Peck’s Big Boats

STRANGELY ENOUGH at mid-century, mid-America needed a special kind of hero - a ship. The design of that vessel was trying to be born in a lot of men’s minds.

While the iron men from the mouth of the Cuyahoga were opening up the Michigan iron ranges with nerve and muscle, Mark Hanna and others were opening up the coal fields south of the Cuyahoga and floating coal down the canal to feed the iron-masters’ furnaces.

But it took a whole navy of three-masted schooners to bring down a little iron, and a cavalry of mules to unload it.

A ship was needed unlike any other. It must be narrow enough to clear the locks, but big enough to bring downlakes acres of the Michigan Peninsula and Minnesota. The ship needed to be deep draft for iron ore capacity, but shallow enough for Cuyahoga navigation. It needed quarters for a large crew - quarters that would take up no space. It needed so many conflicting characteristics that marine architects couldn’t design her.

At the age of 25, Eli Peck built his first ship. She was graceful, shiply, and shapely. In 1847, he built one with a graceful name, Jenny Lind; but she was a slightly ugly boat in front, scowlike.

“What’s Peck up to?” people asked of the shipwrights as they watched it build over the months.

Peck was sneaking up on the design for the most unusual merchant fleet in world history.

Even among shipping and boating people of the world, few know that hundreds of miles from salt water, the mouth of the Cuyahoga headed the nation’s most unusual and massive merchant navy in a single trade. This was the Great Lakes bulk fleet - iron ore, coal, limestone, some salt, cement and cereals. Its enormous vessels have decks designed for fast unloading of bulk cargoes, hulls designed against the tantrums of the inland seas, drafted for the shallow channels and rivers. They are also designed to the special appetites and chemistry of blast furnaces.

When strangers get their first close-up of these long, low floating monsters beating the waters between the Cuyahoga and Duluth, they often pull off the highway and stare. At first they think they’re looking at two vessels passing each other, or, on hazy days, at an island with a house on each end. Waiting for one at a drawbridge is a ghostly experience. They don’t move, they loom at you, strangely silent. And as you wait, the ship never stops going by.

Beating the water between the Cuyahoga and Duluth for about 30 turnarounds a year, these great ships do the basic hauling for the midwest’s steelmaking complex. To seacoast ship lovers, they don’t have the wave-splitting grace; but when you get to know them, these bluff-bowed boxes become truly beautiful.

How they happened is very much the story of Eli Peck, who was as blunt-bowed and relentless as his most famous ship.

At the age of 25, Captain Peck set up his own yard in among already existing shipyards, dry docks, and related establishments near what is now West 58th Street in Cleveland. It was in 1847 that his Jenny Lind, a 200-ton-capacity schooner, slid off the ways and into the Cuyahoga.

The Lind’s hull was closer in form to a barge than his other ships. The blunted bow and squared cross section carried much more cargo than the usual boat of the same size.

The cargo she carried was best described as “miscellaneous,” neither bulk nor package freight, but bricks, textiles, machinery and milling supplies, and groceries. A real need for the big bulker had not yet shown itself by 1847.

But in the year the Soo opened, Eli Peck and Irvine U. Masters entered into a partnership that bore their names. Peck & Masters was small among the Cuyahoga shipyards which turned out 84,000 tons of shipping, 500 vessels, between 1849 and 1869. Peck & Masters built 50. But it tells you something about them to note that these 50 added up to 27,000 tons, roughly a third of all Cuyahoga construction.

Mr. Masters was not a seafaring man; he was a financial partner with other interests, in 1863 being elected mayor of Cleveland. But this capital gave Peck the freedom to carry out his design concepts which built the kind of shipyard they wrote about in the paper:

It will be seen that nearly all the vessels, whether sail or steam, built by Mr. Peck, were of the first class, being mainly barques and large propellers. They will be recognized by those familiar with lake commerce as models in size, beauty and strength, whilst several have made unusually quick trips.

While conventional boats by conventional builders hovered around the 150-ton capacity mark, Peck combined size and design to produce such boats as: Desota, 570 tons, barque (1855); Evergreen City, 610 tons, propeller (1856); Northwest, 628 tons, barque (1862); Pewabic, 730 tons, propeller (1863).

And, as he progressed, he knew he was getting closer to the bulk carrier the nation needed for converting the red dirt from Michigan into Cuyahoga iron for shafts, plates, rods, nails, rails, and destiny.

Peck often stood before his work board reflecting. Irvine Masters often rose from the ledgers to look over his shoulder. He would see light pencil-sketch overlays on drawings of a ship already afloat. Detail changes; a plan for communications, oddly from the bow of the ship to the stern; a rudder that could be operated from more than one station. Sometimes, even as early as this, penciled speculations on the layout of the deck - the engine house and pilothouse far separated.

“What ship is that, Eli? Your great S. S. Maybe?”

