On the Water

Whaleback steamer Frank Rockefeller

Scotsman Alexander McDougall (1845-1924) was a ship captain on the Great Lakes when he patented the idea of a “whaleback” ship in the early 1880s. With low, rounded hulls, decks and deckhouses, his invention minimized water and wind resistance. Between 1887 and 1898, 44 whalebacks were produced: 23 were barges and 21 were steamships, including one passenger vessel.

Frank Rockefeller was the 36th example of the type, built in 1896 at a cost of $181,573.38 at McDougall’s American Steel Barge Company in Superior, WI. One of the larger examples of the type, Rockefeller measured 380 feet in length, drew 26 feet of water depth and had a single propeller.

Although it belonged to several different owners over its 73-year working life, the Rockefeller spent most of its early life transporting iron ore from mines in Lake Superior to steel mills along the shores of Lake Erie. In 1927, new owners put it in service as a sand dredge that hauled landfill sand for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. From 1936-1942 the old ship saw service as a car carrier for another set of owners. In 1942 the ship wrecked in Lake Michigan, but wartime demand for shipping gave the old ship repairs, a new name (Meteor) and a new life as a tanker transporting petroleum products for more than 25 years. In 1969 Meteor ran aground off the Michigan coast, Instead of repairing the old ship, the owners sold it for a museum ship at Superior, WI. In poor condition today, Meteor is the last surviving example of McDougal’s whaleback or “pig boat”.

ID Number:
13 1/2 x 48 x 5 1/2 in.; 34.29 x 121.92 x 13.97 cm

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