Historic Detroit

Greater Detroit

If you wanted to get around the country in the early 1900s, you didn’t board a jetliner, you’d either catch a lift on a train or hop aboard a steamship. And of all the steamship lines plying the waters across the country, the biggest in the Midwest was the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. And of D&C’s Big Six steamers, the biggest and grandest was the SS Greater Detroit.

The great D&C line

Passengers would board in the evening, maybe eat dinner and then sleep the night away. The next morning, they’d be at their destination. D&C passengers took overnight trips from spring through fall, enjoying dinner and drinks as the ship steamed onward east to Cleveland or Buffalo, New York, or north to the Straits of Mackinac.

The D&C line was born in 1850 as the Detroit & Cleveland Steamboat Line, when Capt. Arthur Edwards began operating two small paddle vessels — the Southerner and the Baltimore — with overnight service between Detroit and Cleveland. The line was incorporated in 1868 as the Detroit & Cleveland Steam Navigation Co., but about 10 years later, it was taken over by James McMillan, one of the most influential figures during Detroit’s rise to wealth and prominence. McMillan was the line’s principal figure and would later become a Republican U.S. senator and co-found the Union Trust Co., which built the city’s landmark Guardian Building. He also was president of the Detroit Dry Dock Co., which, conveniently enough, built steamships. With McMillan’s family at the helm, the D&C line would flourish and become the stuff of Detroit legend. The fleet had “the largest boats, the heaviest traffic, and, save for the Old Bay Line, the longest survival of any of the major lines,” George W. Hilton wrote in “The Night Boat,” a book chronicling overnight steamers of the United States.

The great Greater Detroit

As World War I drew to a close, D&C already had four successful vessels — the Western States, the Eastern States, the City of Cleveland III and the City of Detroit III — and was looking to boost its business between Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Detroit and Mackinac, Mich. Adding to its armada would allow for D&C to not only increase the number of its customers, but shuffle which boats ran where and when. The boats also carried freight, so the bigger the boat, the more revenue there was to be had there.

In 1922, Frank E. Kirby came up with the design for a massive side-wheeler passenger steamship. D&C would order up two of them.

Kirby was the greatest naval architect of the Great Lakes. He was already D&C’s architect of choice, seeing his first effort for the firm launched in 1878, when the first City of Detroit was launched. Kirby is best remembered by metro Detroiters for designing the beloved Boblo boats, the Columbia and the Ste. Claire. He also was the father of modern ice-breaking technology and was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to revise the standards for construction and operation of steamboats throughout the United States. Put simply, in the maritime world, Kirby was a very, very big deal.

And the Greater Detroit would be a very, very big deal in its own right.

At 536 feet long and 96 feet across, the Greater Detroit and her sister ship, the Greater Buffalo, were the largest side-wheel steamships in the world. For perspective, they were as long as a 53-story skyscraper is tall — nearly as high as the Penobscot Building. The Greater Detroit was nicknamed the Leviathan of the Great Lakes; her twin was known as the Majestic of the Great Lakes. The bill for these boats was equally big: $3.5 million each, about $49 million today, when adjusted for inflation. “These beautiful steamers will prove a revelation in modernness and comfort to travelers of the Great Lakes,” D&C boasted in an ad.

She could carry 2,127 passengers, and was equipped with 625 staterooms. It took some 275 officers and crew to run her. Had a car? No problem: She could carry 103 vehicles on her main deck.

The hull of the Greater Detroit was launched Sept. 15, 1923, by American Ship Building Co. at Lorain, Ohio. She was then towed to the company’s yard in Detroit at the foot of Orleans to be decorated and outfitted by an army of workers. It would take nearly a year to install all of the ornate carved wood, plaster and paintings. She would be worth the wait.

Something to brag about

The “steamer Greater Detroit is the largest and most palatial steamer of its kind in the world, far exceeding in size, safety, comfort, speed and decorative effects anything heretofore attempted or accomplished in the construction of passenger steamers destined to sail on the inland waters of the United States,” D&C crowed in an advertisement. “The steamer is so large that wave motion is scarcely felt, if at all.”

For those in a hurry, the smoke-belching Greater Detroit featured three-cylinder inclined compound paddle engines — the most powerful paddle engines ever built. They propelled the vessel through the Great Lakes at 21 knots (about 24 miles per hour).

As for comfort and decorative effects, the parlors, lounges and 625 staterooms were “the last word in marine architecture, and the palatial furnishings are rich and attractive and in good taste,” the ad continued. It also featured fancy technology, for its time, such as distilled drinking water and “washed and cooled air.” The dining room could seat 375 people, and satisfied “appetites sharped by brisk lake breezes” with “fish fresh from the cold depths of the Great Lakes themselves,” a D&C brochure said. You could get an a la carte breakfast or bedtime snack, and there was booze available to calm nerves unused to being on open water.

