‘Seaway Queens’ book explores classic ships and waves of the future | Local History
WATERTOWN — The St. Lawrence Seaway opens for its 65th navigation season on Wednesday and soon the sights of ocean-going vessels and “lakers” cruising up and down the river will be routine scenes and welcome for many winter-weary eyes.
The ships, in how they’re powered and their design, have changed over the years. A liquid natural gas-powered vessel and a container ship were first seen locally on the Seaway in 2021 — visions of things to come. But a Montreal native has taken a deep dive into the “beauty and romance” of midcentury ships, mainly built in the 1950s and 1960s with the new coffee table book, “Seaway Queens: The Style and Grace of Legendary Lakers.”
“They had this natural sort of elegance in their design ratio and also their beauty,” author Jim McRae said in a phone interview. “You can tell that the people who designed these vessels back in the day had a style that they wanted to inject into the ships.”
The book also links ancient ship designs all the way back to Archimedes to shipbuilding in “the laker form” and the nuances of trade on the Great Lakes and how that influenced the design of the vessels and the “symbiotic relationship between ship and shore.”
Michael J. Folsom, founder of the popular St. Lawrence Seaway Shipwatchers Facebook group, an industry expert and host of the Seaway-and-Great Lakes-themed podcast, “Downbound Discussions,” said that “Seaway Queens” not only tells the story of the classic laker design, but brings to life many of the aspects related to their construction and capabilities which shaped the shipping industry.
“The beauty of the classic laker design has long been admired by ship fanatics across the region and Great Lakes,” Mr. Folsom said. “Now, just few remain and seeing them in person, especially in the Thousand Islands, is like catching Santa coming down the chimney.”
Mr. McRae developed an appreciation of the lakers while growing up in the Little Burgundy section of Montreal. The young Mr. McRae would visit ships in winter lay up. “They were huge, beautiful in their simplicity and mysteriously quiet as they patiently waited out the ice,” he writes in “Seaway Queens.”
Mr. McRae said that people in his neighborhood worked at the docks, and his father, in his youth, sailed the world aboard tramp freighters. Therefore, ships were a regular topic of discussion in his family and also a destination.
“It became an interest because as a boy, when you’re introduced to something, it can really have an impact on you,” Mr. McRae said. “I sort of tagged around with the older men in the neighborhood, including my family. They worked on the ships during the winter doing various maintenance jobs.”
During school and college breaks, Mr. McRae earned some money doing odd jobs on ships. He later began a career in graphic design and custom content and in 1996 founded Griffintown Media, where he serves as president. The Montreal-based company produces various creative works, including books.
For “Seaway Queens,” Mr. McRae not only wanted a good story to show, but also tell. The book is divided into 10 chapters, from “Archimedes & Other Boat Nerds” to “The Next Wave.”
“I saw an opportunity to begin telling the marine story in my own way, based on my experience and my experience working in publishing and editing,” Mr. McRae said. “I was able to combine the two, one with the passion, and the other, I’ll call it the skill, of being able to put stories together.”
The book was designed by Salma Belhaffaf, senior designer at Griffintown Media.
“It was really a matter of doing a book from the perspective of design and aesthetics,” Mr. McRae said. “That’s why it has such a high visual content, because we wanted to focus on the layout and design of what I call era lakers from the ’50s through ’70s and sort of capturing that spirit of that era and the design of the vessels.”
For example, the cover of “Seaway Queens” features the bulk carrier Wilfred Sykes, launched in 1950 at Lorain Ohio by American Ship Building Co., which entered service in 1950. In 1975, the ship was converted to a self-unloader and is now owned by a different company.
Shipbuilders naturally focus on profit, but for the Wilfred Sykes, Mr. McRae in the book quotes a technical paper prepared for the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers that notes how Inland Steel Co., when commissioning Wilfred Sykes, also desired “modernizing the appearance of this vessel as much as possible.” Specifically: “The bulwarks were extended well out onto the spar deck to minimize the abrupt change in profile at the ends of the forecastle and poop.” Also, “The forward end of the pilot house was sloped aft and the roof sloped forward to compliment the general lines.” Meanwhile, “The stack was designed not only to carry away the boiler gases, but also as a device to balance the masses at the forward end of the ship and to carry out the modern motif. The band around the stack is polished stainless steel emblematic of the business of which the vessel is a vital part.”
“In the book, we try to suggest the aesthetic in some cases was borrowed from the art deco movement, where design was important, even in creating industrial objects, whether it be trains, buildings, trucks or toasters,” Mr. McRae said. “Some of these ships had that built into them. They have this sort of almost like a forward-leaning aesthetic, I call it where it’s a confident era, a confident continent in North America, growth and just proudly moving ahead. I think those ships suggested that, in their bow structure ready to cut through the water as it were, and their sterns sometimes would have these cruiser-type sterns you’d see on the oceans on trans-Atlantic liners. They had natural sort of elegance in their design ratio and also their beauty. You can tell that the people who designed these vessels back in the day had a style that they wanted to inject into the ships.”
