Additional Frank E. Kirby history and facts on this web site

This eminent naval architect was born in Dover County, Ohio on July 1 1849 and died in New York on August 26 1929. A long, active career extended his influence in Great Lakes ship building throughout the Great Lakes. He is well known for designing the floating palaces that were the extension of the railroads at the end of the 1800's and into the early twentieth century. The glamorous side-wheelers which brought everyone and everything further west over the inland seas of the Great Lakes.


As a student in the late 1860's, inheriting a talent from his engineer father, Frank switched from studying art to naval architecture at the Cooper Institute Night School in New York. ~ He soon thereafter became employed by the Delameter Iron Works of New York and this was the beginning of his famous career.


On a trip home from New York in 1870, 21 year old Frank was introduced to Captain Eber B. Ward aboard one of Ward's Pere Marquette trains. Ward was a leading industrialist in the Midwest. In 1864 Ward had introduced the Bessemer process of steel production to Wyandotte, MI and to the United States. His family also controlled a large line of lake steamers. Ward had a talent for recognizing talent and Frank Kirby created a good impression. Ward brought Frank and his older brother, Fritz Albert (Joe), to Wyandotte to build an iron hulled ship and in the summer of 1872 they laid the keel a large tug, the E. B. Ward, Jr. He not only designed the boat but also the engine and boiler. It was such a success; for efficiency, power and top speed, that it launched his career. They carried on with the neat little side-wheel passenger steamer Queen of the Lakes. The hull lines of those later major steamers were already apparent in this vessel.


Frank Kirby made many trips to Europe and elsewhere to observe iron shipbuilding and maritime technology. He constantly made sketches and drawings; collected catalogs, and studying artwork, scrolls and interior design.


Upon Ward's death, the Wyandotte yards were absorbed by the Detroit Dry Dock Company, one of the founders of which was Capt. Stephen R. Kirby, Frank's father. The younger Kirby then became their Engineer and Navel Architect.


The composite steamer City of Detroit of 1879 heralded the 16 large side-wheelers Kirby was to supply the D&C and C&B Lines over a period of 46 years. Equally notable were the graceful excursion steamers designed for the White Star, Ashley and Dustin, Detroit and Windsor and Hudson River Day Lines.


Out of the yards at Wyandotte and Detroit also came numerous ore carriers, railroad-owned package freighters and Detroit River and Lake Michigan car-ferries. Stiffening competition of the '80's turned profits into losses for lake shipyards and Kirby figured in the formation of the giant American Shipbuilding Company of 1898 under which the Detroit and Wyandotte yards operated until after World War I.


Kirby was very good at diagnosing and curing the ills of ships and he drew up the Steamboat Inspection Code revision after 1904 General Slocum disaster in New York. As a consultant, he handled anything from World War I "Eagle Boats" to a Walkerville grain elevator. In the ice-breaking car-ferry Ste. Ignace of 1888 he pioneered a bow propeller whose suction drew the supporting water from beneath the ice. At the start of the Spanish-American War, we had no troop carriers. Kirby was called on and took charge of remodeling fourteen ships for use as transports and completed the job in the necessary record time. He was constantly on the move with his work but he was always ready to sit and talk. If one needed help, Frank was there.


The last ships designed by Kirby were the "largest and most expensive" side-wheelers ever build on the Great Lakes. They were the Greater Buffalo and the Greater Detroit launched in the fall of 1923. Both built for the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company for 3,500,000 each. These multi-leveled arks were described as "a white summer resort hotel that had found itself adrift". Fortunately they were built at the start of the decline of lake shipping and travel. Kirby died a few year later but his ultimate creations lived on into the late 40's; in the red for much of that time.


The years have taken away many major examples of his work, leaving only such remnants as the Columbia, Ste. Claire, Richelieu (ex-Narragansett) at Montreal. Symbol's of the man who was an integral part of that time. His vision of beauty and his ability to blend it with the needed strength and utility, teaches us to create instead of invent; to enjoy other than endure. We cannot ignore these remaining elements of the past that teach us how to go on in a better way.