My Life on the Great Lakes by Clinton Davis Gray

Like some young adults I didn’t know where I wanted to be, I just knew I didn’t want to be where I was and that was in that old country town called Eddyville where I landed after I ran out of college money. Fortunately, for me, they taught principles there and as a maturing adult I continue to drift back toward those principles.
I wanted to see the world and being a sailor was a way to see it and get paid doing it and I could just work through the summers and pay for college too and that degree would open opportunities in Air Force Aviation. I didn’t want to join the Navy because I would be obligated for 6 years, so after HS graduation I made futile attempts to find how and where to become a Merchant Marine. Without today’s internet I was a lost ball in high weeds so I left Eddyville with my wardrobe in a cardboard box and headed north to Gary IN with $50 in my pocket until the next anticipated new employment check. With that I had to eat, pay rent, and pay to get to work by bus, train or tram but my optimism did not out last my money. However, my mother had alerted her two sisters and on the day I ran out of money and was contemplating where my next meal was coming from, I received a card from my aunt. The envelope had $20 and a couple of days later mother’s other sister sent $10. That carried me over until I got a pay check during the days of no credit cards and difficult check cashing issues. Somebody musta been watching over me….
I was hired by Elgin Joliet and Eastern RR and I kept seeing ships at Lake Michigan shore line locations where we sometimes moved RR cars but still couldn’t find a maritime employment source. Got laid off and went to work at Youngstown Sheet and Tube in South Chicago. Along the Chicago to Gary area, rivers had been dredged to accommodate the Great Lakes shipping and Great Lake ships and salt water ships were ever presence in the docks and rivers along Lake Michigan frequently stopping traffic as the bridges were raised to let the ships pass. Finally someone suggested I contact the coast guard and from there I found a source for my first Merchant Marine assignment in Aug 63 with the United States Steel Corporation, Pittsburgh Fleet (Known as the Tin Stacker fleet), as an engine room wiper aboard the Steam Ship Peter A B Widner.

Widener, Peter A.B.

I boarded the coal fired, steam power, open reciprocating steam engine, Great Lakes oreboat at the Gary, IN USS Steel Company plant where in 6 hours they unloaded thousands of tons of iron ore and were headed back North Up Lake Michigan, Mackinaw Straights, Lake Huron to the St Mary’s river and Sault Saint Marie locks and then West on Lake Superior to Duluth MN for more iron ore. I had hoped for fair weather on my first sailing experience but that was not to be. The harbor entrance was fairly protected but one could see the heavy white cap “chop” outside the breaker wall entrance. As a newbie the harassment regiment started immediately. One particular individual, an engine room oiler, I later nick named “Oral” for his loquacious proclivities begin laughingly offering me barf bags and other types of containers. Said he would offer a lot of grief along with minimal help. Very important I learn the whole bit about becoming a Great Lakes sailor. The days of a good plastic bag were in the future so the toilet or sink remained the best seasick option unless one’s presence was required on duty. And there are events were ship Maritime law requires that presence i.e. the Captain rules. The Great Lakes oreboats did not have the excessive bulk tanks to add water as weight to stabilize the ships as did the salt water ships thus they rode higher and were rougher riding when empty of cargo as they were more easily tossed about in rough seas. Note I said seas because that is what I they are because from a large portion of the lakes land cannot be seen. They are huge and as I would later witness and learn the history, the beautiful Great Lakes region is a grave yard for thousands of ship wrecks.
My first assignment was to assist the fireman in the conveyor fed coal fire boiler room area. Renewing the fires at “watch” change they called it, as I shoveled the ashes aside the fireman had pulled these hot coals from the boiler furnace on to the steel deck making it hotter than hades roasting my face and body as the ship was rolling and hopping all over the place. With a twisting cast from a water bucket he cooled the ashes but caused water to explosively inject hot clouds of ashes everywhere including into the hair, nose, and eyes of the uninitiated, me.
Early out of the harbor “Oral” made frequent visits to the coal fired boiler area to check on and harass me but as time elapsed I noticed he was spending a lot of time in a secluded storage room center ship and under the coal bunker. He said lower center areas of a ship experience somewhat less movement than higher positions in the ship and he was becoming sea sick and taking advantage of this location though he had to leave to make system checking rounds and eventually had to stand to and perform his duties as the rough seas permitted. That center of ship method never worked for me but I was never severely sea sick so I never thought it necessary to ask and verify.. During rough seas his oiler status required he keep component and engine oiling devices full, flowing with oil and functional. As the waves lifted the aft portion of the ship above the water level the propeller would rapidly spin and the open engine crank rods would throw oil and water into the areas surrounding the engine. Rough seas put the ships engine room components at risk of failure and the lack of either of these components does not bode well for a ships survival or its crew.
The Chief engineer next stationed me in the oiler’s assigned engine room area to clean and dry wet or oily steel decks. Well call me trouble but after a while, I began to sense a grand pay back opportunity and it was very difficult to not take extreme advantage so I asked by then a green faced Oral how typical it was that a newbie sailor was not as affected by sea sickness as much as an experienced sailor. No answer. I let it go awhile and finally offered to go get some of those containers he said he had accumulated for me to give to him. I believe he did not reply only because there would have been for sure an uncontrolled barf.
The trip from the most southern regions of the Great Lakes to the western end of Lake Superior is about 3 days, so into the wind we bounced and tossed headed North from Gary, IN until the Michigan Upper Peninsula begin to block winds and we experienced calmer seas. The typical ore boat speed is 11 to 12 knots. 12 knots is almost 14 mph. And so begin my scenic visual exploration of the Great Lakes area from the decks and through the portholes of the Great Lakes ore boats.
At the North East portion of Lake Michigan my reality lessons about the Great Lakes started early at two islands called North Manito and South Manito Islands just almost West and within sight from Big Bear dunes on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. There sits a visible Nov 1960 ship wreck, the SS Francisco Morazan that ran aground in a storm on South Manitou Island. I used to imagine recovering that vessel and moving it to the KY lake region and opening it as a restaurant. Later, I did find out the ship was too damaged to attempt recovery thus today¬ there sits a sea going vessel offering a visual monument to the perils individuals face who enter for pleasure or work the Great Lakes without respecting their harsh unpredictable nature.


