Effort abandoned to save 111-year-old freighter as museum ship

The laker J.B. Ford's days as a survivor appear to be numbered. Having made it through the storms of 1905 and 1913 that counted dozens of ships among its casualties, the Ford will succumb to old age.

J.B. Ford
The Great Lakes freighter J.B. Ford is towed in Lake Superior in June 2001 toward the Twin Ports and the Lafarge terminal, where it would serve as a floating storage vessel. (2001 file / News Tribune)
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The laker J.B. Ford’s days as a survivor appear to be numbered. Having made it through the storms of 1905 and 1913 that counted dozens of ships among its casualties, the Ford will succumb to old age.
The Great Lakes Steamship Society last week abandoned its effort to save the 111-year-old craft as a museum ship. The Ford is docked in Superior.
“It’s a real shame we can’t save her,” said Steve Haverty, founder and president of the society. “But with this economy it’s been real tough getting the money together. We gave it a good effort and bought her a couple more years.”
It had been estimated that $1.5 million to $2 million was necessary to save the J.B. Ford from the scrapyard. Lafarge North America owns the ship. When the News Tribune reached its communications department, the company spokesperson gave “no comment” on the ship’s future.
Haverty’s group still is working with Lafarge to salvage certain artifacts, including the forward cabins. The Great Lakes Steamship Society is turning its attention to saving another vessel, possibly the S.T. Crapo docked in Green Bay, Wis.
Other vessels are considered more feasible to salvage.
The J.B. Ford was distinguished by its three-cycle reciprocating steam engine - the last of its kind in existence - and last sailed in 1985 as a cement barge.
Paul Mattson worked for 16 years for Lafarge in Superior, and spent many days working in and around the J.B. Ford after it had been relegated to floating cement storage. Some workers, including Mattson, considered it haunted, he said.
He recalled it being sold for scrap for $1 in 2007, before the society stepped it to try and save it.
“It was an amazing ship in its day,” Mattson said. “She’s got an amazing history. I spent many hours working on the J.B. Ford, but it’s had its time.”
The J.B. 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.
Steve Lindsey of Keene, N.H., informed the News Tribune of the latest development in the life of the J.B. Ford. He’s a one-time Coast Guarder (1984-91) and self-described “historic preservationist” responsible for a couple of Wikipedia entries on lakers and shipping, as well as campaigns to save churches and other examples of architecture. With the Coast Guard, he helped break ice for ships like the J.B. Ford and developed an affinity for the shipping trade. He laments the inability of places like the National Trust for Historic Preservation to salvage more ships from what he called, “the Golden Age of steamers.”
“We got to know and love these ships,” Lindsey said. “Someday, all we’re going to have are motorized barges - without character, without stories. They’ll be like drones, and we won’t have ships as living entities anymore. It’s important to save a little of it, because this is stuff we’ll never see again.”

The Duluth News Tribune’s Steve Kuchera contributed to this report.

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