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The A.C. Maxwell, 166 foot long wooden schooner, built by Crosthwaite in East Saginaw. (Great Lakes Maritime Database, University of Michigan)

TALL SHIPS MADE HERE: Bay City Built Sailing Queens in Victorian Era

"Head for the Rigging" was the Cry of Salts on Ships in Distress

July 12, 2013       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Some of the 888 ships built here 1787 to 1977, if they could magically return to their home port through the mists of time, would fit right in at this week's Tall Ships Festival.

Bay City shipbuilders turned out dozens of tall ships during the "golden age of sail," basically the Victorian Era (1837-1901), so the visit of the Tall Ships here this week is, as Yogi Berra famously was quoted "deja vu all over again," for maritime historians.

And for ghostly old time ship captains perhaps stalking the foggy riverfront with clay pipes clenched between their teeth, no doubt grumbling about gasoline-driven "stink-pot" yachts.

Sailing vessels started calling here in 1819, when the "Savage," an American Fur Company vessel, came from Detroit to load furs.

Henry Hall, special agent for the federal government, visited here in 1881 and proclaimed the Saginaw River shipyards as the "finest shipyards for wooden ship-building in the United States."

Beginning in the 1870s, Bay City ranked with Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee and Niagara, Ontario, as Great Lakes shipbuilding centers.

Hall made particular mention of the F.W. Wheeler yard in West Bay City. In 1890 Wheeler built the 242 foot long schooner Newell A. Eddy, 1,270 tons, sunk in Lake Huron in 1893 with a cargo of corn bound from Chicago to Buffalo.

Sailors knew to "head for the rigging" when a ship was going down, figuring they had a better chance of surviving if they clung to a yardarm, especially if the sinking was in shallow water.

But the Eddy went down in water way too deep for that, and all seven of her crew perished, according to Donald Comtois, Ralph K. Roberts and David D. Swayze in their "Vessels Built on the Saginaw," published in 1991 by the Bay County Historical Society.

The Eddy was discovered by diving teams from the University of Michigan in 1992, her masts still standing, in 165 feet of water. She had gone down 20 April 1893 near Spectacle Reef in the Straits of Mackinac.

The Eddy was a three-masted schooner, converted to a schooner barge as was common with large, older sailing vessels. She was in the tow of the steamer Charles A. Eddy, a 281-foot bulk carrier built at Bay City in 1889. The ship was originally part of a fleet of vessels owned and operated by the Eddy Brothers Transportation Co. of Bay City. The brothers operated a major lumber operation in the Saginaw Bay area.

Voyageur Productions has a 17-minute VHS videotape out, available on Amazon for $24.95, about the wreck of the Newell A. Eddy.

The old wooden schooners were often converted as propeller driven vessels, first wood and then steel, came into vogue in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then as age crept up, the vessels sometimes became schooner barges, like the Newell A. Eddy, towed by propeller vessels.

Typical of the lives of these sailing schooners was the story of the E.T. Judd, a 149 foot vessel built at Tripp & Church and launched in Essexville in 1872. The ship was lengthened six feet and converted to a schooner-barge by 1884. It was broken up in 1921, after having served 49 years on the lakes.

The John Kilderhouse, 168 feet, was built in Banks by Crosthwaite and had a figurehead in the form of an eagle. She was rebuilt in 1879 and sold to Reid Towing Co. of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, in 1905 (Jim Reid, local builder and entrepreneur, is a descendant of Thomas Reid of the towing firm).

"Late in her career she was acknowledged as the only full-rigged sailing ship still in use (square rigged on her foremast and fore and aft rig on the others), according to the Comtois book.

Sail lofts were located along the riverfront, one in the building now housing the Stein Haus on Water Street.

Samuel J. Tripp, in Bay City in 1856, and William Crosthwaite, in Banks in 1864, began the tradition of Saginaw River shipbuilding, according to Jeremy Kilar and Ron Bloomfield in their "Bay City Logbook," published in 1996.

But shipbuilding, at least boat building, had begun here in 1787 by Louis Tromble, who built two sloops at the mouth of the river for transporting furs obtained from the Indians to Detroit.

Shipbuilding got into full swing here with several yards established in the mid-1850s, about the time Gen. George G. Meade of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and later fame as the victorious commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, arrived to chart the Saginaw River and Bay.

The Carrollton Bar, a notorious sandbar in the Saginaw River, was a major factor in the center of shipbuilding being located here instead of 12 miles upstream. James E. Davidson, for example, started in East Saginaw and was forced to move here because of the difficulty of navigating the river shallows at Carrollton.

The four-masted schooner H.A. Hawgood was built by F. W. Wheeler in West Bay City in 1886. She was 234 feet long, about the size of the longest of the 12 vessels calling here for the Tall Ships Festival this week.

Her mizzen mast was removed and the Hawgood was chartered to the saltwater service in 1898. She was wrecked in a gale "with some loss of life" according to Comtois, et al, on 25 November 1901. She was bound for Providence, Rhode Island and came to grief near Atlantic City, New Jersey.

5087, 7775, 7776

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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