within three years of forming, GLEW was providing 50 percent of the tonnage of all ships being built for the Great Lakes.

The launching of the SS Wyandotte from the Ecorse site in 1908 significantly advanced the company’s reputation. At 364 feet, the steel-hulled, self-unloader became the prototype for modern self-unloaders. Bigger and better, soon became the hallmark of GLEW ships, which culminated in its most famous freighter, the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was launched at River Rouge in 1958 and lost on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.

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