Note: In the future, I will be presenting more histories of vessels with connections to Erie. These vessels may have wintered here, been built here, been owned by Erie-based companies, or just have visited Erie a few times. If the vessel has an interesting history, it will be presented here with as many photos as I can find.
With America in the thick of World War II after the events of December 7, 1941, the U.S. Maritime Commission acted to increase the amount of raw materials moved over the Great Lakes. As a result, they designed and ordered a series of ships from Great Lakes Engineering Works’ yards at River Rouge, Michigan, and Ashtabula, Ohio. The sixteen vessels came to be known as the “Maritime” class, or simply as Maritimers.
The Maritime Commission, however, as a government agency with a war effort on its hands, had no intention of getting into the shipping business. To the contrary, the sixteen vessels ordered were offered to American shipping companies at far lower than what they could order the ships for, in addition to the equivalent tonnage in obsolete vessels that they traded to the Maritime Commission. The Maritime Commission then leased the vessels back to the companies until the end of the war.
The bulk carrier PILOT KNOB 2nd was launched on September 11, 1943 at the GLEW yard in Ashtabula. After her launching she was handed over to Bethlehem Steamship and renamed STEELTON, becoming the second vessel to carry this name for the Bethlehem fleet. Ironically, one of the vessels traded in for this ship was the first vessel to carry the name STEELTON, that vessel being a 1907-vintage laker with about half of the cargo capacity as the new vessel.
Worth noting is that both the first and third vessels to carry the name STEELTON had connections to Erie. The STEELTON (1) was returned to Erie harbor after World War II ended, being anchored in Presque Isle Bay during 1945 and 1946 before departing under tow for the cutter’s torch at Hamilton on June 9, 1946. STEELTON (3) would spend many winters in lay-up in throughout the 1960s and 1970s in at Perry Shipbuilding in Erie harbor.
STEELTON was one of the largest bulkers on the lakes at the time of her launching, stretching 603.66 feet long and 60.16 feet wide, with her Official Number being 244507. Almost immediately STEELTON was pressed into service carrying iron ore from Lake Superior and Lake Michigan to Bethlehem’s mills at Lackawanna, New York, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (the Bethlehem ore being unloaded at the Pennsylvania Railroad ore dock in Erie and shipped via rail to Bethlehem).
STEELTON made numerous visits to Erie over the years, including after the war effort ended. As an example of how important Erie was to Bethlehem Steel, in 1952, three consecutive early season trips were made to Erie with iron ore from ports on Lake Superior. The STEELTON arrived on April 26, unloading and departing ballast for Superior for a return trip, arriving back at Erie on May 4, and then returning again on May 10. Of note, on May 10, the STEELTON was not the only Maritimer to dock in Erie. Fleetmate LEHIGH and Reiss Steamship’s RICHARD REISS both docked with iron ore from Superior on that date.
STEELTON had a relatively uneventful career for Bethlehem Steel, and, due to the condition of her tank tops, an important internal part of the vessel’s hull, was traded to the Interlake Steamship Company in 1965 for the FRANK PURNELL. The STEELTON’s tank tops were in better shape than the PURNELL’s, so the former went to Interlake to be converted to a self-unloader. The vessels switched names and operators.
The PURNELL only lasted four years under Interlake Steamship Company before being sold to Oglebay Norton in 1970. It was under Oglebay Norton that the PURNELL was involved in several casualties before being renamed ROBERT C. NORTON in 1974. On November 9, 1971, the PURNELL was inbound the Niagara River near Townawanda, New York, when she ran aground. At the time she was carrying a cargo of coal. Lightered the same day by fleetmate W.C. RICHARDSON, the PURNELL was taken to Lorain, Ohio’s American Shipbuilding yard for repair.
1973 proved to be a bad season for the PURNELL, as she recorded two collisions and two groundings. On April 20, while underway in Lake Erie near North Bass Island, the PURNELL suffered the first of two groundings. She freed herself and proceeded to Lorain for inspection.
June 2, 1973 proved to be the worst day of the season for the PURNELL, as she suffered a collision and subsequent grounding. At 5:23 a.m., upbound in the Detroit River with coal from Lorain, the PURNELL collided with her fleetmate SYLVANIA, which was downbound in ballast. The PURNELL then grounded briefly. Sustaining only minor damage, the PURNELL freed itself and proceeded upbound to St. Clair, Michigan to unload.
Finally, on August 14, 1973, while refueling at the Shell Oil Dock in Sarnia, Ontario, the PURNELL was pushed into a dock walkway by the wake of a passing freighter. This caused no damage to the PURNELL but extensive damage to the walkway.
That winter the vessel was renamed for the final time, to ROBERT C. NORTON, honoring the son of one of the founders of the Oglebay Norton Company. This would prove to be her final name, one she carried to the scrapper’s torch in 1994. However, one final accident awaited her on May 6, 1977, when the NORTON sustained $350,000 in damages when she grounded at Calcite, Michigan.
The NORTON spent the late 1980s and early 1990s in retirement at Toledo, Ohio, before being sold to International Marine Salvage in 1994 for scrapping overseas. Under tow of McKeil Marine’s tugboat ROBERT B. NO.1, the NORTON departed Toledo on Independence Day 1994. A sadly ironic end to the career of a vessel that had, in her own way, fought to keep America free during World War II.
As Frank Purnell; Jim Hoffman Photo
Robert C. Norton, Cleveland, 8-22-78; Rudi Rabe photo