Whaleback Ships of the Great Lakes
October 27, 2011 9:41 PM   Subscribe

The SS Christopher Columbus was the only Whaleback ship ever built for passenger service.

A total of fourty-three whalebacks where built between 1887-1898. One, the SS City of Everett was the first American Steamship to Travel through the Suez Canal. Another, the only British built, one was sunk by a U-boat in 1917.
The majority of them where unpowered barges meant to reduce drag when being towed, but eighteen where powered and mostly used to tow the barges. Unfortunately their low profile made them hard to see and many were damaged or sunk in collisions. Also their curved profile made their hatches hard to seal properly.

You can read more about Captain Alexander McDougall's innovative ships in "McDougall's Great Lakes Whalebacks" or take a tour of the last surviving one at the SS Meteor Whaleback Ship Museum in Superior Wisconsin.
posted by Confess, Fletch (15 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
These things remind me of a newer but almost as strange vessel that I rode on in Greece. The Flying Dolphin. It's a hydrofoil that looks like a torpedo and feels very Soviet-era/eastern bloc when you board it. It banks through turns, but in the opposite direction you expect from a plane, and it's sort of scary to ride around on in the dark in choppy water.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:05 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sight of all these wonderful Whalebacks and Flying Dolphins (and mention of the Soviet era) means that I'm just going to have to post some Caspian Sea Monsters.
posted by Chairboy at 12:02 AM on October 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great post! I love reading about evolutionary dead ends in transportation.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 12:03 AM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The whaleback design is a new one on me, but I can see why they'd be hard to load and unload and therefore poor for hauling cargo. The Flying Dolphin looks like the famously useless Ekranoplan, which was a brilliant military vehicle so long as the waters they operated on had no waves and the opposition had no aircraft.
posted by joannemullen at 12:06 AM on October 28, 2011

I guess that's why The Flying Dolphin feels that way.
posted by hat_eater at 1:26 AM on October 28, 2011

Boy, does the SS Christopher Columbus look top-heavy! No wonder that it appears to have capsized at least once. One has to marvel at the thought process that led its creator to first conceive a specially low-profile hull for heavy seas, and then allow a three-story superstructure to be built upon it.

Fortunately, it seems to have turned the big inconvenient of the whaleback ships (the narrow hull openings) into an advantage by building the superstructure around four sealed "turrets". This is probably why it survived capsizing without sinking.
posted by Skeptic at 2:56 AM on October 28, 2011

Whoops, looking at the Wikipedia entry, I see that it was not the SS Christopher Columbus that capsized, but the (non-whaleback) SS Eastland. The Christopher Columbus then passed the subsequent stability tests with flying colours. Amazing.
posted by Skeptic at 3:07 AM on October 28, 2011

That article on the Eastland/Wilmette is definitely worth a look. The cruel irony was that the additional lifeboats probably contributed to its instability.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 7:03 AM on October 28, 2011

These are great.

joannemullen: Holy crap the Ekranoplan is nuts.
posted by pts at 7:17 AM on October 28, 2011

Ya, rly. Where's my flying car jetpack whaleback barge ekranoplan?
posted by zomg at 9:38 AM on October 28, 2011

OK, beautiful, functional, wonderful, terrible to imagine them in war...

But what about high waves? Wouldn't these craft be especially susceptible to ocean storms? I can't imagine they could ride out a storm as well as a ship (with far fewer things to be broken by pounding waves), and certainly hitting a wave could end flight pretty damned fast. OTOH, flying higher than waves which can be 100' in height, when the craft are designed for WIG effect, would probably be horrendously expensive in fuel consumption (if they can even achieve non-WIG flight).
posted by IAmBroom at 9:49 AM on October 28, 2011

I can't have been the only one scrolling down through all those chronological images thinking "surely it must have sunk by now?"
posted by cromagnon at 10:56 AM on October 28, 2011

IAmBroom, for a moment I thought you meant whaleback barges - until the flying part :)
Well, I think you spelled out the reasons why we don't see Ekranoplans everyday.
posted by hat_eater at 10:57 AM on October 28, 2011

I'd guess that the soviet ekatropans were built with the intention of attacking Turkey or Iran across the Black and Caspian seas respectively, rather than operations in the Baltic or Pacific. Waves would be less of an issue, and they'd probably wait for a clear Sunday morning in the fall to attack anyway.

A Russian division that can show up anywhere on your coast, in an hour, firing cruise missiles at shore based defenses would be a pretty nasty headache if you're already trying to work out how you're going to keep both borders you share with Soviet states secure against attack.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:57 AM on October 28, 2011

There's an interesting backstory to the SS Meteor (well worth the visit, by the way), which was christened SS Frank Rockefeller initially. Frank was the younger brother of John D., and they had a fractious relationship, including a long period of estrangement. The ship was apparently built to ship the ore from his mining interests in Minnesota's Bessemer Range (I was unable to determine if he actually had an interest in the shipping company, but he probably did (the Rockefellers ran pretty much everything in Cleveland then) and served on its board). Eventually he succeeded in forming a steel casting company, in time turning over its operation to Samuel P. Bush, the grandfather of George H.W. Bush, and a self-made millionaire who had worked his way up from locomotive mechanic to one of the country's leading industrialists.
posted by dhartung at 12:39 PM on October 28, 2011

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