In the era before jetliners and freeways, many Detroiters traveled in floating hotels, and for nearly forty years, the City of Detroit III whisked families away aboard the most opulent palace sailing the Great Lakes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, trips on smoke-belching steamships were commonplace, whether Detroiters boarded steamers to Belle Isle or ferries across the Detroit River to Canada. But such voyages were not only pleasure cruises, they were also one of the main ways people navigated around the Midwest.
One of the most popular lines was the Detroit & Cleveland (D&C) Navigation Co., the greatest of the so-called night lines, a sort of maritime “red eye” on which passengers boarded in the evening, slept the night away and awoke the next morning at their destinations. 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 Captain 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 Company, but about ten 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 chronicle of overnight steamers of the United States.
Building the queen of the Great Lakes
Having weathered not only the Panic of 1873 but also the subsequent Depression of 1893, business was booming for D&C at the turn of the century. The company set a course to build the fleet that would serve it until the line’s end. This new D&C armada would be designed by the greatest naval architect of the Great Lakes, Frank E. Kirby. 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 slid from the dockyard slipway.
Kirby is perhaps the most important American naval architect ever, and he is best remembered by metro Detroiters for designing the beloved Boblo boats, the Columbia and the Ste. Claire. But more than pleasure boats sprang from Kirby’s drawing board. 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.
The first two vessels of D&C’s grand fleet would be the Eastern States and Western States, which were ready for service between Detroit and Buffalo in 1902. The move was considered risky at the time, but it would pay off, proving even more successful than the company’s popular Cleveland run. In 1907, D&C added the City of Cleveland III, a remarkable design by Kirby and his greatest design to that point. But a few years later, Kirby would outdo himself.
In 1911, D&C commissioned Kirby to build the largest steel-hulled passenger side-wheeler on the Great Lakes, the City of Detroit III—the vessel many would consider Kirby’s crowning achievement. The Saturday Evening Post declared the D&C flotilla the “Wonderful Arks of the Great Lakes.” Hilton wrote that “Kirby’s last four side-wheelers for [D&C],” which included the City of Detroit III, “were the supreme flowering of the night boat as a class of marine architecture.
Of these masterful vessels, the City of Detroit III was the most expensive, largest and most luxurious passenger freshwater vessel afloat at the time it was built. “In construction of the City of Detroit III, nothing that money could buy has been omitted in an effort to make the ship the most modern model of shipbuilding skill” with “every essential to the comfort and care of passengers, with palatial furnishings, fittings and decorations,” the journal Ohio Architect, Engineer and Builder wrote in May 1912.
More than 6,000 people turned out to see the City of Detroit III launched at the Wyandotte, Mich., yard of the Detroit Shipbuilding Company on Oct. 7, 1911. Among the dignitaries on hand were Kirby, Detroit mayor William B. Thompson and a number of D&C officials and luminaries. The vessel was christened by Doris McMillan, the granddaughter of the senator. The Detroit Free Press provided the play-by-play: “Tense silence, the scarcely audible thump of a sharp-bladed ax biting through hempen bonds, a creaking of timbers, the splintering crackle of breaking glass, then an ear-filling, nerve-jarring volume of sound, ending in a mighty crash as the water displaced by the great mass of steel swept the opposite side of the slip.”
While the boat was tied up at the foot of Orleans Street, an army of carpenters, painters, decorators, machinists and steelworkers swarmed over the vessel and worked frantically to have it ready in time for the opening of the Detroit–Buffalo steamship travel season. The Free Press noted at this point of construction that it looked like “a human anthill.” And the ants moved quickly. In little more than a month’s time, on Nov. 15, with the engines and machinery in place, the hull was turned over to the builders and craftsmen. Twenty-five working days later, five stories of cabins rose from the deck, and the roof was in place. The next five months would be spent applying the finishing touches—carving the balustrades and banisters, painting the walls and decking the vessel out—to say nothing of installing more than two thousand windows.
After much anticipation — thanks in large part to the constant coverage in the newspapers — the queen of the Great Lakes was ready to sail on May 30, 1912. But the vessel would initially find itself in rough waters. Shortly after 10 a.m., as the City of Detroit III was pulling out of the dock, a miscommunication to the engine room resulted in it clobbering the Joseph C. Suit, a small wooden passenger and freight carrier that had been moored at dock. There were no injuries because the City of Detroit III’s crew was able to holler warnings to the nine people aboard the Suit to get out of the way. The dinky 110-foot vessel was ripped from its moorings and got wedged between the anchor and port rudder of the colossal boat. The Suit was dragged about 200 feet downstream, and a tug had to pry the boat out of the giant’s clutches. The Suit, which was built in 1884, sank almost immediately. Understandably, the mammoth marvel’s arrival was delayed a bit, and it didn’t pull in until shortly after 6:15 p.m. The rest of the vessel’s voyages, however, would prove to be smooth sailing.
