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dseehafer

Men of Maritime History: Captain Alexander McDougall

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Greetings all,

 

Today we will be taking a look at a man largely forgotten by maritime history, Captain Alexander McDougall. I'm not calling this a series yet, but if this thread proves popular enough I may do more.

 

McDougall was born in 1845 in Scottland, at the age of 10 he emigrated with his family to Canada and at the age of 17, he began working on the Lake freighters after limited schooling. Eventually, he would work his way up to Captain and would eventually move to Duluth, Minnesota.

 

Image result for captainalexander mcdougall

 

The story goes that one day he was watching a log in the waves. He noticed that the waves would roll harmlessly over the log and the log did not seem to be affected much by the waves. This gave him the idea to design a ship with a low-profile rounded steel hull...

 

In the late 1800's most ships on the Great Lakes were made of wood. Because there was a limit to how big you could safely build a ship out of wood it was common practice for a ship to tow behind it a wooden barge (usually an old schooner) to maximize the amount of cargo that could be carried in a single trip. The problem was that these barges did not track well in heavy seas, that is to say that they were at the mercy of the wind and the waves as far as which direction they faced. Because of this, these barges would often have to be cut loose, after being cut loose the barges would often sink, taking their precious cargo with them.

 

A schooner barge being towed by a laker

Image result for ship towing schooner barge

 

... McDougall believed that his design would allow waves to harmlessly roll over it, much like the log, and they would, therefore, track better. Nobody seemed to like his design so in 1887 with his own money he built a small shipyard on his property and built his very first "whaleback" ship, again, using his own money. The barge was a massive success and McDougal would partner with the legendary John D. Rockefeller and would build 6 more whalebacks in Duluth before relocating across the harbor to Superior, Wisconsin (where I live) and building a much larger shipyard which still exists today as Fraser shipyards (where I used to work).

 

A whaleback about to be launched

Image result for whaleback ship

 

In all 44 whalebacks would be built between 1887 and 1898, 7 in Duluth, 33 in Superior, 2 in New York, 1 in Washington, and 1 in England. 25 were tow-barges and the rest were self-powered. All were built as cargo vessels save for one, the Christopher Columbus, which was a passenger ship. For their time they were large (between 265' and 413'), fast (most could do 15kn), and tough (Steel is tougher than wood), they were also quick to load and unload. Notably, the first American freighter to go from the Great Lakes to the Ocean was a whaleback, this same ship was also the first US steamer to transit the Suez Canal and was also the first US steamer to circumnavigate the globe.

 

Christopher Columbus, the only whaleback passenger ship

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other whalebacks

Image result for whaleback ship

 

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Image result for whaleback ship

 

The design was not without its flaws, however. Their low profile made them hard to see and many whalebacks would be the victims of collisions with other ships. Their low profile also meant that their small hatches were constantly beaten on in rough seas, often times the hatches would become loose or be torn off completely, causing the ship to sink... Ironic as they were specifically designed to be good in storms. Their hull design was also unable to grow much larger, as the standard freighters passed 500' the whalebacks just couldn't keep up. Finally, they did not respond well to major refits. For example, the 1892 vintage Whaleback Samuel Mather was given a self-unloading boom in the winter of 1923-24, the now top-heavy vessel would operate for less than a year before capsizing and sinking. Almost all whalebacks would eventually meet a watery grave and today only one still exists above water, the SS Meteor. The SS Meteor was the last whaleback built and also had the longest career being finally retired in 1969. She is a museum in Superior Wisconsin, where she was built.

 

A whaleback being struck by another ship

Image result for whaleback ship painting

 

sinking and wrecked whalebacks

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Image result for whaleback ship sinking

 

The SS Meteor, the last surviving whaleback ship in the world

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Just after the turn of the century McDougall partnered with Julius Barnes and built a second shipyard in Duluth. During WWI the shipyard built 24 ships for the War effort. In 1924, after having built a total of 54 ships the shipyard closed. McDougall then sold the shipyard entirely to his partner. The shipyard was given new life during WWII when it built 38 vessels for the war effort before immediately closing again for the final time after the war. Today what remains of the shipyard is a marina.

 

The McDougall-Duluth shipyard

Image result for mcdougall-duluth shipyard

 

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Image result for mcdougall-duluth shipyard

 

Captain Alexander McDougall died on May 27, 1923 at the age of 78. His shipyards built a total of 140 vessels, 62 of them commissioned by the Government for use in two World Wars. And as a ship inventor, he would give the world arguably the strangest looking type of ship it has ever know... A design which looked great on paper, but was ultimately doomed to fail in reality. On top of all of this he was an active member in his community and helped make Duluth the city it is today.

 

I hope you enjoyed this and maybe even learned something! :)

  • Cool 9

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Very interesting! Would definitely like to see more of this in the future.

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Great read.

 

Definitely would enjoy more posts like this in the future. +1

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As always, this was a great read.  I love these posts that you do, so please keep up the excellent work! :Smile_medal:

 

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I concur. This was a great read and would love reading more. :Smile_great:

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It's a very curious solution to a problem, but a cool one. +1 for the post, I'd read more of these!

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Nice Post! Great read. +1 

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You know, I often hear people say "looks like a submarine"... well... technically, submarine's look like whalebacks as submarines did not become mainstream until the early 1900s and all whalebacks were built in the late 1800s. :cap_yes:

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On the one hand, the man created thousands of jobs both in his 3 shipyards (at its peak the McDougall-Duluth Shipyard employed 3,500 workers) and the many ships he built... but on the other hand, his disaster-prone whalebacks took many sailors to the bottom of the lakes. Granted, in the late 1800s and early 1900s all types of ships sank on the Great Lakes ln large numbers, but the fact that almost all of McDougall's whalebacks eventually sank really says something...

 

Still, it's not like McDougall envisioned any of these disasters, again, his whalebacks were supposed to be the safest ships afloat. So, is the blood really on his hands? Surely all the good he did, all the job he created, all the buildings he funded in Duluth, outweighed the death toll of his ships??

 

What do you guys think?

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1 hour ago, dseehafer said:

On the one hand, the man created thousands of jobs both in his 3 shipyards (at its peak the McDougall-Duluth Shipyard employed 3,500 workers) and the many ships he built... but on the other hand, his disaster-prone whalebacks took many sailors to the bottom of the lakes. Granted, in the late 1800s and early 1900s all types of ships sank on the Great Lakes ln large numbers, but the fact that almost all of McDougall's whalebacks eventually sank really says something...

 

Still, it's not like McDougall envisioned any of these disasters, again, his whalebacks were supposed to be the safest ships afloat. So, is the blood really on his hands? Surely all the good he did, all the job he created, all the buildings he funded in Duluth, outweighed the death toll of his ships??

 

What do you guys think?

 

One has to remember that the threat of drowning at sea is always a possibility regardless of the safety of the ship you are on. Sailors have gone to sea knowing that there is always that chance. 

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Wow, that is a very low profile ship. The concept is cool, but to actually sail on one would be pretty scary. Does have a charm of it's own though. Thanks for the share. 

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