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Dowling Collection-University of Detroit Mercy

At the moment I’m finishing an article on the 1909 Great Lakes sailors strike and got to thinking about a number of issues related to the roles of captains and owners in the authority of the vessels they sailed. One notable individual is James Owen of the Henry B. Smith that sank in November 1913 on Lake Superior during the deadliest storm on the lakes. Owen took the Smith out of Marquette harbor while the storm was going on, and apparently without having the ship fully prepared to face the conditions then on Lake Superior. The decision to leave would prove tragic as the Smith never arrived in the Soo or any other port for that matter, instead coming to its final rest on the bottom of Lake Superior where it was discovered in 2013.

Having read about shipwrecks since I was a small boy, the Smith’s loss and the captain’s decision to sail figured heavily in my mind. Nearly every book that touches on the story notes that Owen had been her captain since launching and that her sailing had questions surrounding it. These run from Owen being drunk, to a mysterious threatening telegram from the owners, or that he simply was overconfident and made a terrible choice. These books also focus heavily on technology, the design of the ship, and what were the actual conditions at sea. These topics match with the literature as a whole with a focus on the technical piece of Great Lakes bulk transport. The human side of the business is largely unexplored, particularly for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

JamesOwen

Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 8, 1907

Teaching research to undergraduates is a challenge, particularly when it seems like so much history is treated as a given” fact”. How to find information, especially when having to really dig to track stories, is an alien concept even with the world of knowledge at their fingertips. I read an interesting article that addressed how so many authors often uncritically accept information that may seem correct, or be unchallenged. That can come from a host of reasons, and it while suspicion is warranted, it should not make one a ranting paranoiac. It also touches on the issue of confirmation bias, the acceptance of a “well-known” author, or even a simple choice not to check into the topic and ask some questions. It also matters to the Smith and James Owen.

While reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I came across the launching of the Henry B. Smith in 1906. Her captain, for her maiden voyage a month later, was listed as C.C. Balfour, not Owen. Odd. I checked both the Great Lakes Red Book that lists captains, and then searched more newspapers through the NewsBank database. While Owen commanded the Edwin Holmes and brought out the new Salt Lake City in 1907, he apparently did not command the Smith until 1912. Interestingly, while theĀ Smith was a fine command, it was not the Hawgood’s newest or finest ship. It is also worth noting, that in many fleets, captains did not automatically get the vessel they commanded the year before and were moved around, something the Hawgoods did as well.

Dowling Collection – University of Detroit Mercy

Owen, during 1913, had also suffered a series of delays in sailing, something that appeared in the “Marine News” section of many newspapers, particularly the Plain Dealer and the Duluth News-Tribune. The reasons for possible pressure on Owen are often treated as if there are “mustache-twirling” owners or sensational stories by anti-company newspapers. But there is more beneath this simple set of explanations.

In 1903-1904 two separate strikes were conducted by the Masters and Pilots Association against the Lake Carriers’ Association (the main vessel owner trade association). The captains and mates within the M&P union not only struck over wages, but also over vessel operation policy, decisions about crews, and about summary dismissals for various infractions. The LCA fought the M&P with Harry Coulby, the head of U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Steamship Company and head of the LCA, stating the group’s principle objection: that captains as agents of the owner, must represent their interests, and not answer to some other organization. By June 1904, the M&P lost and eventually disbanded. In the aftermath a growing number of companies imposed age limits for captains, generally around 40, and the International Shipmasters Association (a fraternal group – not a union) pushed to have limit upped to 50-60. Owen by 1913 was (according to the 1910 Census) around 60, or if born later was still within the discretionary range.

When looking at tonnage contracts signed by vessel owners, notably the Wilson Transit Company, the contracts have both amounts and also penalties for not meeting that commitment without extenuating circumstances (such as lack of demand, negotiated release). These penalties could be quite stiff, and as vessel owners operated on a tight set of margins, any loss was a major issue. Further, some of the discussions of the decision to sail speak of “risking an expensive boat” and while true, it also ignores the startling number of collisions and sometimes questionable decisions made to maintain schedules. It runs along the lines of “use your best judgment, but….” The defeat of a professional group for captains, similar to those for engineers and physicians, meant that Coulby’s belief was essentially the operating philosophy.

Iron Age, 1915

While the public pronouncements of the LCA are certainly reasonable, the operation of their policies reveals something very different. For those interested in how the “Welfare Plan” operated, please see my 2011 article in The International Journal of Maritime History. It covers the October 1916 sinkings of the James B. Colgate and the Merida on Lake Erie. What is said in public and what is said in private are very different things.

