“Shit… I can’t believe I’ve lived in Duluth this long and haven’t worked my way onto one of these things.
It’s like going to Buffalo and not climbing grain elevators, or Cheyenne and its Atlas missile bases—but here we are now, finally.”
Clean, cold waves knocked against hollow steel in the short silence that floated through the scene and in the distance we heard the 1-long 2-short Aerial Lift Bridge horn, then its echoes ricocheting off the two cities. This was fate.
“We came on a good night.”
Only half a moon was watching our figures move near the beach, and slowly the sounds of pre-winter dredging operations leaked into our ears from out on the water, toward downtown Duluth. The sound was like a vacuum cleaner on a hot suburban summer afternoon—it felt perfectly natural, although I knew it wasn’t. We couldn’t sense any bounce under our feet, but, we thought, “Probably ‘cause it’s 440 feet long… lots of displacement.” It didn’t matter whether we felt it or not, we knew that we were on Lake Superior on a circa 1904 boat; the name on the side read J.B. Ford.
A Vessel for History (But Where’s the Lifeboat?)
Although the air was cold, we had layered our fleece on top of more fleece and donned gloves to fend off the chilly lake breeze that rolled uninterrupted from Canada to my face, frozen in a smirk (no doubt) while fumbling in the near-dark to get my camera equipment online. From the early 20th century pilothouse with its various outdated antennae and welded portholes to the stern’s engine room skylights, flag-less stern and lifeboats, one had to appreciate how the old girl’s held up.
Her condition is a lucky one, too—she represents the last of her fleet; a sister without kin, a boat with no captain and a tender hull ready to be scrapped. There’s no shame in retirement, just too little tribute afforded to this vessel for a job well done. Here is the story of the boat we know as the J.B. Ford: let it be a reminder that not all history is static, but like a person who has led a fulfilling career, has accomplishments and geographies recorded en memoriam.
Three Lives Sealed in Concrete
When Captain James Owen became the first to pilot this ship, it weighed 4370 tons, measured 440 feet long and 50 wide, built as a bulk carrier for the Commonwealth Steamship Fleet. It was technically launched from its birthplace at American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio at noon on December 12, 1903—I say ‘technically,’ because it was truly Mother Nature who launched the ship, at that time named Edwin F. Holmes. The Black River, which bordered American Shipbuilding, flooded that December, washing what would become the Ford into the opposite riverbank bow-first. It wasn’t dug out until February.
Once freed, Captain Owen ordered the pair of boilers to be powered up and the beginning of a profitable career began, the initial accident not exactly being an omen. Perhaps the exception to this rule is an incident that occurred in Duluth, ironically close to the boat’s current moorings, when a gust of wind swung the Holmes’ anchor chain into a passenger steamer in July of 1904.
This seriously damaged the passenger ship, but the Edwin F. Holmes escaped unscathed.
When the Hawgood Fleet, of which Commonwealth was a subsidiary, dissolved in 1916, Pittsburgh Steamship bought the vessel. Pittsburgh Steamship was the shipping arm of U.S. Steel, so this did not change the role of the boat on the Great Lakes. What did change, however, was the name on her side; thus is the second life of the J.B. Ford: the E.C. Collins. As the Collins, this already-dated steamship served through the remaining two years of World War I and through World War II. It wasn’t until after the dire need for war steel was fulfilled that the tired machine would have to retool to keep up with the world; anything less would be like concrete boots…
A Concrete Solution
The E.C. Collins was 52 when she was sold to Huron Portland Cement Company—in a middle-age crisis of sorts—so a change was in order, a name change. In 1956 the ship that was launched as the Holmes, renamed the Collins and finally the Ford sailed as we know her today. The namesake for the J.B. Ford is John Baptiste Ford, a plate glass entrepreneur who died the year this ship was completed.
Other updates came with the new owner, too, like a bow thruster, so the boat wouldn’t need the expensive assistance of tugboats. That decade, too, the engine was converted to burn oil instead of coal to run its two giant cylinders. Coal was problematic at some ports because of the smoke it gave off and certain ports went so far as to ban ships that used coal-fired engines.
Huron’s investment in the Ford, however, was not a timely one.
On the 8th of November in 1985, steam condensation caused a cylinder, essentially half the engine, to crack, forever disabling the steam-laker. Not even the repairs made to the cylinder repaired the engine satisfactorily, so she was towed to a dock for LaFarge, the successor to Huron Portland Cement, where the Ford would learn the taste of concrete.
The 12 topside cargo hatches were welded shut, the propeller and thruster tubes were capped and sealed, and the J.B. Ford had become a dedicated floating concrete silo. This is not to say that all maritime use of the vessel had ceased, though, as the Ford was enabled to pump its new lifeblood into waiting barges. LaFarge used the boat this way in Chicago before towing her to Superior, Wisconsin, her current resting place, in 2001, though she wasn’t returned to service until 2004.
The Ford was towed beside a historic coal dock in 2008, where she can both see downtown Duluth and hear Superior bars’ last calls. In the shadow of an also-mothballed 1909 anthracite plant and in the company of a fleet of historic tugboats, the boat of three names waits. She waits for the scrap yard, to taste concrete again, or to simply close her eyes and sink where she floats.
In 2015, the Ford was towed to Duluth to be scrapped.