The oldest operating cargo carrier on the Great Lakes has a new lease on life.

 The St. Marys Challenger sailed into Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., on its own power last November and sailed out in early June as part of an ATB that was mated with the 4,300-hp, 113’x34’x11’7″ tug Bradshaw McKee. (She also can work with the tug Prentiss Brown.)

Built by Great Lakes Engineering Works in Detroit in 1906, the 505’6″x55’8″x31′ ship was part of a long-gone generation of steamers, said Capt. Ed Hogan, vice president of operations for the Challenger’s owner Port City Marine Services, Muskegon, Mich. The Challenger survived because she spent her entire life on the Great Lakes’ fresh water. And her hull, which had been replated, was in great shape.

The ship, which was built to haul iron ore for the Shenango Furnace Co., Cleveland, has had six names starting with the William P. Snyder, said Chris Winters, photographer, steamboat enthusiast and author of “Centennial: Steaming Through the American Century,” which chronicles the ship’s history.

“The boat was made very, very, very well in 1906. It’s a tank,” said Winters who was onboard for the ship’s last trip in November. The Challenger was converted in 1967 to a self-unloading cement carrier — her small size being advantageous in that trade.

 “The engine that drove her into the boatyard — a Skinner Uniflow — was put in in 1950,” he said. And some of the DC electrical system went back to 1906. Anything that broke needed to be custom fabricated. “We all knew it was not a question of if but when,” Winters said.

She used #6 bunker fuel, and EPA restrictions loomed. Port City Marine considered a repowering, but they also looked at ATBs “and it was a slam dunk,” Hogan said. The $12 million conversion was considerably less than other options, including building new.

After the vessel was brought to Bay Shipbuilding, they removed everything they were going to salvage including the wheelhouse and other artifacts being donated to museums. Work included asbestos abatement, fuel tank cleaning, a new ballast system forward and new generators. 

The vessel will still haul cement, but with a crew of 11 rather than 25.

“This certainly is the oldest boat that’s been converted,” said Todd Thayse, vice president and general manager of Bay Shipbuilding. The yard cut more than 100′ off the aft end — including the propulsion plant — and put more than 200 tons of steel back in.

“It was an extremely interesting project,” he said. “The Challenger had a very unique relationship to the public. It had history. It had meaning.”

And Winters is confident it has a lot of life left. “I would wager the hull will continue to trade for another 35 years,” he said, also claiming “there’s nothing else like it in the world.” 

Dale K. DuPont 


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