Wreck of the Francisco Morazan – Google Maps


US harbors and passageways were being developed during the early 60s to accept foreign ships and the Duluth MI harbor was my first occasion to see a foreign ship. It was an old outrageously rusty Chinese ship sitting in a grain loading harbor with its red flag flapping in the wind and unlike other ships it appeared deserted and the port holes appeared darkened too. Even as a novice sailor I would have been anxious to transit any waterway in that rusty bucket vessel as it seemed to project the realities of a harsh Communist regime. As time passed the Coast Guard regulated advantage of the American flagged vessels had for the safety and comfort over some foreign ships became apparent as I saw more foreign vessels. The Tom Bigby Waterway that enhances maritime shipping to Louisville through the KY Lake and TN River is a part of that process.
From this time forward I begin a quest to study to meet and pass the Coast Guard requirements for the all waters engine room positions firemen, oiler, 1st, 2nd, 3rd engineers and finally Chief engineer but, life like the Great Lakes has a plan of its own and I only advanced to the oiler level. This started as an adventure I wanted to record so I bought a Sears Roebuck 8 millimeter movie camera with zoom lens and recorded events during an era of maritime shipping whose origins were modifications of the beginning of an early 20th century industrial shipping revolution. Early 20th century ships exceeding 600 ft were to be replaced by plus 1000 ft maritime giants. Great Lakes shipping was seasonal and the ships had to be cold weather processed and “laid up” in the harbor for a roughly Nov to March time frame and a “fitted out process” to sail again around the March to Nov interval. Opening day sailing season is almost entirely dependent on how much winter ice is formed in the harbors, rivers and lakes. The coast guard Ice Breaker Mackinac as part of the WW II war effort was assigned in March 1944 the Great Lakes region to keep the sea lanes open.   Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum, Mackinaw City Michigan (

1964 was a year of change for me as I passed the Coast Guard document’s certification for all waters, fireman, oiler and water tender. I listened to sailors describe their careers to gain some insight I could follow to enhance my own maritime career. I sailed with individuals who had been Merchant Marines during WW II. They had run the German submarine patrolled North Atlantic in Liberty Ships and one of the sailors had had 2 ships torpedoed out from under him. He had barely and luckily survived both night time events. The North Atlantic was a major challenge because the worse sailing weather imaginable was frequently generated there and the German submarine blockade was very effective too.

