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On This Day in 1898 (SUPERIOR CITY)

On this day (04/13) in 1898, Cleveland Ship Building launched the SUPERIOR CITY at its new yard in Lorain, Ohio. Built for Augustus Wolvin’s Zenith Transit Company, she was “the largest ship on fresh water.” She was also the first vessel to slide down the ways at Lorain. Cleveland Ship Building became American Ship Building in 1899. It was the dominant shipbuilder on the Great Lakes during the first half of the twentieth century. The SUPERIOR CITY sank claiming 29 lives after colliding with another vessel in 1920. The Lorain facility closed in 1983 two years after delivering what is still the largest vessel on the Lakes.

Henry Coffinberry and Robert Wallace formed Globe Iron Works in 1869. This company would build the first iron-hulled freighter (ONOKO) for the Great Lakes in 1882. Four years later it launched the first steel steamer (SPOKENE). Coffinberry and Wallace sold the Iron Works and organized Cleveland Ship Building. Using a site formerly occupied by Cleveland’s first iron maker, the new firm built its first boat in 1888. Success forced Cleveland Ship Building to find more space. It would build a new facility 25 miles west in the City of Lorain, Ohio. On twenty acres along the east bank of the Black River, the company built a dry dock, dredged two launching slips, and laid four construction berths. Ship construction began at the new yard in 1898. Cleveland Ship Building eventually transferred all work to Lorain and the Cleveland yard closed. The first ship launched at Lorain was the SUPERIOR CITY. Her launching was quite a spectacle. Area railroads advertised special excursion rates for the occasion. And it was reported that ten thousand visitors from all parts of the state descended upon Lorain to witness the launch of this “mammoth steamer.” She slid down the ways at 2:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday, April 13, 1898. As the nineteenth century came to a close, steel makers were just beginning to tap the vast iron deposits in northern Minnesota and they needed boats to transport that ore. Working with Cleveland attorney James Hoyt, prominent Duluth vessel agent Augustus Wolvin formed Zenith Transit in 1895 to build a fleet. SUPERIOR CITY was the fifth large freighter built for Zenith. Described as both a “pioneer vessel” and “mammoth,” SUPERIOR CITY was 450 feet long with a 50-foot beam. When launched, she “was the largest ship on fresh water.” SUPERIOR CITY easily broke records. On June 9, 1898, she carried a record 7,560 tons of ore from Escanaba to South Chicago. More important, another record was set that trip when she was unloaded at South Chicago in twelve hours. Her thirteen large hatches made this possible. In an era before Hulett unloaders, it also required eleven men working each hatch. SUPERIOR CITY’s reign as “Queen of the Lakes” would last only until the SAMUEL F.B. MORSE was launched three months later. Late in 1899, Wolvin sold the SUPERIOR CITY to American Steel & Wire, which would be one of several steel makers that combined in 1901 to form United States Steel. So in that year, she became part of the U.S. Steel fleet. Her career ended on August 20, 1920, when the SUPERIOR CITY sank after colliding with the WILLIS L. KING on Lake Superior near Whitefish Point. SUPERIOR CITY was downbound with 7,500 tons of ore and the KING was upbound empty. Weather was good. Because of confusion about passing signals, SUPERIOR CITY cut across the KING’s bow. SUPERIOR CITY was rammed aft of amidships on the port side. Water quickly reached the boiler room and her boilers exploded. She went to the bottom very quickly. Only four of the 33 people on board survived. No bodies were ever recovered. Families of those who died and Pittsburgh Steamship, owner of the SUPERIOR CITY, filed claims totaling almost $1,000,000 against Interstate Steamship, owner of the KING. Following a trial in March 1922, a federal judge concluded that both captains were equally at fault. Diver John Steele discovered the SUPERIOR CITY wreck in 1972. Her remains rest about 250 feet below the surface. Divers with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society relocated the wreck in 1980. A video about the wreck created by the Society in 1988 created some controversy because it showed human remains. In 1992, Michigan authorities raided the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum to recover artifacts removed from the site. A deal was worked out allowing the museum to display them. Cleveland Ship Building became American Ship Building in 1899 when it combined with several other shipbuilders. For the first half of the twentieth century it was the dominant shipbuilder on the Lakes. George Steinbrenner acquired the company in 1967. The largest boat ever built for the Lakes was launched at Lorain in 1981. Two years later American Ship Building closed the Lorain yard and abandoned the Great Lakes. NOTES: EMPIRE CITY, also built for Zenith Transit, was the last vessel built by Cleveland Ship Building at its Cleveland Yard. She launched in June 1897.

George Steinbrenner used the money he made building ships to buy the New York Yankees in 1973. Ships made Steinbrenner rich. The Yankees made him famous.

At 1,013 feet, the PAUL R. TREGURTHA is the largest vessel on the Great Lakes. Originally the WILLIAM J. DELANCEY, she was launched at Lorain on February 4, 1981.

PHOTO CREDIT: Great Lakes Marine Collection of the Milwaukee Public Library and Wisconsin Marine Historical Society.

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