Passengers were treated to the scenic views along the trip through large windows. And it was a sight not to be missed, as a D&C ad promised: “The Buffalo-Detroit trip is one of unrivaled interest and scenic beauty. The trip down the island-crowded Detroit River and far into the lake is made during daylight hours. On the American shore, the great city of Detroit stretches away as far as the eye can see, with glimpses of automobile factories carrying well-known names; old Fort Wayne and the shipyards. On the Canadian shore are restful rural scenes and a succession of interesting towns and villages.

“Twilight on the lake posses a magic all its own. Then a host of stars twinkle in the heavens and the waters reflect in the blue, diamond-studded vault above. A brisk walk on deck or a siesta in a great easy chair, with a cigar and congenial companions, makes the ride memorable for its friendly intimacy. Night falls, and then a large, comfortable stateroom welcomes the tired traveler.”

As for safety, the boat was as sturdy as they came in that age. Fire on the open waters, far from fireboats and rescue, was a major concern. The Greater Detroit was armed with an automatic fire alarm system, safety fire walls and “a complete sprinkler system, which includes every room on the boat, and is found on no other ship afloat,” D&C assured in an ad. The hull was all steel, double-bottomed divided into 16 water-tight compartments, just in case the vessel ran aground or struck a rock — or another ship. A watchman patrolled day and night, just in case.

Gordon Luther, 81, of Oviedo, Fla., was among the thousands who sailed on the Greater Detroit. “The D&C steamers were such works of art,” he said. “They were a delight to travel on, a very comfortable way to travel, and absolutely beautiful. When I first saw them, I was amazed man could build such beautiful, colossal machines.”

The ship line usually catered to more upper-class patrons, ““office people, doctors, lawyers,” recalled Detroiter Frederick E. Weber, now in his late 80s. He worked for D&C as a baggage handler. “Sometimes baseball teams would take the boats. Other times, it would be big bands making their way from Detroit to Cleveland and sometimes to Cedar Point, ” he said. “The trains were faster,” Weber said. “But the boats were restful.”

The most expensive room was $15 (about $200 today), and was outfitted with twin beds, a private toilet, shower, bath tub and couch, not to mention an outdoor balcony.

The Greater Detroit would enter service Aug. 29, 1924, leaving Detroit on her maiden voyage for Buffalo. Her usual trip had her leaving Detroit at 5:30 p.m. and arriving the following morning at 8 a.m. in Buffalo.

From about 1908 until 1953, the D&C ships lined the Detroit riverfront between Third and Wayne, known today as Washington Boulevard. For nearly four decades in Detroit, this bustling span of waterfront was one of the more dynamic parts of the city and a major Detroit transportation hub. During the D&C era, it was estimated that ten million people embarked on D&C trips, the Detroit News wrote in 1953. Trains would steam into town at the nearby Michigan Central Railroad Depot at Jefferson Avenue and Third Street. A short walk away, rail passengers could then transfer to a steamer at the Union Depot. The Wayne Hotel along this stretch of the river was itself a beacon, drawing visitors to Detroit with its famous baths and steamship docks offering cruises to Belle Isle.

This buzzing transportation hub also featured the lavish Wayne Gardens and Pavilion, an auditorium, a concert hall and a cabaret. In a normal “good season,” the D&C line carried 400,000 passengers, and “hundreds of thousands of others danced, dined or skated in the Gardens and the adjoining pavilion before World War I — or watched Detroit’s early auto shows there,” the News wrote in 1953.

Newlyweds would often stay at the Wayne Hotel, enjoy the sights, and then sail away on their honeymoons, making their way to Niagara Falls via Buffalo, with the line throwing a carnival-like send-off for the brides and grooms. Other D&C travelers took day trips or lake cruises up to watch the annual Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race or chartered group excursions.

A change in fortunes

In 1931, the News exalted D&C as “one of the most important passenger and package freight lines operating upon the inland waters of the United States.” But things started to slow down at the foot of Third. With the rise of the automobile, many travelers opted to take their trips into their own hands and hit the road—even before freeways paved the way. The Michigan Central Railroad had pulled up stakes and left the area for Corktown, building the massive Michigan Central Station that today stands abandoned. Business slowed to a crawl for the old Wayne Hotel, and its doors were soon shuttered. The D&C ships were the only attraction luring people down to the old hub, and even then, their numbers were few. As more cars rolled off Detroit’s assembly lines and more Americans got behind the wheel, the D&C scaled back the number of its runs; others were canceled altogether. The sun had set on the golden age of passenger steamers on the Great Lakes.