Lakers, Mr. McRae explained, take their look from smaller canal ships. The Seaway system, with its series of locks, challenged shipbuilders to build “Goldilocks ships — not too big, not too small, just right — to fit the confines of the system.”
“The canalers would typically be more miniature in size and they’d have a forward house and an after-house,” Mr. McRae said.
Those two “houses” or towers on a ship became a typical look of the lakers.
“You are looking at a community on the water,” Mr. McRae said. “The sailors would live in the forward end as part of the navigation and people living in the after-end are from the engineering community. The ships look beautiful on the water because they have this low profile, with the two ends rising above the water and you realize it’s a true functional vessel. Both ends depend on the other. The aesthetic I like about it is the imagery of that community.”
In the book, Mr. McRae notes how advancements in technology and shipbuilding beginning in the 1970s have favored “all-aft house” laker design, and in the chapter “A House Divided” describes the purpose of the forward and after houses and the people who crew them.
He writes: “But it’s differences, like memories, that make life interesting, and the big difference aboard era lakers is that crews hail from separate neighborhoods in houses hundreds of feet apart and worlds away.”
A load off
Mr. McRae devotes a chapter, “No Port? No Problem,” to how self-unloader vessels, “conceived and developed on the Great Lakes,” have become game-changers in the dry bulk trade, carrying cargo such as ore, salt and grain. Self-unloaders are specialized ships equipped with onboard cargo-handling systems, enabling them to discharge without shore-based unloading equipment. Through a diagram and photos, Mr. McRae in his book relates the basics of self-unloading technology. “No one can really figure out these ships through written description alone,” he writes in the chapter. “It typically takes photos, illustrations, video if you have it and plenty of hand gestures to do it justice.”
The first self-unloader on the Great Lakes was the Hennepin, launched in 1888 as the George H. Dyer and retrofitted as a self-unloader in 1902. The ship sank in 1927 under tow in Lake Michigan off South Haven, Michigan. The Michigan Shipwreck research Association discovered the wreck in 2013.
“As much as anything in the book, apart from the physical design of the ships that we sort of brag about and call our own in a North American style, the self-unloading equipment likewise is probably something we can be proud of,” Mr. McRae said. “You see it on the lake ships in Canada and the U.S., and they have it down to a science.”
The self-unloading technology is being used in places like Australia and the west coast of Africa where there’s a lack of port infrastructure, Mr. McRae said.
“They can certainly place the cargo where needed by themselves,” Mr. McRae said. “I think that’s something we can point to as something North America has brought to marine (industry) in a very proud way.”
A new era
Last July, the first U.S.-flagged Great Lakes bulk barrier built in this country in nearly 40 years was christened. The Mark W. Barker was built at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The 639-foot vessel with 8,000 engine horsepower is owned by the Interlake Steamship Company, Middleburg Heights, Ohio, and is named after the president of the company. It was designed to navigate the tight bends of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Its owners say the M.W. Barker is the first ship on the Great Lakes with engines that meet federal Environmental Protection Agency Tier 4 emissions standards.
“The construction of this vessel, which was made from steel manufactured in Indiana, from iron ore delivered by vessel from Minnesota, reinforces our long-term commitment to shipping and delivering essential cargoes for our customers throughout the region,” Mr. Barker said in a news release.
“Wherever she goes, she creates quite a stir, being the first one in a long time,” Mr. McRae said. “She’s not built to any maximum dimension. She’s built to trade on the open lake and carry a good amount of cargo but because she’s a smaller dimension ship, can navigate in narrower rivers where she can deliver her cargo. Everybody thinks ships are becoming bigger and bigger. This is an example where she’s smaller, but she can be used in different ways.”
WHAT: “Seaway Queens: The Style and Grace of Legendary Lakers,” by Jim McRae with a forward by Joseph P. Fischer. Published by Griffintown Media, Montreal.
SPECS: The book has 144 pages with more than 100 images including photographs, illustrations, ship drawings and printed artifacts from marine museums and private collections. A companion app links to video content. Book dimensions are nearly 11-inches-by-10-inches.
WHERE AVAILABLE: Seawayqueens.com
COST: $44.95, Canadian funds.
AN EXPERT’S VIEW: “Jim McRae manages to deliver a book that every St. Lawrence River cottage should have on its coffee table, as it keeps alive a dying breed of ships. Generations from now will never have the ability to appreciate ships like those in the book, but finding them on grandpa’s bookshelf at the cottage will spark interest and curiosity for years to come.” — Michael J. Folsom, founder of the St. Lawrence Seaway Shipwatchers Facebook group.
OF NOTE: Mr. McRae said that for the first publishing run of the book, it is only be available at the “Seaway Queens” website and at museums along the Great Lakes, where copies have been requested. “For the first go, we were trying to do something a bit different,” Mr. McRae said. “We know the lake community is very healthy online, so we’re targeting the marketing for those audiences first. As we grow this and it reaches beyond the boat community, we’ll go to bigger outlets like Amazon and Chapters, here in Canada.”