Additional Frank E. Kirby history and facts on this web site
The text below was taken from a leaflet given to passengers on a Blue Water of Michigan Detroit to  Port Huron cruise on May 28, 1990.
Aboard the Bob-Lo steamers COLUMBIA AND STE. CLAIRE  En route to Port Huron and return May 28, 1990
Over our excursion to Port Huron today presides the spirit of Frank E. Kirby.  He was the naval architect who designed our pair of Bob-Lo steamers, COLUMBIA of 1902 and STE. CLAIRE of 1910.  Indeed he created a wondrous world of great pleasure steamers of the early Twentieth century.  The best selection of these long steamers lined the Detroit riverfront in the twenties, hiding from the skyline Deco skyscraper towers of Griswold Street.  Kirby was known to the public for his namesake excursion steamer FRANK E. KIRBY of 1890, which ran from Detroit to Put-in-Bay and Sandusky.  But ships are ephemeral, and of his fine passenger steamers only our Bob-Lo steamers survive in anything like there original appearance.
Kirby seemed predestined for some sort of maritime career.  His father, Captain Stephen R. Kirby, had been outfitting the bark EUREKA at Cleveland for its unique sea voyage to the California gold rush about the time that Frank Kirby was born on July 1, 1849.  In 1853 Captain Kirby moved his family to Saginaw, Michigan , where he built ships, mills, and a hotel, and dug a pioneering salt well.  His principal patron there was the New York capitalist  Jesse Hoyt.  In 1864 Hoyt persuaded the 15 year old Frank Kirby to come East to study marine engineering at Cooper Institute in New York City.

New York in 1864 was busy with shipbuilding for the Civil War era.  Classes at Cooper were evening ones, and by day Frank Kirby worked on engine drawings for the Allaire Works and later for the Morgan Iron Works, leading marine engine builders of the day.  When Kirby returned to the Midwest in 1870 to recover from illness, his father had just bought Gordon Campbell's interest in the Campbell and Owen shipyard in Detroit.  Two years later, as shipyard manager, Stephen Kirby incorporated the firm as the Detroit Dry Dock Company.  At that time Jesse Hoyt introduced Frank Kirby to Captain Eber Brock Ward.  Twenty years earlier, Captain Ward controlled the largest fleet of lake steamers under single ownership.  From its earnings he built the Eureka Iron Works and the related Wyandotte Rolling Mills, downriver from Detroit at Wyandotte.  The mills made rails for an expanding network of Midwestern railroads, and had cast some of America's earliest Bessemer steel in the early 1860's.  At Wyandotte in 1872 Ward financed the first Great  Lakes shipyard created specifically to build metal hulls, operated by Frank Kirby and his brother Fitzhugh.  MERCHANT, the lakes first large iron freight steamer, had been built at Buffalo only ten years before; except for the U.S. gunboat MICHIGAN of 1844, iron ships were new to the lakes where timber for ships was so plentiful.  Wyandotte's first metal hulls were for the small passenger steamer QUEEN OF THE LAKES and the tugs. E. B. WARD JR. and SPORT (the latter had the lake's first steel hull ).  The financial panic of 1873 and Ward's death in 1875 reduced the yard's output to some fast yachts having composite hulls (with wood planking on iron hull frames).  In 1877 the Detroit Dry Dock Company absorbed the Wyandotte yard. 


The occasion came from an order for a composite-hulled side-wheel night boat named CITY OF DETROIT (1) for the Detroit and Cleveland Steam Navigation Company, replacing the burnt steamer R. N. RICE.  The  line's owner controlled the Dry Dock Company.  The Detroit and Cleveland Line originated in 1849, and its smaller steamers were not in the same league as the great 350 foot side-wheelers that ran from Buffalo to Detroit in the 1850's.  The D&C Line survived their demise because its route lay diagonally across the lake where railroad tracks could never be parallel.  CITY OF DETROIT was the line's first new steamer after the company was incorporated in 1868.  For forty six years thereafter, Kirby would design all of the D&C passenger steamers, all side-wheelers, together with those of the companion Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company.