The D-III, as it was known, cost $1.5 million (the equivalent of $31.8 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Structurally, there was perhaps no sturdier vessel on the lakes. The five-story floating fortress had a 455-foot-long hull of steel. It was the largest side-wheeler in the world when it was built — its paddle wheel was about 30 feet in diameter and had paddles 8 feet wide. For perspective, it was about as long as a forty-five-story skyscraper is tall.
“When you refer to the City of Detroit III as a leviathan, you are well within the bounds of conservatism, for … it is some boat,” the Free Press wrote. For perspective, six laps around the Great Lakes goliath’s hurricane deck would tally a mile. The D-III’s capacity was 5,000 day passengers, though it usually carried far fewer, and no more than 1,500 on an overnight voyage.
In accordance with its general scale, three smokestacks eight and a half feet in diameter towered three stories over the main deck. These smoke-belching monsters were fed by dozens of men slinging coal to feed the fires that powered the mighty vessel. The stacks were vertical, not slanted — a signature of Kirby’s designs.
It was a significant milestone and testament to the burgeoning growth and economic rise of Detroit and the Midwest. And when its bow cut through the waves at night, its 2,700 lights must have made it look like a giant floating light show. What a sight it must have been for those stuck on shore.
An esteemed steamer
And if its size alone didn’t knock Detroiters’ socks off, it was a looker on the inside, too. Considered to be the ultimate in elegance, style and comfort, the D-III offered the type of luxury usually reserved for ocean liners. The Marine Review, which chronicled the maritime activities of its time, lauded the D-III in 1912, describing its eight-thousand-horsepower engines in detail, the complete fire alarm system that protected its passengers, its speed of 22 miles per hour and, above all, the stunning elegance that held its own against any landlocked hotel of the day.
While Kirby designed the ship and its exteriors, its sumptuous interiors were the work of Louis O. Keil. He and Kirby were something of a team, working together on many of the side-wheelers that cruised the Great Lakes. The D-III proved to be Keil’s masterpiece, too — and the center of his masterpiece was the ornate Gothic Room.
The Gothic Room was a men’s smoking lounge on the upper deck that wrapped around two of the D-III’s three smokestacks. The room was designed “for timorous males who prefer the society of their own sex,” the Free Press wrote. As the name implies, the room was in the Gothic style and featured graceful arches of English oak throughout. At its center was a large, five-paneled Tiffany stained-glass window depicting René-Robert Cavelier de LaSalle’s landing in Detroit. A pipe organ filled the room with music. Between the Gothic architecture, organ and stained glass, visitors might have felt more like they were smoking in a church than in a lounge. It was heralded as the most beautiful room ever to be installed in a ship. There was a lovely carved mantel around the fireplace, spacious settees and comfy upholstered chairs.
The smoking lounge wasn’t the only room decked out in elegant detail. Artisans expertly crafted plaster and carved exquisite woodwork to line the ship from bow to stern. Balustraded staircases, gorgeous paintings, muraled ceilings and candelabras adorned its interior.
After boarding, passengers would step into the hardwood-paneled lobby and go to the purser’s office window to grab keys to their rooms. Then it was up a staircase into the Grand Salon. It would have been an impressive sight as you came to the top of the stairs. There, passengers were wowed by seven large mythology-themed murals on the ceiling and a large painting on each of the two staircase landings. This was the work of noted muralist William de Leftwich Dodge of New York, whose paintings beautify everything from the Library of Congress to Buffalo City Hall. Dodge was tapped to spice up the D-III, and he painted a seductive siren at the top of a salon staircase and the grand ladies who posed and pirouetted on the ceiling. A trident-wielding baby Neptune held court under the wistful gaze of cupids and nymphs. “It almost reminded you of a European cathedral,” recalled Gordon Luther, 81, of Oviedo, Fla., the beauty of Dodge’s work still fresh in his mind all these years later. Classical statuary struck poses above the large murals, and plaster friezes and ornate leaf motif columns framed them.
The promenade deck was built of the finest imported mahogany, while the upper and gallery decks featured painted paneling. There also were three moon-shaped, or “lunette,” panels in the dome that arched high over the staircase.
“It was big,” recalls Detroiter Frederick E. Weber, now in his late 80s. He worked on the D-III as a baggage handler in the vessel’s later years. “Going on for the first time, it would be like going on one of the old ocean liners.
