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Challenger makes infrequent visit

Dick Fox • Dec 9, 2015 at 12:00 AM

We received cargos for three of our docks late this past week.

The Central Marine Logistics’ self-unloading steamship Wilfred Sykes brought in a load for Meekhof’s D&M Dock just upriver from the power plant on Harbor Island at about 4 p.m. Dec. 3. It blew several salutes on its way in.

At about 8 that night, the tug/barge Undaunted/Pere Marquette 41 delivered a load to Verplank’s Dock in Ferrysburg.

Finally, very early in the morning of Dec. 4, the tug/barge Prentiss Brown/St. Mary’s Challenger came in with a load for the St. Mary’s Cement Terminal in Ferrysburg. It left Sunday morning.

Due to its infrequent visits, we will highlight the history of the Challenger for this article.

The 109-year-old St. Mary’s Challenger was our favorite boat as a steamer. Last year, it started its new life as a barge after a conversion over that winter into a self-unloading cement barge.

The St. Mary’s Challenger was the oldest operating steamboat on the Great Lakes. It was built in 1906 by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, and christened as the bulk iron ore carrier William P. Snyder for the Shenango Furnace Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906. When the Snyder was launched, it was one of the larger boats on the lakes. It was renamed the Eldon Hoyt II in 1926 and the Alex D. Chisholm in 1952. During those years, it was operated by the Interlake Steamship C.

It was converted to a self-unloading cement carrier at Manitowoc Shipbuilding and entered the cement trade as the Medusa Challenger in 1967. The conversion to self-unloading capability consisted of lengthening the boat 14 feet and literally building the cement loading, storage and unloading system within the hull of the bulk carrier. As a part of that conversion, it was also switched from coal to fuel oil to fire the boilers.

It is steam powered by a 3,500-horsepower Skinner Uniflow Engine that replaced its original 1,350-hp triple-expansion engine in 1950. All its winches are also steam powered. When it was converted to a cement carrier, a Caterpillar diesel engine was installed to power the generator that provides the electricity to run the cement handling system and the electric bow thruster.

It was given the name Southdown Challenger in 1999, CEMEX Challenger in 2004, and  its present name in 2005. The last three name changes simply reflect a change in ownership of the parent cement company. This vessel is currently managed by Port City Steamship Services of Muskegon.

The tug Prentiss Brown was built in 1969 by Gulfport Shipbuilding of Port Arthur, Texas. It was christened the Betty Culbreath and renamed the Michaela McAllister when it was acquired by McAllister Towing and Transportation, an off-Lakes firm. It was subsequently purchased by Port City Tug and completely refitted at Bay Shipbuilding at Sturgeon Bay, Wis. This tug had a raised pilothouse atop a cylindrical column. It is diesel powered. Length is 123 feet, 5 inches; breadth is 30 feet; and depth is 19 feet. It is powered by two GM Electromotive engines driving a single propeller.

One final note about the Challenger: The pilothouse of the original steamer was preserved and donated to the Great Lakes Historical Society’s National Museum of the Great Lakes. It was moved in late April from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to the museum’s site in Toledo. The move was accomplished by loading the pilothouse on Interlake’s Paul R. Tregurtha, which took it to Toledo. It will be installed as part of an expansion to the museum.

We had the chance to tour the pilothouse several years ago. It will certainly be worth seeing again.

For more information on the Great Lakes Historical Society and its National Museum of the Great Lakes, check out www.inlandseas.org. We are members.

Between two of our docks, we may see the Wilfred Sykes three of four more times this season.

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