Whaleback Sends Shipping Industry Sailing into the Future

Northland Uncovered: S.S. Meteor

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For this week’s Northland Uncovered, we take a trip inside a ship well-known in the area to see how its journey started and where it’s headed.

There’s a ship that has sat along the shore of the Superior Bay for decades.

The S.S. Meteor has taken in many seasons at Barkers Island, but not moved since she arrived there in 1972.

She was launched as the Frank Rockefeller at what is now Fraser Shipyards in 1896 to carry iron-ore around the Great Lakes.

“The iron–ore was the biggest thing that we could do, economy–wise, and so she has an impact on that,” explained Stacie Buchanan, Museum Coordinator for Superior Public Museums.

At that time, she was a much different ship than had been seen on the lakes before.

“She was made to be really low in the water to carry more cargo, more money,” said Buchanan.

Between 1888-1898, 40 whaleback ships were built in the Duluth area.

The S.S. Meteor is the only remaining ship of its kind above water.

Most of them sank because shipping wasn’t as safe and precise as it is today.

“They don’t have the radar, they don’t have, I mean it’s really a compass and a map and a magnetic compass around the Great Lakes,” said Buchanan.

The technologies they used were nothing to what is available today.

“Things that we really do take for granted, I mean GPS and cell phones,” added Buchanan.

Radio systems were what was relied on for communication.

The ship ran off a steam engine and communication from the pilot house to the engine room was through a bell and whistle system.

“They had electricity for lighting, but there’s no communication I mean there’s no telephones, it’s basic systems,” said Buchanan.

The S.S. Meteor is still operating as a museum in Superior.

Superior Public Museums is in a transition period with the ship. They’re creating new exhibits specific to whaleback ships.

This specific type of ship had a major impact on the industry design-wise.

“You had to do different things, you couldn’t have certain types of hatches, self–unloading systems came out,” said Buchanan.

Her top competitors were wooden ships, but many designs were coming out at the time.

“During that time period is really kinda when the arms race of trying to make ships bigger and better and be able to carry more,” said Buchanan.

After these ships were produced, it was quickly found that rounded hatches would not work.

“They’re you know hard to get on and off, how do you deal with that steel, later ones they tried different materials, but then you get leakage in the boat,” explained Buchanan.

It’s these important findings that could soon be putting the S.S. Meteor on the national historical registry.

“I know Split Rock Lighthouse is the only other one in the area that actually has the national registry, because you have to have a pretty big importance on national history to be able to get that,” said Buchanan.

Sealing her fate in history and impact on the region.

The S.S. Meteor is opening up this weekend.

Regular tours start Saturday, May 16 with tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The grand reopening is Sunday with free tours from noon to 4 p.m.

For more information, head to the Superior Public Museums website.

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