“If it was your first trip, it’d awestruck a young person,” said Weber, who grew up with steamers. His father worked as chief steward on the beloved Detroit steamer Tashmoo from 1920 to 1923.
The D-III had 25 parlor staterooms for society’s upper crust, lavishly outfitted in hardwoods with private baths and a veranda from which to enjoy the fresh air and beautiful lake views. Rooms came equipped with electric fans, a chest of drawers, a sofa or settee and a large mirror. Softly colored floral paintings dotted the decorative panels that lined the walls. There also were 21 slightly less opulent semi-parlors that featured private baths. The vessel’s 477 staterooms, however, were less than lavish. Travelers had to go down the hall to use the bathrooms. And the room itself was a tight squeeze, measuring only about seven by 7 feet in which were crammed an upper and lower bed, a sink and maybe a fold-down stool, if you were lucky. But the rooms were suitable enough for the overnight voyages between Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. And no matter where you bunked on the D-III, all of its staterooms sported telephones, hot and cold running water and clean-air ventilation.
Meals and top-shelf service were offered in the colonial-style dining room, which seated 350 people and was located at the back of the boat on the main deck. The room was outfitted in white enamel-painted woodwork and ringed by windows, a practical yet new innovation on steamships at the time. The room featured painted canvas ceiling panels, and there was mahogany wainscoting throughout. Higher-brow travelers dined in mahogany and gilded private rooms.
The Palm Court was a popular spot for guests to relax and unwind in a wicker chair as the boat chugged along. It was located on the upper deck at the back of the ship and showcased a fountain, as well as flower boxes and an ivy-garlanded trellis that wrapped the walls. The room itself was finished in poplar, and in the center of the room was an open gazebo, a ring of classical columns forming its boundaries. The Palm Court’s doors, cornices and canvas paneling were all done in a soft and restful shade of gray. The dome that soared over the Palm Court’s open light was full of leaded glass.
The Marie Antoinette drawing room was on the gallery deck, directly under the Palm Court, and was painted in gray tones and cerulean blue. It “will be a delight to the ladies, for whose use it is especially planned,” the Free Press wrote. “Although the sterner sex will not be barred from sharing its beauties.”
The ship also had a bar modeled after a 17th-century-style Rhine wine cellar. “The atmospheric beauty and charm of this room have won praise of decorators and designers from many states and countries,” the Free Press wrote. “Costing $300,000, and built only after exhaustive study of ancient European drinking places, the Detroit III’s cool and comfortable cocktail lounge…excellently reproduces the picturesque drinking room of 300 years ago.” The room was covered in Pewabic tiles and fashioned with massive, hand-hewn oak beams with a large oak bar at one end. Behind the bar was a mural of a gnome painting a frog. The little critters were the D&C’s mascot. Also behind the bar were heavy oaken doors leading to the liquor and wine storage chamber. Travelers would kick back on heavy leather-covered settees or sit on the fine leather benches that lined the wall. The light fixtures were of wrought iron and patterned after old European candleholders, and in keeping with the motif, simulated spider webs and bats festooned the ceiling and walls.
The D&C travelers would board the D-III or its fleet mates at the foot of Third Street, on the west side of downtown. The vessels would unload their guests at these docks and then steam back to the sheds west of Third, where they would unload their freight and load up the next day’s goods. The D-III would then pull back up to the foot of Third, where the next round of passengers would board.
The ship line usually catered to more upper-class patrons, Weber recalled, “office people, doctors, lawyers. 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.”
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 daytrips or lake cruises up to watch the annual Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race or chartered group excursions.
People flocked to the Detroit River to watch the D-III’s three belching stacks fill the air with thick black smoke and its massive paddle wheels churn as it made her way across Lake Erie. Patrons gladly forked over $3.50 (about $35 today) to sail from Detroit to Buffalo in such luxury. An extra buck got you a spot in one of the staterooms.
The Buffalo line, established in 1902, proved to be incredibly popular, even more so than the route to Cleveland. As the largest steamer of the company, the D-III was originally intended for the Buffalo service, but the D&C line was so successful during the 1920s that the company built a pair of even larger ships. The Greater Detroit and the Greater Buffalo were built in 1924 and based on Kirby’s design for the D-III — only bigger. The Greaters cost $3.5 million each (about $42 million a piece when adjusted for inflation) and were the largest paddle steamers ever constructed. They were each 519 feet long — just shy of two football fields. That made them about 65 feet longer than the D-III, and the new kids on the dock forced the D-III back to the Detroit–Cleveland run.
