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,
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
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
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
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
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
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."