Liberty ship – Wikipedia

SS John W. Brown – Wikipedia

A maritime transformation was occurring as shipping, especially Great Lakes shipping, converted from coal to diesel or oil and larger vessels were being built with bow thrusters and experience on these modern ships could enhance a sailor’s career. Ship’s schedules were available so when one of the leading-edge ships were passing nearby in the straits or rivers connecting the Great Lakes someone was on deck to view and evaluate these ships. Some ships generated as much excitement as a hot rod car show as these more modern ships passed nearby and a good pair of binoculars aided that interest. Some particular ships of interest were the Cleveland Cliffs’ “Victory,”

(21) Cliffs Victory – YouTube


SS Arthur Anderson

SS Arthur M. Anderson – Wikipedia

SS Alpena

Alpena, Leon Fraser (

and yes the Edmund Fitzgerald

(21) “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot (HD w/ Lyrics) – YouTube

just to name a few. Industry has changed since the early 1960s especially the iron industry. Many of the corporations that generated the need for iron ore and the products supporting that industry no longer exist.
1964 served as a check on the reality of an intended adventure that became a job too. Work time was determined by the standard Maritime 1st, 2nd, or 3rd watch, 4 hrs on and 8 hrs off with the first watch starting at 12:00 to 4:00. Also the efficiency of the loading or offloading was rarely more than 6 to 8 hrs which made getting time on shore difficult to experience those perceived sailor adventures, thus a lot of time was spent on the deck or watching through port holes when close to shore lines, in rivers or harbors which, gasp turned out to be a money saver. Being cooped up for those long periods did generate a party inclination that likely is the reason sailors have the reputation they have. That time was a real plus for reading too and early I joined book clubs receiving the books in the mail at the Soo Locks, Sault Saint Marie, MI. I had the time to read many of the classics but Ian Flemming, Leon Uris, and Earnest Hemingway were high among my favorite authors and latter Michener made a big dent in that literary journey. At the Soo locks I also purchased newspapers from Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit, MI and a bum boat would tie up to the moving ship as we slowly left the locks or when we were docked/(parked loading or unloading) selling magazines, snacks and alcoholic beverages could be consumed there but could not be brought on board ships. Yeah, right on…
The close navigational area in port, river and straights could be exciting because boaters did not respect the difficulty of turning and/or stopping these huge 600 ft massive steel structures loaded with some tens of thousands of tons of cargo and their huge wake was too large for many to navigate and survive upright. The ships physics of motion was graphically demonstrated by its reaction to windage. Even a 3 to 4 knot wind could easily move the ship and send it sliding slowly smashing into piers creating a monster stopping rolling motion sensations. Ship Captains used this windage as energy to assist moving or slowing the ships progress as well but it could cause him problems as gusts and or winds can be very unpredictable.
The lakes are a cacophony of scenes from electrical lightning drama to dazzling sunsets and sun rises to skylines of colossal metropolitan structures to the Victorian mansions on Mackinaw Island and the Mackinaw suspension bridge connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula’s displays magnificent engineering scenery.