Luther didn’t ride on the D-III when it plied the Great Lakes, but he did sail 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.”
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.
The end of the line
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 Buffalo and Greater Detroit — the two largest paddle-wheelers in the world — were laid up. The company 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 December 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 loss of the Greater Buffalo put the D-III back on Buffalo duty.
Despite having the largest freshwater fleet of combination passenger and freight boats in the world, the fact remained that the company was hurting. 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.
But the company’s bungling bottom line wasn’t its only problem. On June 25, 1950, the City of Cleveland III was heading toward Detroit when it was rammed by the Norwegian freighter Ravnefjell off Harbor Beach in Lake Huron. The collision crushed sixty feet of the steamer’s superstructure and proved to be a fatal blow. Its days on the lakes were over. Merwyn Stouck, sixty-four, a former mayor and city commissioner of Benton Harbor, Michigan, died after the force of the crash threw him overboard as he was enjoying a morning walk. Benton Harbor’s police chief, Alvin C. Boyd, and two others were also killed. It was the first fatal accident in D&C’s ninety-eight-year history. The City of Cleveland III was never repaired and sat at a dock in Windsor, Ontario, for several years before finally being towed away in September 1954. It was said to have been converted into a derrick barge for use in the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The collision left D&C with only four of the six mighty vessels it had touted for decades, and passenger service had dwindled so much that many of their runs were made for freight alone. Staffing was also an issue. Because the cruises seldom required a full crew, on the occasions when the boats were chartered, D&C simply didn’t have enough employees.
Further compounding the company’s problems was the city’s attempts to get rid of the magnificent steamers. In May 1949, the city’s chief smoke inspector, John W. Shaw, cited D&C with violations of the Smoke Abatement Ordinance. “We advised them to use an improved type of fuel,” Shaw told the Free Press. “They are not doing it.” The company had already converted the Greater Detroit from coal to oil burning at great expense. Converting the rest of the fleet would have been incredibly costly, and they were already losing money.
Then, in May 1950, the city condemned the D&C terminal as part of an effort to redevelop the waterfront and make way for what is now Cobo Hall. The city gave the company $1.4 million for the land and said it would rent the property back to D&C for $11,700 a month until it became necessary to demolish the structures. But on Feb. 7, 1951, the company was ordered evicted from the property because it owed $73,050 in unpaid rent. With the loss of the D&C terminal, service on the D&C boats officially ended on May 9, 1951, though they had not run since the previous fall. The city’s first attempt to get the fleet moved from in front of the Veterans’ Memorial Building came on April 24, 1951.
“Each time, [D&C] tells us that they don’t have any place to move them,” corporation counsel G. Edwin Slater told the Free Press the following month. “When we find them a spot, they tell us the insurance won’t approve it.”
So D&C was fined, effectively getting parking tickets, when the boats were not relocated by 8:00 p.m. on May 24, 1951. On May 28, 1951, traffic and ordinance judge John D. Watts found D&C guilty of “illegally parking” the steamers in the Detroit River. These vessels, which had been such a symbol of pride, were now nothing but a nuisance. They were out of fashion—and in the way. “City officials were irked because the vessels … blocked the view of the river from the Veterans Memorial Building,” the Free Press reported at the time. There had been talk of trying to revive the line, either through leasing the vessels to other companies or converting them to freight service, but neither plan materialized.
D&C goes down with its ships
Time and progress had caught up with the magnificent passenger vessels that had enlivened the Detroit riverfront and thrilled millions on the Great Lakes. The D-III and the line’s other vessels sat idle as time and the elements ate away at their grandeur. The steamers became, the News wrote in March 1953, “chiefly the homes of the waterfront’s pigeons and sparrows.”
In July 1953, the old D&C buildings at the foot of Wayne Street were torn down to make storage space for the steel needed to build Cobo Hall. The city’s old transportation hub was gone, and an evolving Detroit demanded a new convention center rise in its place.
Despite D&C’s denial that it was attempting to sell its steamers, it was acknowledged that hopes for rehabilitation had been abandoned. The years had taken their toll, and the cost of getting the boats sailing again was increasingly prohibitive in light of the company’s lackluster ledgers, Free Press maritime reporter Curtis Haseltine said.
On June 21, 1956, the D-III, Greater Detroit 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.
“Time has dealt with her kindly as it does to a truly beautiful woman of character,” the Free Press wrote in September 1956. “Her beautiful lines remain, she is structurally sound and the elegance of her interior fittings and decoration is as eye-filling and tasteful as the days she slid down the ways.” But “like many another aristocrat, the City of Detroit III has fallen victim to a new economy and the whimsical vagaries of human nature. The new economy calls for higher costs of operation—notably labor—and skyrocketing prices for scrap metal.”
