Interlake Steamship Co. launches first cargo ship to hit the Great Lakes in more than 40 years

The year 1913 was a memorable one on the Great Lakes. The Great Storm of November 1913 represented a tragic end for many sailors as hurricane force winds and a plunging barometer led to conditions that sank 19 ships and took the lives of more than 250 men and women who served aboard them.

While this disaster, dubbed the “White Hurricane,” lingered in memory for decades, 1913 saw an important new beginning.

The Interlake Steamship Co’s Steamship Verona reconstructed in winter, 1920-1921 The Cleveland-based Interlake Steamship Company began operations that year, built on the aftermath of the collapse of the former Gilchrist Transportation Company fleet.

Interlake has a distinctive logo, a black smokestack with an orange band, easily recognized by even the youngest boat watcher.

From the beginning, Interlake specialized in the transportation of bulk freight—meaning primarily thousands of tons of loose coal and iron ore in support of the steel industry that once thrived at many Great Lakes ports like Cleveland.

The company’s ships became a fixture on the Great Lakes with the firm at one point operating more than 150 vessels.

Interlake weathered the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the bleak decade that followed. Many ships were laid up for years, while others sailed with crew accepting entry level positions, such as mates working as wheelsmen and engineers working as oilers.

With the start of World War II, suddenly there was work for all. Shipbuilding took place in a number of Great Lakes ports, Cleveland among them.

While many of these operations thrived for years, economics caught up with them all in the end.

The main office of the Great Lakes Engineering Works Ecorse yard c1904Detroit-based shipbuilder Great Lakes Engineering Works was a great example. The company was busy with new construction in the 1920s, but by the 1980s there wasn’t enough repair work to keep the company going and it ceased operations in 1983.

Another casualty in this era was Cleveland Cliffs’ marine department. Once a staunch competitor of Interlake, Cliffs lost a major shipping contract in 1980. Having operated 14 ships the previous year, this setback reduced the fleet to just three ships.

The diminished fleet was unsustainable, and the black smokestack with the red C vanished from the Great Lakes.

Meanwhile, Interlake Steamship continued to find work and operate a fleet.

Interlake is currently in the news with its christening of the MV Mark W. Barker, the first new cargo vessel built on the Great Lakes in 41 years.

In 1987 the Interlake Steamship Company becomes privately held under the direction of James R. Barker.The Barker measures 639 feet—a moderate length that will enable it to visit many different ports around the Lakes, and 26,000-ton carrying capacity.

Its design follows a format that came into vogue 50 years ago. It is a self-unloader with a conveyor and a boom that ends reliance on shore facilities. All crew accommodations and work stations are at the rear of the ship, unlike earlier ships with a pilot house forward. It was specifically designed to navigate the tight bends of the Cuyahoga River.

The christening will take place today, Thursday, Sep. 1 at a private ceremony in Cleveland and represents a strong faith in the future of the Great Lakes region.

It is remarkable to reflect that during the past 40 years many young people went to work on the Great Lakes and completed full careers during a time when not a single new ship was built.

The Barker may be the beginning of a reversal of that trend—giving many boat watchers around the Great Lakes a new ship to watch for the first time in their lives.

Read more articles by Tom Matowitz.

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.