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Doomed Freighter E.M. Ford Dodged Scrapman's Torch for Half a Century

110 Year Old Ship Towed Into Saginaw Bay Tuesday On Last of 9 Lives

November 15, 2008       2 Comments
By: Dave Rogers

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It was a classic moment in the maritime history of Bay City.

As marine filmmaker Ric Mixter was finishing a speech on Great Lakes shipping disasters to the Rotary Club of Bay City in Lumber Barons Restaurant, a shout went up:

"There she goes, now!" Rotarians rushed to see the 428 foot E.M. Ford, a 110-year-old steel ship, oldest freighter on the Great Lakes, looming through the second story windows on the Saginaw River to the east.

Towed and pushed by two tugboats, the hapless un-powered Ford was like a huge animal being led to slaughter. She was leaving her Carrollton dock at the LaFarge North American Cement Plant for the last time.

The tugs, passing for pallbearers, were escorting the old girl to the Purvis Marine Scrapyard in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, on her last nostalgic trip on the lakes.

Dennis Reiche and fiancé Debra Tune from
South Carolina and parents Winifred and Al Reiche
of Bay City came out to see history sail by., the ship-watchers website, reported the entourage got underway shortly before noon on Tuesday with tugs Avenger IV and Gregory J. Busch towing the E. M. Ford from her long time dock on the Saginaw River to Sault Ste. Marie for scrapping. By 2:30 p.m. the tow cavalcade had cleared the Saginaw River and was proceeding northwest in Saginaw Bay at 5.5 mph.

Boatnerds like to say old steel ships will be "sliced into millions of razor blades" but more likely the scrap will end up being melted down for ingots to be consumed by industries all over the world.

For a centenarian, the Ford didn't look infirm: Mixter noted her trim lines and the grey expanse of her hull bespoke some care even though she had been used only for storage recently.

Members of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society
explore Fletcher Oil Co. warehouses on Marquette Avenue
along the Saginaw River once owned by American
Shipbuilding Co., builder of the E.M. Ford in Cleveland in 1898.
Somewhat ironically, the Ford was passing the site of the former American Shipbuilding Company, once Wheeler Shipbuilding Co., that took over the Cleveland Shipbuilding Co. that built the Ford in Cleveland in 1898.

In fact the Ford had visited Bay City several times during her long career on the lakes, passing the city in transportation mode as well as on her way to exile in Carrollton.

All that remains of the American Shipbuilding Co. are huge warehouses of the Fletcher Oil Company on Marquette Avenue and the rusting hulks of equipment used by the yard 100 years ago.

Long gone is the memory of a onetime owner of the Bay City shipbuilding firm, one John D. Rockefeller, the nation's most famous tycoon, who loved the ships the firm built for him.

When the Ford was built William McKinley, who had campaigned on the train in Bay City in 1897, was the 25th President of the United States. The Michigan Sugar Company plant had just been built in Essexville, pioneering the beet sugar production industry in the Midwest.

Also, 1898 saw the sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor, with two Bay Cityans among the 266 dead, and start of the Spanish-American War in Cuba where about 180 men from Bay County served.

The ship was originally named the Presque Isle when launched May 25, 1898. She was dressed in the black and green colors of the Cleveland Cliffs Transportation Company and would ply the iron ore and coal trades on the lakes.

The 3 story pilot house with captain and guest quarters.
The new ship had a beam of 50 feet and carrying capacity of 6,200 tons. In 1915 her hull was rebuilt to eliminate the vertical beams according to the more modern arch construction. A new pilot house, replacing the old "flying bridge," was added.

By 1956, time was catching up with the Presque Isle and it was being surpassed by larger ships, in the 700 foot range with beams of 70 feet or more. The ship was sold to the Huron Portland Cement Co., of Alpena, and converted to a self-unloading cement carrier. Her quadruple expansion steam engine was retained.

The ship was rechristened the E.M. Ford after the chairman of Huron Portland Cement, Emory Moran Ford. Disaster struck almost immediately; the Ford collided with the stone carrier A.M. Byers near Harsen's Island in the St. Clair River. Both ships were returned to service after extensive repairs.

In 1975 the Ford's boilers were converted to burn oil instead of coal. In a storm in Milwaukee on Christmas eve, 1979, the Ford's starboard bow and stern were punctured and she sank. Raised and stabilized early in 1980, workers had to chip away 5,850 tons of cement that had walled off her cargo hold. The ship was rebuilt at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, rededicated and blessed and headed back to Alpena in August, 1980. Inland Lakes Transportation took over the Ford and other ships of Huron Portland in 1990. But soon more efficient vessels like the self-unloading barge Integrity made the Ford and sister ship S.T. Crapo obsolete.

So the Ford ended up at the Carrollton dock used as a storage and transfer barge and the Crapo filled the same capacity in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Ford has been at Carrollton since September 1996.

Ship-watchers and marine historians in Bay City, among them Don Comtois and Don Morin, officials of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society, bemoaned the fact they had not been able to acquire the Ford as a floating marine museum, or even to get the pilot house as an artifact.

HISTORICAL NOTE: The American Ship Building Company that acquired the former Wheeler yard in Bay City in 1900 was the dominant shipbuilder on the Great Lakes before the Second World War. It started as Cleveland Shipbuilding in Cleveland, Ohio in 1888 and opened the yard in Lorain, Ohio in 1898. It changed its name to the American Ship Building Company in 1900, when it acquired Superior Shipbuilding, in Superior, Wisconsin; Toledo Shipbuilding, in Toledo, Ohio; and West Bay Shipbuilding, in West Bay City, Michigan. With the coming of the World War I, the company also acquired Buffalo Dry Dock, in Buffalo, New York; Chicago Shipbuilding, in Chicago, Illinois; and Detroit Shipbuilding, in Wyandotte, Michigan.

The Lorain, Ohio Yard served as the main facility of the company after World War II and to this day five of the 13 separate 1,000 ft (300 m) ore carriers on the Great Lakes were built in Lorain, including the M/V Paul R. Tregurtha which is the largest vessel on the Great Lakes (1,013'06" feet long). Built in 1898, the Lorain Yard quickly grew in size and importance. The facilities eventually included two dry docks over 1,000 feet (300 m) long built to handle the largest of the Great Lakes ore carriers. The Lorain Yard closed in 1984 after a series of labor disputes. The land is now being redeveloped as an upscale housing development.


E.M. Ford's Final Passage of The Saginaw River

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"The BUZZ" - Read Feedback From Readers!

bwoods Says:       On August 12, 2009 at 02:52 PM
Did she get cut up?
hilltopenergy Says:       On July 12, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Still trying to save the old girl but time is running out.
Agree? or Disagree?

Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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