23 March 2023 — The Whaleback Ship: McDougall's Great Lakes Workhorse Vessels Were Odd, But They Got the Job Done.


Sometimes a design is different enough—one might even say quirky enough—that it really makes an impression. The whaleback ship, a product of the Great Lakes, was one of those designs.

The idea was dreamed up by Alexander McDougall, Great Lakes captain, inventor, shipbuilder, and entrepreneur. Born in 1845 in Scotland, McDougall immigrated with his family to Canada in 1854, and at the age of sixteen, he signed on as a deckhand on a Great Lakes steamer, working his way up to captain at age 25. In 1881 he moved to Duluth, MN, and founded a stevedoring, marine insurance and cargo business. McDougall was always thinking—he would receive over 50 US and foreign patents over the course of his lifetime.

whaleback ship in locks

In this colorized photo, the steamer Joseph L. Colby, hull # 108, built in 1890, is pictured in the Poe lock of the Soo Locks. Photo: PD.

McDougall came up with a design for a ship that he thought would be well-suited to carrying cargo on the Great Lakes, maximizing cargo capacity and improving stability by minimizing friction. The St. Joseph Saturday Herald would later describe the design:

The hull of the whaleback—or that part which rests in the water—differs only slightly from the old type of hull. The new features are the ends and the doing away with upper works by turning the sides over to meet in a sort of turtle-back form. The ends taper off gradually, and reverse the old theory that a vessel’s bow and stern should be high above water. They are better submerged, McDougall thinks, and so when a whaleback is in a rough sea she is practically all submerged, and the waves roll over her without meeting with resistance. Then again the bow and stern are made as they are to avoid the weight of the old-style ends, which, it is said, strain and weaken all boats which carry them. It is said that in the roughest storms on the lake, no whaleback has been obliged to seek a harbor.

This photo of the Charles W. Wetmore can be found in Alexander McDougall's scrapbook. The attached note reads: "Steamer Wetmore/As she arrived in Liverpool/And/As she arrived at Everett Washington/And/As she looked for years along the Pacific/Till by a Drunken Capt was ran ashore In Fog at Cooss Bay Oregon a total Loss /A McD." Photo: University of Wisconsin – Madison Library.

McDougall envisioned whaleback steamers with whaleback barges in tow. Not finding any backers initially, he built a prototype out of his own pocket on a property he held in Duluth. It was a 178-foot-long barge with the somewhat unimaginative name of 101; some wags joked that the name was derived from the 10-to-1 odds of the craft ever catching on. Pearson's Magazine reported that "The engineers, naval architects, vessel owners, and shipbuilders, seemingly by common agreement, referred to the project as 'McDougall's Dream,' and for years his wife was literally the only believer in the wonderful idea, which it was claimed would revolutionize shipbuilding."

The barge was loaded with 1,200 tons of iron ore and delivered to Cleveland. The odd shape of the craft drew several nicknames; “whaleback,” has stuck till this day. (That was lucky for McDougall and his later business partners; thanks to the distinctive appearance of the ends of the boat, which resembled a pig’s nose, there were some who called them “pig boats”).

McDougall finally drew the interest of New York investors, including John D. Rockefeller, and the American Steel Barge Company was founded. The shipyard in Duluth produced barges 102 through 107 and the whaleback steamer Colgate Hoyt while the company built a drydock in Superior, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin yard then produced 33 whaleback vessels, as well as more-conventional oil barges and a tug, before McDougall sold his interest in American Steel Barge Company in 1899 and pursued other business ventures. No more whalebacks were produced in the Great Lakes after that.

Three other whaleback vessels—a steamer and two barges—were built elsewhere in the US, and the steamer Sagamore was built in 1893 by Doxford & Sons in Sunderland, England, after a UK patent. (McDougall had optimistically filed for patents in Europe and North and South America, although the Sagamore was the only product of those efforts.) While the existing whalebacks would serve well into the 20th century, the evolution of Great Lakes shipping moved away from the design, particularly because the whalebacks’ hatches were too small for the clamshell system of unloading cargo.

passenger ship Christopher Columbus

The Christopher Columbus was the only whaleback intended to carry passengers. Photo: PD.

One standout of the whaleback fleet was the Christopher Columbus, the only passenger vessel of the line, intended to transport visitors to and from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. She was permitted to carry 4,000 passengers in regular service, but carried a whopping 7,000 guests on her first trip out. Columbus followed up a year at the World’s Fair as a very popular attraction—she carried an estimated 1.7 million people during the course of the event—with an excursion route between Chicago and Milwaukee, continuing until she was scrapped in 1936.

bow of whaleback vessel Meteor

The museum ship Meteor, located in Superior, Wisconsin, is the last of the whalebacks. Photo: Chris Light via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, you can visit the last remaining veteran of the whaleback fleet, SS Meteor, in Superior, Wisconsin. The museum ship, part of the Superior Public Museum group, was launched as the Frank Rockefeller in 1896 and over a lengthy career carried iron ore, grain, sand and gravel, and oil. It’s worth a trip to take a closer look at this significant icon of Great Lakes history.

Extra Credit

"McDougall's Patented Anchor"

"McDougall's Dream – The Whaleback"

Scrapbook of Alexander McDougall

Behind the Scenes: Whaleback Steamers

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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