Few industrialists in the history of the United States have been so widely involved in multiple production operations as Henry Ford. His business philosophy was to operate and control all phases of his manufacture, which included transportation between production facilities.
Certain operations of his automobile empire involved the transportation of raw materials, and completed sub-assemblies between the main plants in the Detroit area, and satellite plants on the eastern seaboard.
The commercial virtue of the Barge Canal became apparent to Henry Ford after he vacationed on the system in 1922. He began the trip as the guest of Governor Nathan Miller aboard the New York State yacht Inspector, with a tour of the Champlain Division. Ford spent a weekend with the governor’s family at their cottage on Lake George, after which he was met by his son Edsel aboard their private yacht the Greyhound, returning to Detroit via the then five year old canal network and Great Lakes.
Henry Ford’s companies built Atlantic seaboard plants, and in January of 1931 he sent a group of design engineers to Albany to meet with state canal officials to discuss a corporate proposal to operate a fleet of large motorships on the Barge Canal. The motorships were designed by the noted naval architecture firm of Henry J. Gielow, Inc. of New York. Ford Motor Company ordered two 300-foot cargo ships, the largest ever built for service on the Barge Canal and the first turbine powered craft built. The keels for the first two ships were laid at the Great Lakes Engineering Works of River Rouge, Michigan in 1931.
The design of the vessels included a retractable pilot house that would lower the entire helm into a well in the ship’s hull. This arrangement, similar to an elevator shaft, would allow the craft to pass under bridges on the canal that limited overhead clearance. The other protuberances, such as exhaust stacks, masts, and flag poles also descended to the deck. All ship controls were designed to be operated directly from the pilot house, a novel aspect for the day that saw most vessels designed with only a system of bells for the pilot to signal the crew with his intentions.
Each motorship would be operated by a crew of twenty-two men on a 24-7 schedule, and would be powered by two 800 horsepower Westinghouse geared steam turbine engines, fired by fuel oil. The craft could make 11.3 knots and had a capacity of 2800 net tons which could be loaded through nine telescopic hatches. The design of the motorships also took into account the confined conditions of canal operations, with the vessels equipped with dual rudders and direct reversing engines, making turning easy in low speed maneuvering.
The first ship was launched on May 9, 1931, and named the Chester, so named for the Ford plant in Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, which the craft would service. The second motorship, the Edgewater, was launched on May 16, 1931, with its namesake being the Ford Plant in Edgewater, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City.
Both of the identical sister ships were fitted out and ready for Ford service by mid-summer with the sides of the new vessels emblazoned with the Ford script logo. The craft, while sized to fit the dimensions of the Barge Canal, were designed for navigation on the more challenging waters of the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean. This advantage allowed the seaworthy self-propelled cargo vessels to make connections from the absolute limits of the system without the requirement to break and reload the shipment in various vessels.
The Chester and the Edgewater operated during the depression years and proved to be a profitable asset to Ford’s developing export market. Occasionally, as market forces dictated, the motorships would be contracted out to haul commodities for companies other than Ford, in an effort to keep the vessels and crews constantly productive.
In 1937 Ford decided to double the size of the canal fleet by building two new vessels. These new motorships would be similar to those built six years previous, but the designers would add some refinements learned from operation of the original vessels. The new ships would have an increased capacity of 3000 net tons, the intended limit of Barge Canal locks. The retractable pilot house would be placed further aft on the new vessels, rather than in the far forward position on the original craft. The sides on the newer freighters met the deck at a square angle, rather than the water shedding bevel of the original design. The total horsepower was reduced from 1600 to 1200, with an eye toward economy, with the installation of newly designed Cooper-Bessemer diesel power-plants. The most important difference on the new motorships would be that the two new ships would be the first freighters on the Great Lakes to utilize completly welded hull construction. This pioneering development and prototype in ship construction would greatly aid the speedy emergency construction of cargo vessels in the approaching world war.
The two new craft would be named the Green Island in honor of the Ford plant near Troy, NY, and the Norfolk named for the plant in Norfolk, Virginia. These craft allowed Ford to ship completed sub-assemblies, such as engines built in Detroit, to the east coast export plants. Westbound, the vessels would carry bumpers, springs and radiators, built by vendors, back-hauling to the massive Ford River Rouge Plant.
Both the Barge Canal and the Ford vessels were operated twenty-four hours a day. This ambitious schedule saw the vessels constantly moving in both directions with full holds during the shipping season. The incorporation of consistency in equipment, both on the vessels and at the unloading facilities of all plants, allowed efficient, integrated operation of independent units. The four craft operated successfully in this manner upon the Barge Canal for a number of years prior to the United States’ involvement in the Second World War.
All four Ford ships were requisitioned by the United States Navy for use in the war effort by January 1942. The vessels were used in the Caribbean Sea, in what was considered safe waters. It is surprising from the perspective of the present day that the Navy decided to use these vessels on blue water, rather than their designed and proven mission of moving the products of industry between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.
This unwise decision penalized New York State by removing the only class of vessels which were ever designed and built to take maximum advantage of the Barge Canal. These craft were exactly what the designers of the Barge Canal had envisioned, a vessel that could transport any type of material from any port on the Great Lakes, to any port on the Atlantic coast, without the need to shift cargo.
The motorships, sent in harm’s way, did suffer damage on the high seas. The Green Island was the most ill-fated of the four Ford canal vessels pressed into war time service. The low profile of the motorship, especially during the hours of darkness, could be confused with the outline of a surfaced submarine. In the early morning of January 27, 1942, off the coast of Florida, the crew of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Hamilton mistakenly identified the Green Island, and rammed the vessel, damaging its port side. The Green Island was able to move to Miami for repairs.
Just after returning to service the Green Island was sunk by the Nazi U-boat U-125 on May 6, 1942. The surfaced submarine encountered the motorship south of Jamaica as the vessel was returning from Cuba with a load of sugar. Captain Ulrich Folkers, in uncharacteristic compassion toward merchant seamen, ordered the crew into the safety of their lifeboats before he fired a fatal torpedo into the side of the out of place canal vessel, sending her to the floor of the Caribbean Ocean.
The Navy modified the three remaining Ford motorships to better suit their wartime duties on salt water. This adaptation involved raising the pilot house and making its position fixed. The Chester, Edgewater and Norfolk survived the conflict, contributing to the Allied victory.
After the war was over, the scope of business practices had changed and the vessels were disposed of by Ford, never returning to the service of that company. The Chester was sold to Brazilian interests and was renamed Lourival Lisboa and later renamed Guararapes before be scrapped in the mid-1950s.
The Edgewater operated under the new name Orion on the Great Lakes as a tanker and later as a sand barge, sinking in Lake Erie in 1968. The Norfolk was operated by Canadian interests as the Humerdoc until it was scrapped in 1967. Because of the modifications the US Navy made, which affected the height of the craft, the vessels were no longer able to transit the Barge Canal.
Many motorships have plied the Barge Canal, Great Lakes and Hudson River network, but Henry Ford demonstrated the designs were viable.
Read more about the history of the Erie Canal and Barge Canal.
Photos, from above: Ford River Rouge Plant; CHESTER; EDGEWATER; GREEN ISLAND; and NORFOLK courtesy Historical Collections of the Great Lakes.