Historic Detroit

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City of Cleveland III

The "City of Cleveland III" was one of the finest passenger liners to ever sail the Great Lakes -- as well as one of the more unfortunate.

This "modern leviathan" was part of the storied Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. fleet, and was launched Jan. 5, 1907, at Wyandotte, Mich., at the Detroit Shipbuilding Co., which was formed in May 1899 through the union of a number of concerns, including the Detroit Drydock Co., the Drydock Engine Works, and the Detroit Sheet Metal and Brass Works, among others.

A fire on May 17, 1907, during construction at the shipyard delayed the "City of Cleveland III's" debut, which had been slated for June 30. The vessel's elaborate interior woodwork and fittings were nearly finished at the time. Despite two fireboats and onshore firefighting equipment, the only things that could be salvaged were her hull and machinery. Damage was calculated at about $700,000.

"The fire broke out just before daylight in some mysterious manner. There are rumors afloat that an incendiary is suspected," the Mansfield (Ohio) News reported the day of the fire. "The officials of the shipyard are at a loss to explain the fire, as there were two watchmen on the ship and another at the gate of the shipyard."

She was rebuilt, however, and finally made her trial run on April 27, 1908, and her maiden voyage on June 4, when she left Detroit for Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., carrying several hundred members of the Detroit Board of Commerce to mark the organization’s fifth anniversary. After her return, the "C-III," as she was known for short, entered service on her regular route, an overnight run between Detroit and Cleveland.

At the time, the 402-foot steamer was the largest in the D&C fleet, ushering in a new era of prosperity and elegance for the company. The "C-III" was a paddle-wheel steamer, with a large steam engine churning the wheels and propelling her through the water at the equivalent of 21 miles per hour. The paddle-wheel boxes had an extreme breadth of 91 feet. She was designed by master naval architect Frank Kirby to carry 4,500 passengers, with sleeping accommodations for 1,500. But her luxurious splendor, what truly made her a floating palace, was the work of interior designer Louis O. Keil.

The "C-III" cost about $1.25 million and was, the Detroit Free Press wrote May 31, 1908, “the most luxuriously furnished and most completely equipped passenger vessel on the lakes, and is not excelled in appointments or comforts by the best type of ocean-going steamers. … Formerly it was true that those who traveled by vessel were obliged to do so at a sacrifice of comfort and convenience, not to mention the matter of the time required. In these days, with the advent of ships like the ‘City of Cleveland (III),’ those who ‘go down to the sea in ships’ truly are having their travels made luxurious, for in this vessel, the three desired requisites of safety, speed and luxury are conspicuously present.”

There were more than 3 miles of carpet aboard (the staterooms had a heavy Axminster carpet in a rich Mulberry shade; the salon had a French gray). There were more than 1,000 light fixtures, and the chandeliers were custom-designed by Keil exclusively for the "C-III."

As her name would suggest, she was the third vessel in the D&C fleet to carry the name "City of Cleveland," though the "III" was not added to her name until 1912, when the "City of Detroit III", or the "D-III," joined the fleet. The heyday of the D&C armada saw six majestic steamers: the "Eastern States," "Western States," "Greater Detroit," "Greater Buffalo" and the "C-III" and "D-III." All six were designed by Kirby, and all but the two Greaters featured the interior design of Keil.

In addition to passengers, she also carried package freight for most of her career.

But tragedy that struck the "C-III" at the beginning of her service would strike again at the end.

At 6:16 a.m. on June 26, 1950, the vessel was damaged in a collision with the Norwegian freighter "Ravnefjell" in fog off Harbor Beach, Mich., in Lake Huron. The "C-III" was carrying 89 passengers on a cruise for the Benton Harbor Chamber of Commerce, headed for Detroit to watch the Tigers take on the New York Yankees at Briggs Stadium that afternoon. Four people were killed when the freighter crashed into the "C-III's" port side cabins, near the stern. Her hull remained in tact, however, and she was able to continue on to Detroit. Among the dead: Benton Harbor Police Chief Alvin Boyd and former Benton Harbor Mayor Merwyn Stouck.

Capt. Rudolph Kiessling was found to have not only been "speeding" at 16 miles per hour through foggy conditions, but also traveling too close to shore when heading south -- the "C-III" was about 4 miles from shore when rules required it to be 10.

By that time, D&C's business had all but evaporated thanks to the advent of the interstate system and the rise of airline travel. As a result, rather than repair her, she was laid up and never sailed again. She sat partially mangled at a dock in Detroit, and then was moved across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. Three years later, in June 1953, the "C-III" floated off after coming loose from her moorings during a storm and ran aground at Hennepin Point.

In 1954, she was sold to Ventimiglia Demolition Co. of Detroit to be partially dismantled and converted into a crane barge for use in building the St. Lawrence Seaway. However, on Oct. 20 of that year, she caught fire again and partially sank. She was finally scrapped in 1956 in Buffalo, N.Y. -- a fate that also met her four remaining sister ships of the D&C fleet that same year.