That month, the D-III was stripped of its finery in preparation for the scrap yard. Its paint had flecked off in large patches. Vandals had smashed its windows. The upholstery had faded on its luxurious lounge chairs. The art treasures that made the D-III a floating museum were sold. Oil paintings by the score were snapped up by collectors, but others, such as those on the ceilings, could not be salvaged without being destroyed and were scrapped with the ship. In late 1956, parts of the D-III were stripped by the Union Wrecking Company of Detroit, and its bits and pieces were sold to scrappers and souvenir collectors looking to preserve their fond memories of D&C’s crown jewel. Everything from the D-III’s steering wheels to its whistle were sold at the foot of Third Street. Settees were carried away in car trunks. Pitchers emblazoned with the D&C monogram were spirited away to basement rec rooms across metro Detroit.
Luther went aboard the D-III before the scrappers got to work. “They had already started to cannibalize all the good stuff out of it,” he said. “The paint had pulled off because it had been sitting there for five years. The carpet was all greasy and dirty.”
Some of its furnishings—the thousands of drinking glasses, water pitchers, electric fans, bedsprings and thousands of other items—were taken to East Tawas, Michigan, for use on the steamer Western States, which Rosen tried to convert into a “flotel,” a floating motel. That effort would fail in 1959.
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.”
While pieces of the steamers wound up on mantels and in living rooms across metro Detroit, it was a Cleveland house painter who took the souvenir collecting to a whole other level. Frank Schmidt bought entire interiors of rooms and had them shipped to Cleveland by the truckload—including the entire Gothic Room from the D-III, magnificent stained-glass window and all—and installed it in the loft of a barn in a Cleveland suburb, an odd setting for such elegance, but one that preserved it. From the barn’s loft, one could look across and see the magnificent staircase wall from the Forward Salon.
In early November 1956, the “last vestige of wood” was stripped from the D-III, and its carcass was taken to the Steel Corporation of Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, and scrapped in late March 1957. The bill for stripping it was high because of the extensive demolition of all the woodwork and plaster necessary to get at its steel frame. It was so high, in fact, that alternative means were devised for the demise of the steamers Greater Detroit and Eastern States. In December 1956, tugs dragged the pair out into Lake St. Clair, and they were set ablaze. Burning away all the splendor made it easier—and cheaper—to get to the steel.
“It just broke your heart,” said William Hoey, who took photos of the D&C steamers being scrapped. Now seventy-four years old and living in Trenton, Michigan, he had ridden the D-III as a small child. “They were just spectacular. You knew the effort that went into building them, and they were just going to wreck them or set them on fire.”
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.
The D-III returns home — in pieces
After his death in 1965, Schmidt’s sister decided to sell his maritime holdings, including the treasures he had rescued from the D-III. Most of his collection was sold to a restaurant-decorating firm in Cleveland, which, in turn, sold pieces to restaurants around the Midwest and beyond. The classically styled pediment that once crowned a painting on the landing of the grand salon’s staircases now serves as the backdrop of a bar at Bistro Romano in Philadelphia.
But the firm sold a good chunk of the collection to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. By December 1966, a fundraising effort had raised $40,000 (about $290,000 today) to buy the ornate Gothic Room, whistles, murals and more and bring them back to Detroit. The collection included more than seven tons of woodwork alone. The Great Lakes Maritime Institute spearheaded the effort to have part of the famed room installed in the Dossin. Kolowich, the last operator of the D&C vessels, gave the drive a big boost by donating thousands of invalidated D&C Navigation Company stock certificates, which were sent to those who donated $2 or more. The Daughters of the American Revolution donated $2,700 for the La Salle window, but most of the donations came from individual Detroiters eager to bring pieces of the beloved boats home.
Once refinished, sections of the Gothic Room were installed near the Dossin’s entrance. Museum curator Robert E. Lee and his assistant, Charles Patrick Labadie, directed the restoration, and the skillful hands of Paul Colleta did much of the work. Many of the fine carvings had been damaged over the years and were covered with layer after cracked layer of old varnish. While the entire Gothic Room wasn’t reinstalled, and the layout was changed to conform to the Dossin’s dimensions, the room’s magnificent splendor still awes visitors today, nearly 60 years after the ship was ripped apart.
At the museum, the D-III’s “fond memory still lives, close to the waters she sailed,” the Marine Historical Society of Detroit wrote in Great Lakes Ships We Remember. “The room can be enjoyed by the thousands who once rode aboard her, and the countless others who can only imagine her opulence as she once was.”