The St Marys Challenger

By Derek Smith

Here are some pictures of one of my favorite ships(barges) on the Great Lakes. 

It is the oldest vessel on the Great Lakes and is in excellent condition for a boat that is 117 years old.

The “Challenger” was docked last week at the Bean Dock in Port Huron’s south end.

The St. Mary’s Challenger is a cement carrier, plying the Great Lakes since 1906.

As such, it is the oldest active carrier still working on the waters of our magnificent five lakes.

She is five years older than the Titanic, 11 years older than the National Hockey League, started her sailing journey when Teddy Roosevelt was President, sailed when the Chicago White Sox beat the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series, and was in service when the Great Earthquake destroyed parts of San Francisco, killing 3,000 people.

Her hull, numbered #17, was completed in 1906 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan. Launched in February 1906, she was designed to carry 10,250 tons.

She was initially powered by 2 Scotch boilers. In the mid-19th century and early 20th century, Scotch boilers were the choice of power for most steamers.

The Titanic had 29 such boilers, 24 double-ended and five single-ended.

In simple terms, the boiler is a pressure vessel where water is heated by some sort of fuel, such as coal, converted into steam, which is then used to drive the pistons of the ship’s engine.
Scotch Boiler. Inside the Scotch Boiler.

The SS Keewatin, shown below, was built in 1907. One year younger than the St Marys Challenger. It is a 336-foot steamship that spent decades ferrying tourists about the Great Lakes.

It is a beautiful remembrance of maritime history, traveling under tow back to its Canadian homeland in May of this year. It will spend the rest of its days in the Great Lakes Maritime Museum in Kingston, Ontario. Most
people do not know that the 4 Scottish boilers that provided steam to its quadruple expansion steam engine had been removed.

As such, the ship’s ballast, which was in the form of its propulsion system, was missing, so the boat had become very buoyant and subject to turning over, hence the slow speed on its final voyage past Port Huron, Michigan.

The Tashmoo at Port Huron in 1906. It was equipped with a 2500 ihp triple expansion Steam Engine

The Challenger was modified in 1950 with 2 Uniflow Skinner steam engines, the same steam engines used to power the famous and historic ferry, the coal-fired “Badger,” which sails between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan.

In 1966, the Challenger was retrofitted to be a self-unloader, using a system of air slides, conveyors, and bucket elevators named the Medusa Challenger.

After several subsequent acquisitions, the St. Mary’s cement company purchased her in 2005 and re-named it the St. Mary’s Challenger, making 30 trips annually, delivering cement.

The company has a cement plant in St Marys, Ontario, about 20 miles north of London, Ontario, an hour’s drive from Port Huron.

The city is picturesque and lies at the Thames River and Trout Creek junction. It is named the “Stone Town” due to the abundance of limestone in the area. Many of its historic buildings are limestone, including its historic Opera House. The town is home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and is the burial place of Canada’s ninth Prime Minister, Author Meighen.     
There are several good restaurants in the town. I have visited St Marys several times and have always been
satisfied with my time there

In 2013, she traveled on her own power to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where the Challenger was cut down and articulated with the tub boat Prentiss Brown. I was informed by my friend, Craig Brown, no relation to Prentiss Brown, that the tug was named after the late U.S. Senator Prentiss Brown, who served under Franklin Roosevelt and was the driving force behind the building of the Mackinaw Bridge.

The “Challengers’ ” pilot house was donated in 2015 to the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio.

How fitting that the St. Marys Challenger’s pilot house was delivered to Toledo on board the Paul Tregurtha (Big Paul).

The Pilot House Lowered onto Tregurtha’s Deck

The Pilot House on Board Big Paul

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