Optimists learn about Great Lakes shipping from historian

Pat Labadie, an historian with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, presented a program on the history of Great Lakes Shipping to the Optimist Club of Alpena at a recent morning breakfast meeting at JJ’s Steak and Pizza House.

Optimist member Amy Dodge introduced Labadie, saying that he is originally from the Detroit area but has made stops at various Great Lakes ports over the years. In 1960 he began his career at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit.

From there he moved to Saugatuck Museum on Lake Michigan, and then on to Duluth, Minn., in 1973 at the Canal Park Museum. In 2003, Labadie took the position in Alpena to be closer to his original home in southern Michigan.

Labadie began by describing the how Great Lakes shipping helped Michigan and the surrounding states to become settled. There were sailing ships to bring not only people to remote areas, but the food and supplies they would need to live there.

Labadie said in the early 1870s as many as 200 ships per day would navigate past Thunder Bay. When the weather got rough, Thunder Bay was a popular place to seek shelter.

This sometimes caused problems for captains not familiar with area and led to the many shipwrecks now lying on the lake bottom. Labadie said in 1871 alone there were 1,167 recorded shipping accidents on the Great Lakes. Some that were total losses with many lives lost and some more minor accidents. Currently there are over 200 known shipwrecks in the area.

Labadie continued telling about the transformation of ship building through the years to adapt to the unique challenges in navigating the Great Lakes. Early on ships were all made of wood, which limited the length of the ships.

Later on large trusses were added to make the hull sturdier so the ships could be longer and haul more passengers and cargo. One of Labadie’s projects here was to document the wreck of the Cornelius B. Windiate. A team of divers measured the wreck and produced a scale drawing of the ship as it sits on the bottom of Lake Huron.

From those measurements, a scale model of the ship was built by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary personnel, and a full size model of the stern portion of the ship can be walked through at the Visitor’s Center.

Labadie talked about the importance of the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal and the Soo Locks in the development of Great Lakes shipping as the capacity of these canals and locks dictated how big of ships could fit through.

He continued, relating stories of many catastrophic ship wrecks that are now on display on the bottom of the sanctuary, and concluded by describing the development of ship construction right up to present day steel hull lake freighters and barges.