D&C managed to stay afloat through the Great Depression, though it lost more than $2.8 million from 1930 to 1935 (about $42 million when adjusted for inflation). The Greater Detroit and Greater Buffalo were laid up — there simply weren’t enough paying customers to justify running such huge vessels. D&C continued to operate at a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into the early 1940s, including $654,809 in 1938 (about $9.5 million today). Further compounding the company’s problems were a series of union disputes and strikes over pay and layoffs. The rationing of gasoline during World War II ended up giving the company a little boost as more people relied on the steamers for their vacation getaways. But while the war gave, it also took away. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was short on aircraft carriers and needed vessels that were huge — and it needed them fast. This spurred the U.S. Navy to requisition the Greater Buffalo in 1942 and turn it into the training aircraft carrier USS Sable. Losing the ship unbalanced the fleet, adding logistical problems with routes.

The Greater Detroit’s size, which had been one of its main selling points, would hurt D&C. Being nearly 100 feet wide, she was too big to pass through the Sault Ste. Marie Canal into Lake Superior or the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario.

Despite having the largest freshwater fleet of combination passenger and freight boats in the world, improvements to roads and the rise of the trucking industry stole its business. The slow, leisurely pace of boat travel had also lost favor with an ever faster-moving world.

On Jan. 5, 1948, the McMillan family sold D&C to banker George J. Kolowich of Hamtramck, Mich., who, with a group of minority stockholders, had been seeking control of the board of directors for five years. Kolowich, now president and general manager of D&C, had earlier been convicted of embezzlement and served fifteen months in prison in Jackson, Mich. The sale to Kolowich sealed the steamers’ fates, as his plan was to take D&C into the freight business. But the paddlers were expensive to operate — mostly because of high labor, fuel and maintenance costs—and business continued to sink as the unending stream of automobiles continued to roll out of Detroit’s factories and onto the highways and interstates. In a last bid to stay alive, D&C announced in late November 1949 that it would enter the automobile transport business and would use part of the $2.6 million it got from the federal government for the Greater Buffalo to retire the company’s stock.

In 1950, the black boat was whitewashed, repainted white. Most steamships had always been white. The coal-eater was converted in its later life to running off oil, which cut down on the huge plumes of soot and smoke.

The changes wouldn’t help.

Service on the D&C boats officially ended on May 9, 1951, though they had not run since the previous fall. They would not sail again.

On June 21, 1956, the Greater Detroit, the City of Detroit III and the Eastern States were sold for an undisclosed amount to Robert L. Rosen, president of Lake Shore Steel, Inc., and Abraham Siegel, president of the Siegel Iron & Metal Company. “Neither of the new owners had any definite plans for the operation of the three vessels—only a determination that they should not be scrapped,” the Free Press wrote. “After all,” Siegel’s son Norman told the paper, “they’ll be worth as much 20 years from now as far as scrap is concerned as they are worth today. Even though our company is in the scrap business, we have no intention of scrapping them.” Rosen and Siegel were sentimental about the steamers, but they had to face up to the cold, hard economic facts.

“The new economy calls for higher costs of operation — notably labor,” and then there was the skyrocketing prices for scrap metal, the Free Press noted.

Souvenir hunters were invited to buy up anything that wasn’t nailed down — and even what was, in some cases. You could buy one of the murals hanging above the grand staircases, for instance. Settees were carried away in car trunks. Pitchers emblazoned with the D&C monogram were spirited away to basement rec rooms across metro Detroit. Carpeting and bedding, chairs and silverware were all available for the taking.

The funeral pyre

While the memorabilia found plenty of eager buyers, “apparently, no one was interested in buying” the steamers themselves, Norman Siegel told the Free Press in late November 1956, “at least, not interested enough to put up any money. We would much rather have seen them back in operation, but the economics of the situation were stacked against that. The present high value of scrap metal dictates our decision.”

That decision was to sell the boats for scrap.

On the night of Dec. 12, 1956, the Greater Detroit and Eastern States were taken out into Lake St. Clair and set a blaze. Burning away all the splendor made it easier — and cheaper — to get to the steel.

As the Greater Detroit was being hauled away, its anchor was cut and left at the bottom of the Detroit River — there was no steam to power the mechanism to raise it. It remained there until Nov. 15, 2016, when the Great Lakes Maritime Institute raised the anchor to be put on display at the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority.

In 1960, D&C Navigation was absorbed into the Denver-Chicago Trucking Company. The boats were gone, and now even the name of the once-proud company was no more.