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

Staff Writer

— 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.

Fully equipped

Plans to build a shipyard in Ashtabula were announced Aug. 28, 1909, by Antonio C. Pessano, GLEW’s president and chairman.

“The shipyard will have a frontage on the Ashtabula River of approximately 2,000 feet,” stated the news release Great Lakes sent to Ed E. Large, the editor of the Beacon newspaper. “Of this 1,200 feet will be devoted to building berths on which two ships may be under construction at the same time. This building berth will be provided with an enormous traveling crane, electrically operated, along the dock front of the property.

“The boats after being launched will occupy the river front of the property, while being equipped with boilers, engine, etc., all of which is placed in the boats after launching. To hoist these boilers & engines, which are of tremendous weight ... powerful Shear legs having a capacity of lifting 100 tons will be erected on the river front at the end of the building berth. This will be electrically operated.”

The news release goes on to tell about the main shops, where punching, shearing, straightening and rolling machinery would be installed alongside the “immense furnaces for the heating of the steel permit their being shaped to fit to their respected places.” Also on the grounds were to be a power house, paint shop, pre-fab shops and general stores, where every conceivable item required for the construction and fitting out of a vessel would be kept in inventory. The press release stated that even the engines for these freighters would be built at Ashtabula in a modern machine shop.

Operation of the shipyard necessitated dredging the river to accommodate the large vessels that would be launched from the site. Two great concrete docks, “large enough to dock the dozen boats built and then some” were part of the plan, which also included extending railroad tracks to the site and installing locomotive cranes to handle the cargo.

Although no employment figures were stated in the release, the economic impact of the GLEW investment was significant and involved participation from the city. The 48 acres for the complex was purchased from the Pennsylvania and Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad systems by the city. The land was then passed to GLEW.

“When the river improvement is handled so to make it possible for the shipyard to be operative, the same improvements will blaze the way for other manufacturing plants being located up the river beyond the shipyard,” Pessano predicted.

Although GLEW embraced steel construction, the Ashtabula site was to include a sawmill “where timber is prepared for repairs to any wooden ships which may come along, also for cabin work of the steel ships.”

A newspaper article describing the Arthur Davidson notes that the ship’s standard woodwork was 1/4-sawed oak. The captain’s room and office were finished in mission oak, the observation room and halls were paneled in deep mahogany. The passenger’s state rooms were a lighter mahogany.

“A large ship is somewhat like a modern hotel as it is equipped with magnificent and luxuriously furnished staterooms, with baths — hot and cold water — electric lighting, electric fans, parlors, dining rooms, etc., all of which are completely furnished by the ship builder, even down to the toothpicks,” Pessano stated in his news release.

Still in use

Construction of the first vessel closely followed that of the shipyard itself. The hull of the Louis R. Davidson was laid Oct. 30, 1911. Just seven months later, after the Davidson made its big splash in the Ashtabula River, a newspaper article declared that “a mighty proud and graceful craft she is. Nothing has been spared to make her complete, and both her owners, builders, officers and crew appear to be eminently satisfied.”

The ship was christened by Lola Remick, with Zelma Whitney and Virginia Cheney serving as her maids of honor. Capt. E. O. Whitney, who was superintendent of the Ashtabula and Buffalo docks, and three others were aboard the vessel when she launched.

The Davidson was built for the American Steamship Co. of Buffalo. A triple expansion steam engine and two coal-fired Scotch marine boilers powered the ship, which was designed to carry bulk materials.

As was often the case with Great Lakes ships, the vessel was renamed by subsequent owners; it became the Diamond Alkali in 1932 and Dow Chemical in 1939. It was fitted with self-unloading equipment in 1932.

The first ship out of the Ashtabula yard had a long, and fairly uneventful, career on the lakes. But as was the case with many of the smaller, inefficient lake freighters in the 1970s, it was sold for scrap in 1979.

More than two dozen other vessels were built at the Ashtabula yards in the 24 years that followed the launch of the Davidson. The output was mostly cargo ships until 1923, when the yard built two Erie Canal bulk ships for Minnesota-Atlantic Transit. In 1927, the yard built a fishing tug for Charles Hoskins of Erie, Pa., the Mavret H., which, according to a 2009 document, was still in use on Lake Onondaga in New York.

The docks went into hibernation after the Hoskins tug was built; it was 1940 before another vessel, the supply ship Sandy, rolled into the Ashtabula River. In 1943 the Ashtabula GLEW yard launched four lakers, Pilot Knob/Frank Armstrong, Clarence B. Randall, J.H. Hillman, Jr. and Pilot Knob/Stellton. The ships were four of 16 built for the  U.S. Maritime Commission to ensure adequate shipping resources for moving bulk materials for the war effort.

All but the Hillman appear to have been scrapped. The Hillman, which had a long history of owners, was in operation in 2011 as the Algoma Transfer. Previously known as the Canadian Transfer, it was rebuilt for ULS Corporation in 1998 and is owned by the Algoma Central Corporation of St. Catharines, Ontario.

The final vessel to come out of the GLEW Ashtabula yard was the little supply ship, Ojibway, which was launched in 1946. The Ojibway has worked at the Soo supply warehouse since leaving Ashtabula. Owned by MCM Marine, the vessel works under contract to delivery supplies to and remove garbage, dirty linen and other waste from the freighters that ply the St. Marys River.

GLEW’s Ashtabula shipyard limped along and, in the 1950s, was used as location for scraping exhausted steel vessels. Early in 1961 Great Lakes Steel Corporation offered to purchase the property; its interest was in land for a steel plant, however. Amship ended up purchasing all of GLEW’s patterns, the floating dry dock and the Ashtabula shipyard. The cycle was completed when most of the buildings were dismantled and the land sold to the city.

Jack Phelps, a local diver and business owner, purchased the property and named it Jack’s Marina. His wife and two sons continue to operate it, and one former GLEW building and the dry dock are still visible on the property.

Special thanks to Bob Frisbie, director of the Ashtabula Maritime & Surface Transportation Museum for providing much of the information and the L. R. Davidson photograph for this entry.

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