The Wyandotte shipyard now flourished in an exciting era of Midwestern technology that is better know for its pioneering Chicago skyscrapers.  Within ten years, more metal-hulled ship tonnage would be built in Great Lake shipyards than in American yards.  Most of the Great Lakes ships would be the characteristic metal-hulled bulk freighters, of which Kirby designed the first, BRUNSWICK of 1881.  A year earlier, the D&C Line received its first steamer with an iron hull, CITY OF CLEVELAND (I), one of the earliest American ships with feathering paddle wheels.  In 1884 the first large lake steamers with steel hulls were launched at Wyandotte. , the package freighters SYRACUSE and ALBANY .  The steel used was part of the Bessemer steel cast  at Wyandotte twenty years earlier, and proved extremely brittle,  Nevertheless, SYRACUSE had a long career, ending as the sand sucker ALGONAC  in relatively  recent times.  Another familiar Wyandotte product of 1884 output was the 312-foot river railroad car ferry f, then the longest ship on the Great Lakes; LANSDOWNE survived with new cabin work as a restaurant on the Detroit waterfront for a short time.  Later in the decade came the icebreaking car ferry ST. IGNACE for the Mackinaw Straits, pioneering the bow propeller for improved icebreaking technique.


In 1899 the American Shipbuilding Co. trust absorbed the Detroit Dry Dock Co.. Kirby now became an independent engineering consultant, on the threshold of doing his best work.  His "masterpiece" (in the sense of initial work of great excellence) was the 300 foot St. Clair River side-wheel steamer TASHMOO of 1900.  It featured his first installation pf the lower inclined compound engines replacing the ubiquitous walking beam engine.  Her appearance recalled the great white side-wheelers of the Hudson River Day Line.  Indeed Kirby was soon designing the largest Day Line side-wheelers, in collaboration with J.W. Millard of New York City.  These included the flagships HENDRICK HUDSON of 1906 and WASHINGTON IRVING of 1913., and the smaller ROBERT FULTON of 1909.  IN 1903 Kirby designed TIONESTA, prototype of the modern engines-aft Lake Superior propeller passenger steamer (her 1905 consort JUANITA survives at Chicago as a restaurant ship, but was much rebuilt in 1941 as the Lake Michigan ferry MILWAUKEE CLIPPER).


But Kirby would be best known for his five huge Lake Erie night boats, four of which claimed to be the largest side-wheelers in the world when built.  Those of the D7C Line reflected Detroit's new prosperity as the automobile capital.  General Motors was organized in 1908, the year the first Model T Ford appeared.  That same year brought the 402 foot side-wheeler CITY OF CLEVELAND (III). first on the lakes to have a grand salon three decks high.  In this she was patterned after the steamers C. W. MORSE and BERKSHIRE which Millard designed for the Hudson River Night Line.  A 472 foot consort named CITY OF DETROIT (III) claimed the 'world's largest side-wheeler" title from a long line of Fall River Line steamers on Long Island Sound that concluded with COMMONWEALTH of 1908.  In profile the "D III" resembled COMMONWEALTH except in having three stacks instead of two.  Internally, the D III was the most elegant of all lake steamers, with a "summer season Baroque" grand salon and a sort of Rococo smoking room that survives modified as the foyer to Detroit's Dossin Great Lakes Museum.  In 1913 the rival C&B Line brought out the 484 foot SEEANDBEE with four stacks, claiming the largest honors from the D-III.  The interior decor of these Lake Erie night boats (and of the Hudson River Day Liners as well) was executed by Louis Kiel.  He was a German born architect who began his career as a fresco painter for Detroit's William Wright & Company which decorated the earlier D&C steamers.


In 1924 the "largest side-wheeler" title passed to Kirby's 536 foot D&C sisters GREATER DETROIT and GREATER BUFFALO.   Each had berths for as many passengers as QUEEN MARY could carry in peacetime.  The hull's were launched at Amship's Lorain yard (the Wyandotte yard was idle then but received cabins at Detroit's Orleans Street yard.  Their simpler salon decor, executed by W. &  J. Sloane of New York (Kiel had died in 1918), was based on Raphael's Villa Madama in Rome.  Kirby died in New York on August 25, 1929, not living to see the depression that would idle so many of his steamers.  The C&B route was idle by 1938; in wartime, SEEANDBEE and GREATER BUFFALO were rebuilt as training aircraft carriers.  All the great ships were broken up by the end of the 1950's.


"This is the eleventh in a series of leaflets donated for these Bob-Lo trips to Port Huron by some friends of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit.  These now annual trips were revived last year by the Blue Water Michigan Chapter of the National Railway  Historical Society.  On today's historic occasion both Bob-Lo steamers are scheduled to make the trip together, and COLUMBIA'S passengers will include members of the Steamship Historical Society of America, in town for their spring meeting."