Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

One final sail set for J.B. Ford

The J B Ford at dock in 2011. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
2 / 2

Mussels by the thousands clung to the portside anchor of the J.B. Ford and Steve Haverty could relate to the feeling. He didn't want to let her go either.

Haverty made the trip from the Twin Cities on Thursday to see the 111-year-old steamship tugged to its final resting place.

"Having spent five years and thousands of dollars trying to save her I felt like it was worthwhile to see her go the last 2 miles," said Haverty, who started the Great Lakes Steamship Society several years ago in a failed effort to save the Ford as a museum ship.

But weather conditions weren't right for the tow across the bay from the Connors Point Storage dock in Superior to Azcon Metals in Duluth.

"It's too windy; we could be fogged in in five minutes," said Heritage Marine owner Mike Ojard, who will try again Friday to take the Ford across Superior Bay. The tow will require two tugs and is expected to take place sometime this morning.

The Ford will be the first ship scrapped at the Duluth yard in a generation. One scrapyard worker said he's been with the company 20 years and never scrapped a ship, missing it when the Irvin L. Clymer was torched and dismantled from its pilot house down to its hull in 1994.

Like the Clymer, the Ford featured a leaning black smokestack in its stern and a distinguished air about its pilot house — making her a ship's ship.

"The beauty of that ship is how it melded function with beauty," said Steve Lindsey of Keene, N.H., a onetime Coast Guardsman and "historic preservationist" responsible for a couple of Wikipedia entries on lakers and shipping, as well as campaigns to save theaters, churches and other examples of American heritage.

"It wasn't a slab-sided barge," Lindsey said. "It's almost breathtaking and had that sort of 'Wow' look. It was both creative and functional — profit-making and yet fun to look at, too."

The Ford also was distinguished by its three-cycle reciprocating steam engine — the last of its kind in existence. She last sailed the Great Lakes under her own power in 1985 as a cement barge.

The Ford was launched as the Edwin F. Holmes in Lorain, Ohio, on Dec. 12, 1903. It is 440 feet long, with a beam of 50 feet, a depth of 28 feet and a capacity of 8,000 tons. By comparison, the William A. Irvin, launched 34 years later, is 611 feet long, with a beam of 60 feet, a depth of 32.5 feet and a capacity of 13,600 tons.

For the first several decades of its life, the Ford — sailing first as the Holmes and then as the E.C. Collins — hauled iron ore, coal and grain. It was upbound on Lake Superior during the 1905 Mataafa Storm, during which 29 vessels were lost or damaged. It was downbound on Superior during the 1913 White Hurricane storm, during which 12 vessels were lost and 32 driven aground.

The Ford escaped the breakers-yard fate of many of its contemporaries by finding a specialized niche in the 1950s, when the Huron Portland Cement Co. bought and converted it to a self-unloading cement carrier. It was Huron that renamed the vessel the J.B. Ford. Lafarge bought the Ford in the 1980s and used it as a cement barge, first in Chicago, then in Superior.

Awash with rust now, the Ford still hints at her beauty — a curving hull that drapes inward at the rudder; oak panels and brass fixtures in its cabins. But it would have cost an estimated $1.5 to $2 million to save her.

The loss of the Ford comes at a time when two other iconic vessels appear headed for the junkyard — an iconic cruise ship, the S.S. United States, in Philadelphia that's seen its preservation efforts flatlining, and President Harry Truman's yacht, the Williamsburg, listing in an Italian port as it takes on water in the face of zero interest to save it. All three were paragons of their kind in their day.

"That's three pieces of American history," Lindsey said. "They're reminders, sort of like the Statue of Liberty reminding us of the immigration that made this nation. If you lose that, the populace is cast adrift."

Haverty fell in love with ships as a kid, when his parents would take him to Duluth every month. The family didn't have a lot of money, he said, and the port was his playground. "I loved it," he said. "It became my biggest passion."

He later sailed the Great Lakes and still volunteers with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps in Duluth. He's trying to save what he can of the Ford's pilot house, but isn't sure Azcon will cooperate. Azcon did not respond to inquiries for this article.

Standing far up the dock from the Ford on Thursday, Haverty was content to watch from a distance.

"I've said my goodbyes this morning," he said, "and it was emotional."

RELATED CONTENT: Ford has ties to historic Great Lakes storms

Advertisement