On the Water

Great Lakes, Mighty Rivers

The Great Lakes and a network of rivers opened the vast American heartland to a nation moving west.

Inland waterways are a road map to much of the nation’s history. They guided the travels of Native Americans, explorers from Europe, and streams of newcomers who established businesses, towns, and cities. The same waters linked people back to hometowns, families, and markets on the East Coast and in Europe. Inland waterways helped hold together the people and economy of the nation as it grew throughout the 1800s.

Working the Lakes

Miners, loggers, and farmers sent the riches of the Midwest to market across the Great Lakes.

In the mid-1800s, the people streaming into the Midwest—and the grain, lumber, and iron pouring out—created a maritime industry across the Great Lakes. Fleets of ships served industries around the lakes and helped create thriving port cities, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago. For all their value and beauty, the waters were dangerous, too. Thousands of ships lie at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

Lumber and Grain, Coal and Ore

Beginning in the 1840s, the Great Lakes became busy highways for moving wheat, corn, lumber, coal, and iron ore. Crops from midwestern farms crossed the lakes to markets in the East. Lumber from the region’s vast pine forests made Chicago the world’s busiest lumber port in the 1870s. Iron ore from the region traveled east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. To this day, iron ore makes up nearly half the cargo on the lakes.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Freighters in the Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, about 1900

Canals helped the Great Lakes prosper. The state of Michigan built the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal, called the Soo Locks, from 1853 to 1855 to speed ore and grain from Lake Superior to markets and industries along the lower lakes.

  • Threshing rig, Goodhue County, Minnesota, 1880s

    Farms on the American prairies produced the grain that was shipped east through the Great Lakes or down the Mississippi River. Threshing time—when the grain was removed from the stalks—required many hands to help process the grain for shipment.

    Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

  • Employees at Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co. Camp #15, about 1910

    Logging thrived around the Great Lakes from the 1850s through the 1880s, cutting whole forests from the landscape. Even past logging’s peak, demand for lumber kept loggers and shippers in business. The sled of logs displayed here—surrounded by stumps—yielded 13,562 board feet of lumber.

    Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

  • Iron miners at the Jackson Mine, Michigan, about 1870s

    Mines in Michigan’s Marquette Range, such as the Jackson Mine, supplied all the iron ore shipped on the Great Lakes until 1877. Workers mined iron by hand until 1884, when steam shovels were adopted.

    Photograph by Bernard Freemont Childs, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

  • Wheat flowing into a freighter at Duluth, Minnesota, about 1935

    From 1831 to 1888, wheat was the primary bulk cargo carried on the Great Lakes. By the 1930s it was still the leading grain carried on the lakes.

    Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

  • Grain elevators at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

    Thunder Bay was once the world’s largest grain-handling port. The complex of elevators there still receives and stores grain for shipment across the Great Lakes.

    Courtesy of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society

  • The Mahoning Mine, Hibbing, Minnesota, 1899

    Iron ore from the Mahoning Mine has been shipped down the Great Lakes since 1895. It remains the world’s largest open-pit iron mine.

    Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

  • C. H. McCullough, Jr. loading ore, Superior, Wisconsin, about 1940

    Railroads brought iron ore to giant lakefront piers, where it was loaded into the holds of steamers.

    Photograph by Louis Perry Gallagher, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

  • Aerial view of ore-loading docks, Superior, Wisconsin, 1970s

    The first trestle ore dock was built at Marquette, Michigan, in 1859. The design took advantage of gravity to unload railroad cars and fill the holds of waiting ships.

    Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

  • Hulett ore unloaders at the hold of the Leon Fraser, Gary, Indiana, about 1950

    Each of these steam-powered scoops could remove 15 tons of ore every 2 minutes, drastically reducing the time and manpower needed to empty an ore carrier.

    Courtesy of United States Steel

  • The Scow Schooner Milton Loading Lumber

    Loggers steadily depleted the forests around the Great Lakes during the 1880s and 1890s. Many small lumbering towns died, including this unidentified community. The sailing vessels they supported disappeared as well.

Scow Schooner Milton

Built at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1867

Length: 102 feet

Scow Schooner Milton

The Milton spent 20 years hauling lumber on Lake Michigan, along with hundreds of other small boats nicknamed the “mosquito fleet.” Built to carry as much cargo as possible, many of these boats did not sail well. The Milton collided with another ship and twice ran aground. In 1885, five men died—three of them brothers—when the Milton sank during an autumn storm.

Ship Model, Schooner Ed McWilliams [1978]
Ship Model, Schooner Ed McWilliams

Schooner Ed McWilliams

Built at West Bay City, Michigan, 1893

Length: 200 feet

Crew: 6

Bulk Cargo Carrier

View Object Record

Schooners like this dominated the movement of grain and lumber on the Lakes from the 1820s into the 1890s. The Ed McWilliams was designed with a shallow hull to enter small harbors. The crew bunked under the forecastle at the front of the ship, but they ate in the deckhouse at the stern, surrounded by the master, mate, and cook’s cabins. The schooner’s long middle held the cargo.

Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Crew of the Logging Schooner Joses at Milwaukee

Thousands of German, Irish, and Scandinavian immigrants manned Great Lakes ships. In 1860, only 20 percent of the sailors in Chicago were born in the United States. By 1900, that number was 51 percent.

Steam Barge Edward Smith [1966]
Steam Barge Edward Smith

Steam barge Edward Smith

Built at West Bay City, Michigan, 1890

Length: 194 feet

Crew: 16

Wind and Steam

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Early steam engines freed ships from unpredictable winds, but they were inefficient and costly to run. Many Lakes boats relied on both sail and steam. The Edward Smith could sail its cargoes of lumber, ore, or coal on the open lakes and still use its engine to maneuver in confined channels. In 1926, the ship sank in a storm on Lake Superior, with no loss of life.

Whaleback steamer Frank Rockefeller [1961]
Whaleback steamer Frank Rockefeller

Whaleback freighter Frank Rockefeller

Built at West Superior, Wisconsin, 1896

Length: 366 feet

Now the museum ship Meteor, Superior, Wisconsin

A Whaleback

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To make vessels more stable, steamer captain Alexander McDougall patented a rounded hull that would be almost submerged when loaded. He called his boats “whalebacks,” but others nicknamed them “pigs.” Many ended their working lives as barges. The Frank Rockefeller carried iron ore, sand, grain, petroleum, and even automobiles for 73 years.

Two Whalebacks Unloading Ore at Cleveland, Ohio, about 1900

In 1899, ships on the Great Lakes carried 12.5 million tons of ore, and 12.1 millions tons of coal. Even though dockyards began using unloading hoists like these, workers still shoveled most ore, coal, stone, and grain out of ships’ holds by hand.

Self-unloading Ore Carrier James R. Barker [1978]
Self-unloading Ore Carrier James R. Barker

Self-unloading ore carrier James R. Barker

Launched at Lorain, Ohio, 1976

Length: 1,005 feet

Gift of Lake Carriers Association

The James Barker

View Object Record

Three thousand boats worked the Great Lakes in 1893. By 2000, the number was less than 200, but the huge vessels in use today carry more cargo. The James R. Barker is one of the largest ships working the Lakes today. In one trip, the Barker can carry more than 60,000 tons of ore, enough to produce the steel for 16,000 automobiles.

Lakes Weather

The Great Lakes are among the most dangerous waters in the world. Powerful gales churn the waters, especially in late autumn, and the Lakes freeze in winter. Experienced captains understand and respect the limits of the shipping season. Still, sudden changes in the weather have brought many ships and crews to grief.

As commerce expanded after the mid-1800s, growing numbers of mariners faced the dangers of the Lakes. A four-day gale in 1869 wrecked 97 ships, and in 1871 there were 591 sinkings, collisions, groundings, and explosions—one for every four boats on the Lakes. Between 1878 and 1897, the Lakes claimed almost 6,000 ships.

Ore boat William H. Truesdale weathering a violent storm on Lake Erie, 1930s

Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University


Ice covering the bow of a Lakes freighter, 1930s

During frigid Great Lakes winters, strong winds whipped up spray that coated ships in ice. The ice could overload a ship and often contributed to sinkings in violent weather.

Photograph by A. E. Young, courtesy of the Dana Thomas Bowen Collection, Great Lakes Historical Society

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald pushed across the waters of Lake Superior with a cargo of iron ore. A storm came up in the afternoon and pounded the ship through the night with winds up to 75 mph, blinding snow, and waves reaching 25 feet. That evening, the ship radioed another vessel, Avafors, with a warning:

Fitzgerald: (shouting) “DON’T LET NOBODY ON DECK!”

Avafors: “What’s that, Fitzgerald? Unclear. Over.”

Fitzgerald: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve been in.”

At 7 p.m., the Fitzgerald radioed another nearby ship, “We are holding our own.”

Less than two hours later, the Edmund Fitzgerald had disappeared from radar. No distress calls were ever received. Rescuers found a few empty lifeboats, buoys, and other bits of debris on the lake. Several days later, the remains of the ship were discovered in two pieces on the bottom of Lake Superior, only 17 miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay. All 29 crew members were lost. Every November 10, the bell at the Mariner’s Church in Detroit, Michigan, rings 29 times in their memory.

Mariners’ Memorial, 1988

Great Lakes captains, family members, and friends pay their respects at a memorial service for the Edmund Fitzgerald crew at Detroit’s Mariners’ Church.

Photograph by Dean Koepfler, courtesy of The Detroit News

The steamer Irving S. Olds on a Winter Run, Upper Lake Huron, January 2, 1976

Photograph by Rus Hurt, courtesy of Hartwell Etc.