Historical Photos – Whalebacks – Extinct Ships of the Great Lakes

Images are from my personal historical photos collection

Whalebacks were used to haul cargo across the Great Lakes. Pictured is the Colgate Hoyt, the first self-powered (steam) whaleback in the fleet. Circa 1890.

Whaleback ships were a unique design that was adopted to ship ore across the Great Lakes and particularly Lake Superior.  Their shape was designed to lessen the impact of turbulent surf. When fully loaded they looked more like a submarine than a surface ship. They were used mostly as a tow barge replacing schooners which had been used before this.

Whalebacks at the Soo Locks towing each other a common practice in ore shipping.

Whalebacks were fairly common throughout the early 20th century. 44 of them were built between 1887 and 1898. Twenty-five of the whalebacks built were tow barges, the other 19 were steam powered. Most of them were built in Duluth, MN or Superior, WI as freighters for the iron range. None of them are left except one that is a museum ship in Superior, WI, the SS Meteor. (here is a link to the Whaleback Museum: https://superiorpublicmuseums.org/ss-meteor/)

Whalebacks taking on ore in Escanaba.

When loaded whalebacks were hard to see and were often run into by ships that couldn’t see them. Their hatches tended to leak and bend during stress which made them a hazard. The Whaleback is the forefather to the modern ore freighter that we commonly see now, like the neanderthal to the modern man.

Whaleback in the Soo Locks. A heavily loaded one can be seen behind it.

One whaleback was unique from all the rest. That is the Christopher Columbus, the only passenger whaleback ever made. It was painted white and 362 feet long, the longest ship on the Great Lakes at the time and the longest whaleback ever built. The Christopher Columbus was built to ferry passengers to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Thousands of passengers would ride on her and it was said she could hold 4000 at capacity.

The picture below is rare as I think it is the only one in existence. It shows the Christopher Columbus sailing up the Portage Canal at Houghton /Hancock. I believe this is its maiden voyage. It was built in Superior, WI and spent most of its time shuttling passengers in the southern end of Lake Michigan. Once it reached the lower lakes, it seems to have stayed there.

Rare picture of whaleback Christopher Columbus on its maiden voyage in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The whaleback, Christopher Columbus sails up the Portage Canal on what appears to be its maiden voyage.