“Yes. With a new idea added. She may never sail.”

“Eli, we didn’t get a reputation from Buffalo to Detroit for old ideas.”

“Well, I should be ready with drawings in two months. Can we raise construction money on her then?”

“Not for a speculative boat, Eli. Our loans are too heavy for the next six to twelve months. But after that ..."

But they never did build it together. The faithful Masters died in 1864. For five years, Peck carried on alone with the assistance of his now highly trained workmen and, once, a consultant in the person of Captain Gilbert Knapp, who watched over the government’s interests during the construction of two revenue cutters. Although Masters was gone, his name remained in gilt above the offices that prospered under his financial guidance. Eli Peck was a loyal man. He kept Masters’ name on everything.

This fairness led him to build speculative vessels for which there were no orders:

... A working man himself, he was in thorough sympathy with his workmen, and in the slack season, instead of discharging men and thus entailing want upon them, he built vessels [not on order, but] on speculation, that he might keep the men busy and their families supplied. Providentially, these speculations were always successful [as we will later observe] thus illustrating the proverb that ‘there is he that scattereth, and yet increaseth.’ [Cleveland Plain Dealer]

And because of this speculation the Captain’s great ship finally sailed.

You see from 1864 to 1869, few ships were built by Peck & Masters. Peck’s men operated their well-reputed skills to the repair and upkeep of other men’s ships, and Eli took care of administrative and financial matters. In this capacity, he began to diversify. He was active in the formation of the People’s Gas Light Company and became president of that organization. He was also made a director of the Savings Loan Association.

This brought to his attention with greater forcefulness than ever the importance of iron to Cleveland, and the need for super-vessels to carry enormous amounts of ore.

It was Eli Peck’s final examination for destiny. Standing now in his pattern loft, aged 47, amid a clutter of half-finished drawings, he had in his head all the best of history’s naval architecture.

He had the confidence of 22 successful years of shipbuilding; he had the timidity born of repairing shipwrecks. He had the awareness of need. He had the poise to go after construction money. To raise money, he had to talk his ship.

“It will be propeller. Single screw.”


“Yes. Two of them, exposed on the flanks, would damage in the shallows. One, sheltered by the rudder, will give as much power and nearly as much control. The engine will be as far aft as she’ll go.

“Aft, sir?”

“Aft. To free up cargo space. It’ll be bigger, though - more powerful. That’s the trouble with these new propellers. Though they burn only a fraction of what the side-wheelers do, they’re not as fast. So it needs engine.”

The hull’s cross section was to be square. And there had to be some sail area. Three masts, gaff rigged. He wasn’t through with sail just yet. If the new engine failed, the wind would bring Peck’s boat in. But the masts were to be short. When the sails were not set, they would look like cargo booms. But all this was a combination of existing features.

“But what will make this boat a money-maker, the pilot-house is to be way forward over the bow.”

“Forward, sir!”


A significant thing was Peck’s move for much greater teamwork between the docks that loaded and unloaded.

“You see, they’ve got those loading chutes at Marquette on twenty-four-foot centers now, and everyone’s converting their deck hatches to fit. Loading is fast, but unloading is where the tie-up is.”

“To discharge these boats fast, the pilothouse and other deck structures have got to move out of the way of unloading. Way up forward, over the point of the bow that you wouldn’t use for cargo anyway. Then she’d be clear and free, just a big stretch of hatch covers in the middle.”

The plans came in before the money did. Peck decided to plunge ahead on speculation. But it occurred to him that Captain Robert Hackett might be interested. They had spoken on several occasions, and Hackett had always been partial to Peck & Masters vessels. Peck sent a message to Detroit on an upbound customer’s boat.

Hackett arrived on the next steamer. He looked over the plans.

“It’s boxy right up to the stern, Eli.”

“Yes, Robert.”

He looked over the stocks and the scaffolding, indicating a ship of mammoth capacity. He asked questions. Pilothouse to engineroom communications? Controls? Where would fuel be stored? What about crew quarters? Calculated draft? Minor changes were suggested and agreed on by both.

Robert Hackett approved.

“Eli, I’ll cosign with you.”

Captain Hackett now had reason to help sell Peck’s new vessel. He had money in it. But he found himself suddenly in a strangely awkward position.

Typical of this awkwardness was the day he made a strong presentation of the vessel to his competitor, Captain Varm Jensen. Jensen listened to the wonders of the new supervessel under construction. He thought a moment, and then he said, “Robert, I’m surprised at you. You’ve been a tough competitor, but fair (except the time you beat me to the fuel dock by running through the fog). But now for the first time, you lie to me.”

Hackett purpled, “Lie? Why say that!”

“Figure it out, Robert. As hard as you and I compete, if that boat would really run faster, load more, and unload quicker, would you really offer it to me ... of all people?”

