The Engines Of Commerce

IMG_2851I was up in Cleveland yesterday, in a high-rise building near Lake Erie, when one of the immense lake boats came in.  These are huge, ungainly vessels — the photo above that shows this boat in comparison to Cleveland Browns Stadium gives some sense of its enormous size — but they engage in a delicate dance with the tugboats that position them to move slowly down the channel to the Cuyahoga River for a delivery or pick-up.  The two vessels move with practiced care as hundreds of sea birds wheel overhead.

This is the nuts and bolts of commerce in America:  ships, trucks, and trains carrying tons of raw materials, or component parts, or finished goods ready to move to market.  It’s somehow awesome and beautiful and commonplace, all at the same time.

The William G. Mather

Take a walk along the Lake Erie shore in downtown Cleveland, between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Browns Stadium, and you will find the William G. Mather docked at the quay, serenely awaiting visitors.

The William G. Mather, which is part of the Great Lakes Science Center, is a floating museum that allows visitors to experience what it was like to be aboard a working Great Lakes freighter.  Sharply painted black, red, and white, the Mather is a huge vessel that towers above the water and is more than two football fields long.  Standing on the dock next to the Mather is like standing next to a vast and oppressive black steel wall.

This was a ship that was made to carry tons and tons of cargo, and its scale dwarfs the size of puny humans.  It was built in 1925 and sailed the waters of the Great Lakes for decades, part of the system of inland water commerce that spurred much of America’s growth.  Enormous ships like the Mather transported iron ore, coal, and other natural resources across the lakes to bustling cities like Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland, where those resources would be smelted in great factories, burned in sprawling furnaces, or otherwise used to power the engines of American industry.

The fleet of lake freighters spawned its own culture — if you ever meet someone who worked on a freighter, be sure to buy them a beer and ask them to tell you about their experiences and the characters they met, and then get ready for a few very enjoyable hours — and provided well-paying, eye-opening summer jobs for generations of young men from the Midwest.  The freighters had their heyday in the mid-1900s, when America was booming.  Now the number of those freighters is sorely diminished, and the freighter culture is sadly diminished as well.

Given the current state of lake freighters, it is perhaps fitting that the most famous of the freighters is known not for its service, but for its sinking.  Of course, that would be the Edmund Fitzgerald.