The history of the Great Lakes is full of ships defeated by the harsh winter storms. November is the most notorious month for sunken ships. That was the month that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, a ship that has been immortalized in song. Another victim was the Rouse Simmons, aka the Christmas Tree ship. But a late December storm claimed its most unusual victim in a common freighter while moored at the Port of Milwaukee.
The ship was the E.M. Ford -- a cement hauler. She was originally known by the name Presque Isle, after the islands off the northern shore of Wisconsin, but she was re-christened the E. M. Ford when converted to cement carrier duties in 1956.
It was late Christmas Eve in 1979 when the cement ship sank in port. Sorry to make light of the event, but it was hard not to laugh hysterically at this item, or when retelling it to others. And it must have been hard for the anchorman reading the news the next day to keep a straight face -- possibly a nail in the shoe helped but we will never know.
A severe winter storm hit the Milwaukee area that Christmas Eve and canceled many holiday gatherings. The storm whipped up winds to a fury on the lakefront, turning the ship into a battering ram on the dock. Both the ship and the dock suffered damage. The dock was bashed in about four inches. The Ford suffered breaks in the starboard hull (aft and stern) that let in the lake water and entered the hold. The hold where 5800 tons of cement lay.
During the next couple of hours the hold took on water and as you can guess, gravity won, pulling her to the bottom of the harbor.
It was not until January 20, 1980 that the ship could be raised. The cement had formed a three foot thick wall all along the inner hull. Before the storm, the E. M. Ford was merely a cement HAULER, but now she was a real cement SHIP.
Again the hysterically funny news stories on the nightly local news detailed the progress of the E. M. Ford as crews literally chipped away the cement liner so that the ship could be towed for repairs.
Finally on March 5 the Ford arrived at Bay Shipbuilding of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The rebuild job was so massive that she was essentially gutted and all new material was installed. The internal cabins, engine, and unloading system were replaced, and 217 tons of new plating covered bow and stern. The all-new, resurrected Ford was dedicated anew on July 31 and set sail for her home port on August 7.
Fortunately for us locals, the legal case dragged on for a couple of years. I say fortunately because every time an update was given on the local news we were all convulsed with laughter again. Anyway, the port sued the ship for the damage to the dock and the ship sued the harbor for not moving the ship to a more protected location in the Jones Island complex.
She returned to service and avoided any further disasters. Finally the century-old hauler was tied up in Saginaw harbor in 1996 and sat there, a rusting hulk, for ten years. (Actually the Ford was a mere lass of 98 when tied up at Saginaw, but what are two years between friends.) At last someone saw fit to put her out of her misery and hauled her away for scrap in November 2008.
I hope that some part of the ship will be turned over to a historical society or group. A wheel, a life preserver, anything. Something has to survive to carry on the story of the night the cement ship sank.
More on the above incident:
Farewell to the E.M. Ford, Andrew Krueger, Duluth News tribune, Nov. 12, 2008, http://www.areavoices.com/attic/?blog=36272
Great Lakes Fleet Page Vessel Feature: E. M. Ford, http://www.boatnerd.com/pictures/fleet/emford.htm
Photo Collection of E. M. Ford, Milwaukee Public Library copyright, http://content.mpl.org/cdm4/results.php?
Story of a Harbor, Leah Dobkin, Milwaukee Magazine, February 2009 ( just two paragraphs from a long story but lots of other anecdotes), http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/currentIssue/full_feature_story.asp?NewMessageID=24470