The Steamship William G. Mather: Workhorse of the Great Lakes, historic monument

The Steamship William G. Mather museum has welcomed visitors to Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor for nearly three decades.

The Mather is representative of a class of cargo ships unique to the Great Lakes. For a century they played an essential role in the success of American heavy industry. As one of a handful of survivors the William G. Mather deserves to be honored and remembered with a prominent place in future plans for North Coast Harbor.

<span class="content-image-text">William G. Mather in 1902</span>William G. Mather in 1902Her presence in Cleveland is something of a miracle. Retired in 1980 after 55 years of hard work in the iron ore trade, the vessel was laid up in Toledo—facing a very uncertain future.

The situation became even more problematic after a homeless person broke into the ship and started a fire in the aft deckhouse in an effort to stay warm. The fire went out of control doing serious damage to the ship and taking the life of the man who started it.

Before coming to Cleveland in 1987, the vessel seemed destined to end its days in the scrap yards of Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada.

It hadn’t always been that way. Launched with great fanfare in the spring of 1925, the ship was the flagship of the Cleveland-Cliffs Marine Department and bore a storied name. The William G. Mather was Named after the Cliffs’ president and chairman of the board—one of Cleveland’s most influential businessmen and generous benefactor to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The ship was Hull Number 250, constructed by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan. Its purpose was to haul iron ore from upper Great Lakes ports like Duluth Minnesota. and Superior, Wisconsin to Cleveland. The ore it hauled served as raw material for the steel mills that lined the Cuyahoga River in the Flats.

Northbound the ship carried coal—fuel for much of the equipment that brought the ore to the docks. The Mather carried 14,000 tons of cargo and could make the 1,600-mile round trip between Cleveland and Duluth in five or six days.

An unusual aspect of the Mather is its elaborate guest quarters. Guests were not paying travelers seeking passage to Duluth or Cleveland, but rather friends of management and business associates who Cleveland-Cliffs wished to impress. Housed in comfortable cabins in the forward deckhouse, guests walked aft for meals in the elaborately paneled guest dining room.

The Mather typically made the round trip between Cleveland and Duluth 35 times a year, starting in late March when the navigation season opened. Originally the ship was powered by a quadruple expansion reciprocating steam engine, said to have been the last one built for service on the Great Lakes. Steam for the engine was supplied by two coal-fired boilers that were hand-fired—the hardest job on the ship.

In the 1950s the ship was modernized, receiving a DeLaval Steam Turbine and oil-fired boilers with automated controls. This gave the ship considerably more power and greatly reduced the size of the engine room crew, since firemen and coal passers were no longer needed.

The ship was notable for its reliability. From the day when the navigation season opened, signaled by the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, until the season ended in early December the Mather could be counted on to keep its appointed rounds.

<span class="content-image-text">The Mather at launching in 1925.</span>The Mather at launching in 1925.When the ship debuted in the spring of 1925 it was commanded by veteran shipmaster Captain Charles Anderson. He began as a deckhand on a tug in the early 1890s and had almost 35 years of experience. He remained in charge until his retirement in 1941.

That year saw one of the Mather’s notable achievements: leading a convoy of 13 freighters through the ice to open navigation early due to the increased demand for steel production created by World War II, which was already raging in Europe.

The Mather was one of the first commercial Great Lakes vessels to be equipped with radar in 1946 and In 1964 she became the first American vessel to have an automated boiler system, manufactured by Bailey Controls in Cleveland.

In the 1970s the ship was commanded by Harry Anderson (no relation to the first Captain Anderson), a fine gentleman warmly remembered by many associated with the Mather during its years as a museum.

The Mather last operated commercially in 1980. In 1987 the ship was brought to Cleveland and methodically restored by a large group of dedicated volunteers. Captain Harry Anderson was one of them, and he remained involved with the ship and its volunteer crew until his death in May 2013 at the age of 103.

To this day, maintenance on the Mather is constant—there is a painting, cleaning, polishing of brass, making sure the utilities all work, and checking the mooring lines.

Currently owned by the Great Lakes Science Center, the ship was closed to visitors recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The William G. Mather Museum can once again take its place among North Coast Harbor’s premier attractions when it reopens to the public on Saturday, Sept. 11.

The Mather crew is also planning a Cleveland National Air Show party on the Mather deck during Labor Day weekend, Saturday, Sep. 4 through Monday, Sept. 6. Tickets are $19 ($16 for members).

About the Author: 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.