Very little of this is addressed in a formal sense. The sources are heavily scattered and piecemeal, requiring vast amounts of time and effort to uncover them. They lie in collections untapped, sites not visited, or questions not asked. There is far more to the bulk freight system than technical issues. While cargo could be unloaded more efficiently, some carriers were unloaded sooner than others either by getting there sooner, or because of a specific set of arrangements. Any delay by captains could upset a very structured timeline, particularly as the precision dance of timetables became stronger in the years following the 1909 strike. This system of vessel reporting, unloading, contracted cargoes, loss of power by captains, and the intangibles of a sophisticated transport network.

Does this exonerate Owen or cast blame on the Hawgoods or the LCA? No, it does make the point that there is a great deal more to examine regarding a system that we think all aspects have been examined. It also means that in our research we need to push beyond the comfortable frame of reference or oft used sources to consider where it might take us.

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Big Wave Washes Captain Into Lake

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 23, 1913.

“Big Wave Washes Captain Into Lake”

Capt. O.W. Holdridge, master of barge 137 of the Pittsburgh Steamship Co. fleet was washed overboard Saturday night during the storm that swept Lake Superior Saturday and Sunday. The loss of the captain of the barge was reported last night when the steamer Matoa arrived at the Soo with the barge.137h.jpg

Naval Bombing Tests

During the spring and summer of 1921 General Billy Mitchell conducted a series of controversial tests demonstrating the effectiveness of bombing naval vessels by air. Mitchell met opposition from naval and army leaders concerned not only with the potential implications of the tests, but also with the general’s own unconventional style and willingness to flaunt authority and chains of command to promote his ideas.

During the tests of late June 1921, McDougall obtained permission from Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby to observe the proceedings on Chesapeake Bay. The bombings were conducted on several obsolete US Navy ships and German naval units turned over to the United States after the First World War. Despite being carried out with sharply restrictive rules of engagement, McDougall was impressed with the results. Navy officials were less so, and eventually Mitchell would be court martialed and stripped of his rank. And while the tests also demonstrated the limitations of air power during the early 1920s, within a generation it would be used to devastating effect during World War II and beyond.

White phosphorus dropped on the U.S.S. Alabama intended to blind the ship’s gunners. This is from September 1921 tests, McDougall did not see these, but they produced dramatic images.

I’m once again struck by McDougall’s ability to insert himself into some of the most dramatic events of his time.

Banking and Respectability

McDougall by 1910 had achieved a level of recognition within Duluth to sit on a number of boards and clubs throughout the city. Notably he was a board member of the City National Bank appearing in advertisements in the News-Tribune and testifying to the Minnesota legislature on banking matters. Though they moved in the same circles within the shipping and storage businesses, McDougall and Julius Barnes had a series of shared interactions making their later business relationship unsurprising. The Commercial Club was the principle venue, a combination of business and banking figures throughout the city coming together to serve as boosters and charitable figures for Duluth. McDougall served on the history committee and was a frequent speaker on the rapid changes since the 1890s along the waterfront. It also provided a platform for him to continue his narrative about the loss of his company to John D. Rockefeller.

Funeral to be Private

From the Duluth News-Tribune, March 9, 1913:

“The funeral of Alex McDougall, Jr., 5-year-old son of Miller McDougall, 1005 East First Street, and grandson of Capt. Alex McDougall, will be held today and will be strictly private. The family requests that no flowers be sent. The child died at the city contagion hospital from the effects of septic pneumonia.”

In the years before antibiotics, pneumonia was deadly to young children, particularly from infection in one or both lungs. The McDougall’s family was not alone in this experience, and shared it with many other families throughout the United States. The family has images of Captain McDougall with his young grandson at the Brule River lodge in the snow goofing around. As there is a limited amount of intimate material, such images help to shape my own view of the relationships within the family. It was undoubtedly an awful blow to parents and grandparents as would be in the present.

“Not There, Not There, My Child”

McDougall’s first shipyard in Duluth was roundly mocked by his former chief draftsman Robert Clark’s account from the 1920s. However, despite Clark’s apparent disdain for McDougall, he wasn’t alone in thinking the site was a poor one.

The title for this post comes from the headline of the “Lake Superior Review and Weekly Tribune” on September 23, 1887. they went on to observe:

“Intelligent people will not place any reliance in the locating of the Duluth Drydock and Shipbuilding company’s plant ‘in the rear of the round house at Rice’s Point’ as stated in an evening sheet devoted to ‘scooping.’ There isn’t room enough, in the first place, to build a good sized canoe there, and as for a shipyard and drydock – the plant takes room and plenty of it, more than can be obtained in that vicinity. The shipyard scheme is all right and most desirable, but the location is not in the vicinity mentioned. It will not be located there – if it intends to build anything bigger than a rowboat, if – practical men like Thomas Wilson and Alex. McDougall have anything to do with it……They won’t fool away time or money on any such gimcrack affair as would have to exist in that space spoken of.”

They were wrong, McDougall would build on the site and launch the “101” in June 1888. Today, the Duluth Timber Company sits roughly on the site at the junction of Railroad Street and Garfield Avenue.