Hackett knuckled his jaw thoughtfully.

“In fact,” Jensen continued, “would you offer it to any other captain?”

Hackett went to Cleveland. “Eli, we can’t sell the boat. We’ll have to operate her ourselves.”

They formed the Northwestern Transport Company to contract for carrying ore down from Fayette Brown’s Jackson Iron Company. An agent for that and other iron companies, Harvey H. Brown (the son of Fayette), bought a minor interest in Northwestern.

Construction on the boat went ahead. They decided to christen it the R. J. Hackett. No doubt Peck’s fair nature first proposed this. The hull was closed in and the powerful engine was ordered.

Dockside critics watched with interest and criticism. If the boat was so advanced, why was it not being built with plates of iron?

Peck probably realized that the age of steel vessels was coming. But what kept Peck and other yards from metal was that their men were good with wood. Oak and cedar timbers were strong, and the price was right. Iron members and plating were a somewhat unknown quantity; they were scarce and very costly. Oddly, early wooden ore boats, from the Hackett on, accelerated the change-over.

Came the day for launching, many Cleveland mining and transport men were there. They were immediately struck by the great length of uninterrupted deck between pilothouse and after-house. And the masts were sawed off. But the wheeldeck was ridiculously high.

“Why make her look like a giraffe?”

“He did it so the captain can see down over the bow in close navigation.”

“What’ll keep her from rolling over?”

“Eli Peck’s reputation, y’damn fool!”

What the onlookers couldn’t see was that although the Hackett had rather conventional major dimensions - 200 feet long and 33 feet wide - space available for cargo should hold at least 1,129 tons of iron ore. Ore boats of conventional layout prior to this time had been considered large if they could carry 700 tons.

Everything was ready. The R. J. Hackett left the stocks bound for history. Bound to keep Cleveland steel mills fed. Bound to leave her mark on the shipyards not only on the Cuyahoga but all along the Lakes.

She drew the calculated amount of draft, when her holds were full, with room left over to clear all navigable waterways. She steamed up to the Jackson mines, the propeller churning up 12 miles an hour. They opened her 24-foot spaced hatches to the loading chutes there and churned on back downlakes with 1,200 tons of ore for the mills at Cleveland.

Along the Cuyahoga, a lot of loud mouths were silent. With only one trip to her log, plans were being made for a second ship like her.

The Forest City was completed by the following year. For one season she operated as a consort, in tow. In doing this, Northwestern Transport continued a practice begun by oxen and barges, carried on by tugs and schooners operating in restricted waters, and employed later by propellers towing sailers over open waters when the latter became unprofitable to operate under their own power. By the time that season ended, they had already made enough money to purchase an engine for the Forest City. Except for MacDougal’s picturesque whalebacks, there is yet to be found the ore boat built after these that did not use Eli Peck’s design. Boats sprang up all over the Lakes - engine room aft, pilothouse forward, and a long stretch of hatches in-between.

These were the long ships.

There were, of course, improvements. Thirteen years later, the Onoko - out of Cleveland’s Globe Iron Works - became the first iron ore boat with a hull built entirely of iron. The 1880s saw development of the Bessemer steel process and a material even better for the naval architect. The Spokane of 1886, also built by the metal fabricators of the Globe works, was the first Lakes boat with a hull of the new material. The year 1895 saw one of the last holdouts of resistance to metal boats. Harvey H. Brown wanted a boat in the Northwestern fleet bearing his father’s name. Captain Peck designed it and it fitted his earlier boats to a tee. With one change. It was iron above the waterline.

But methods of forming and joining sheets and strengthening metal had not yet been perfected, so the idea of composite boats never really caught on. It was merely transitional.

The propeller steamer Peck built in 1869 was to be the mold for the modern ore carrier. With engines aft and pilot-house in the point of the bow, nearly the whole hull was left open for cargo. Loading hatch centers were spaced 24 feet apart for the convenience of standardized loading and unloading equipment.

High sides she had, too, and a square hull section to carry nearly twice the cargo of previous boats the same length.

By this time, the good Captain Peck had retired. Ships carrying the legend “N.W.T. Co.” had been sold to the Vulcan Transport Company in Detroit. “Peck’s boats” had not retired. They stayed on the Lakes and their image can be seen today in the big ones towed by tugs in the serpentine Cuyahoga.

By that time, ore shipping on the Lakes was over its growing pains. Things got to the point where a landlubber could manage a fleet. Or think it profitable enough to get someone to do it for him.

At this writing (1998), the thousand-footers cannot navigate the winding Cuyahoga. However, Peck’s basic design is still there blown up to fantastic size - an office building pilot-house astern; and on the bow an aiming stake and a bow watch station.

The thousand-footer, Columbia Star is named for the tiny brig Columbia which brought 142 tons of ore down from Jackson Mine to the Cuyahoga docks - starting the inland seas navy.