Mackinac Bridge – Wikipedia

A copious breathtaking wilderness was the view as ships traveled the North Shore of Lake Superior avoiding stormy seas. Here at night lights were rarely seen in the majority of that shoreline. But the most extraordinary sight was the almost totally frozen Lake Superior except for about 40 or so miles near the lakes center. The beauty of this lake was an enigma as sailors contemplated the possibility of surviving a ship wreck because the chance of survival was almost nonexistent if it was their misfortune to be in the water and not in a life boat. The community rumored survival time was 40 minutes. The water year around was so cold that even with a flotation device the scientific estimated survival time is only one to two hours. The average Lake Superior temp in summer time rarely exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit or 13 C. Here that Sears movie camera recorded my ship and others slowly plowing through chunks of ice partially refrozen and making noise and vibrating the ships steel including the Edmond Fitzgerald. Ships were traveling slowly in close proximity because of the lanes provided by the Ice Breaker Mackinac and doing so helped keep the lanes from refreezing and reduced the ice breakers workload.
Toward the end of the 1964 season enroute to one of our Southern Great Lakes ports and midway Lake Superior we had a slight boiler tube failure. We were hurrying at max speed across the lake avoiding a North Westerner. The difficult decision was whether to let the boiler tube leak, maintain a lesser speed and risk total boiler failure or reduce the speed by half and shut down and repair the defective boiler tube. This reduction in speed increased the chances of being overtaken by the rapidly moving storm system but steam and heat are such efficient high energy partners causing, even more tube destruction that the decision makers reasoned a total boiler failure resulting in total boiler failure was too likely so they elected to reduce speed to 6 knots and shut down and repair the port boiler’s defective high pressure tube. They would have to wait 6 to 8 hrs for the boiler to cool before they could enter it to repair. During that period we were given safety instructions on what to wear and how long we could stay in the furnace combustion area. They intended to do some furnace enhancements by chipping off some of the coal slag that naturally accumulated on the walls during the combustion process. Removing this slag increased boiler efficiency so the thought was, why not take advantage of this opportunity to improve boiler proficiency. Up to this point I had only experienced adventure anticipation excitement so I put on as much head to toe insulated clothing as I could and down the ladders I went to the ship’s boiler room area at the bottom of the ship. They gave me some fuzzy ragged cotton gloves and directed me to one of 3 small furnace doors. They would only permit 3 individuals into the furnace because there were only 3 doors. Two workers and one observer which I thought foolish until this event played out. This was a safety consideration I would latter appreciate but there were harsh incriminating life threatening realities lost to this neophyte sailor’s perspective.
I had to enter the furnace from a laying position on the steel deck shoving, inhaling, and turning to 45 degrees while being pulled through the door by someone already inside the furnace. The furnace floor was scalding so I had to get up quickly. It was excessively hot but I started doing my job anyway using a pick to remove the coal slags from the wall of the furnace. Much to my surprise I exposed a glowing flaming red hot furnace wall. It almost roasted me and when the slag fell to the furnace floor small specks of flaming hot slag burnt holes in all my clothing. I was quickly checked by the observer and my clothing did not flame but I was slapping my gloves together trying to put out the increasingly flaring and smoking fabric but couldn’t. My fellow worker jumped in and tried holding his gloved hands over both of my hands to smother the fire in the gloves but couldn’t. By this time they were glowing and my only option was to exit that furnace but the exit was even more difficult than the entry. After what seemed an eternity I got my hands through the furnace door and no one was there to help pull me out. After and eternity trying to get help the help that was supposed to never leave, but was absent, because he had gone somewhere to check on something more important he said. He was told not to leave. I think the Chief Engineer and Captain had got wind something was happening in the boiler room they came down to check things out. I was a bit out of composure with anxiety when I asked the Captain “what would have happened if my clothes had caught on fire like my gloves” and did they have other gloves that weren’t so flammable.” The Captain motioned for the Chief Engineer to come with him and they walked to the engine room and had a short discussion. They returned and the Chief told everyone to come out of the furnace and shut the boiler furnace slag removal operation down. They had the tube almost repaired and admitted they had gone into the boiler furnace too quickly. It was just too hot. I suspect there are those who are wondering why water was not used. The furnace was so hot it would have formed hot condensation creating a visibility problem as well as a breathing problem if my recall is correct on the breathing issue. That was what I was told about the water and as hot as it felt I would not argue with that premise. I have never experienced that much heat anywhere before or since.
I would include my total recollections of the reactions of my shipmates and I of the sinking of the SS Cedarville in the Mackinaw straights after colliding with a sea going ship but my narrative is too long already. I was on the SS JP Morgan Jr anchored in the fog on the St Mary’s river and I have 8 mm film of the ship that hit the Cedarville within a few frames of one of my captured recordings of the Edmond Fitzgerald.

Cedarville | Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve (

I began moving up through the ship’s engine room ranks but there were other significant life changing events that occurred while I was employed in the great lake regions. As I compose the final commentaries of this narrative I am reminded that on this day while docked for winter lay up in Toledo, OH, I was in the SS Peter A B Widner mess hall when we received the news that JFK had been assassinated. We grieved. JFK was a member of the WW II military that had gained the respect and admiration of many of the young men my age but JFK had gone beyond that with one of the most admirable quotes of the century. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Later that day I received a letter from my mother that my father’s cancer was terminal. He died Dec 6 1963. The events that followed required me to resign from the Maritime industry in December 1965 and so begin another adventure of 35 years in the US Army Reserves as a vehicle mechanic, a US Army Medivac Helicopter Pilot, and finally as an Apache Helicopter pilot. I also had the pleasure of occasionally flying the Louisville Local traffic helicopters and to perform other commercial Whirlaway’s helicopter assignments with one of the most exciting flying for traffic adventures during Louisville’s world largest Derby fireworks display. What a grand view that was!!!

Some Maritime Customs
The shifts were 4 on and 8 off twice a day. From here I learned the bells for 12 to 4, 4 to 8 and 8 to 12. There was an Assistant engineer; oiler, fireman and wiper for each shift and a Chief Engineer supervised the engine crew. Each of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Assistant Engineer had their particular shift and area of responsibility.

Clinton Davis Gray
Parkinson’s Rock Steady Boxing Program Enriched

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