Farewell Tour of Historic Icebreaker

  • The Mackinaw is a historic ship that was built during World War II. In June it will be decommissioned. (Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The historic Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw has docked for the final time. The vessel is scheduled to be decommissioned at the beginning of June, after more than six decades of service on the Great Lakes. The GLRC’s Sarah Hulett visited the ship on its farewell tour of the lakes, and has this report:


The historic Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw has docked for the final
time. The vessel is scheduled to be decommissioned at the beginning of
June, after more than six decades of service on the Great Lakes. The
GLRC’s Sarah Hulett visited the ship on its farewell tour of the lakes, and
has this report:

I’m on the bridge of the 290-foot icebreaker, and I’m just in time for the
daily test of the vessel’s alarms and whistles.

(Sound of bell)

After 62 years, they’re still working.

(Sound of alarm)

The Mackinaw was built in Toledo, during World War Two – when
demand for raw materials from the Great Lakes region exploded.

The icebreaker extended the shipping season through the winter, and
helped make sure iron ore and other cargo could get to the industrial
cities at the center of the war effort.

Today, Pat Pietrolungo and his 80 fellow crewmembers are still keeping
the shipping lanes cleared for commercial transport. They can spend up
to two weeks at a time on the ship, cutting ice during the winter months.

But cruising Lake Superior in the dead of winter can get spooky on those
long, cold winter nights.

Pietrolungo says there are some crew members who think there’s a ghost
on board the Mackinaw.

“Certain little weird things happen. Lights will flicker that shouldn’t,
doors will shut, some of the wheels on the scuttle will turn. I guess it
was a former crew member that died on board.”

But that ghost will have a lot less company soon, when the crew moves
to the Mackinaw’s smaller, more efficient replacement this summer.

The old ship isn’t flexible enough to serve other purposes for the Coast
Guard. And Pietrolungo – the Mackinaw’s machinery technician – says
finding parts for the vessel’s huge diesel engines is getting more difficult
by the year.

“It’s more or less along the lines of a locomotive engine. So you’ve got
to go start searching train museums, more or less, to find the big parts if
we needed them.”

A non-profit group based in Cheboygan, Michigan wants to make the
Mackinaw itself a museum.

Hugh O’Connor and his two young children were the first in line to
board the vessel when it docked in Detroit during its farewell tour. He
says he’ll be sad to see the Mackinaw decommissioned, but he says he
would visit the ship as a museum. Like a lot of boys who grew up along
the lakes, O’Connor says he and his friends knew the names of all the
freighters, and looked forward to catching a glimpse of the Mackinaw.

“We always used to ice fish in the winter, and I remember from our ice
shanty you’d get out and see it going by, breaking ice on Lake Saint
Clair for the freighters. That was when they were trying to run the boats
year-round. I don’t think they do that much anymore though. That was
pretty cool. Back then it was all white, though. Painted all white.”

The Mackinaw’s hull – painted red since 1998 – powered through thick
sheets of Great Lakes ice for the last time this past winter.

For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links


Thirty years ago this month (November 10th), the iron ore carrier the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior. 29 men died. The lake carrier was caught in one of the worst storms recorded on the Great Lakes. In the years since the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has talked with those connected with the ship:


Thirty years ago this month (November 10th), the iron ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in
Lake Superior. 29 men died. The lake carrier was caught in one of the worst storms recorded on
the Great Lakes. In the years since the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mike Simonson has talked with those connected with the ship:

Like the folk song relates, the November gales came early on Lake Superior in 1975. A storm
more fierce than even the most experienced lake carrier crews had ever seen hit the eastern side
of the lake. That night, Captain Dudley Paquette was shipmaster of the lake carrier Wilfred

“We were really out right in the middle of the lake. Just huge seas, 30-35 foot seas. I was
completely awash and I was on a super ship. I was registering 70, 75 knots steady with gusts to
100. Huge seas, I was completely awash. Water was flying over the top of my bridge.”

Like the carrier Wilfred Sykes, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a big ship, but early in the night the
captain saw ominous signs of trouble. The topside fence rails had snapped. The vents were torn
off. The radar was out. And the Edmund Fitzgerald’s Captain, Ernest McSorley had all the bilge
pumps on, trying to keep the ship from swamping.

Thom Holden is the curator of the Army Corps of Engineers Marine Museum. He says Captain
McSorley was in radio contact with Captain Jesse Cooper of the nearest ship, the Arthur

“The topside damage was an earlier report. After suffering this damage that Captain McSorley
did contact Cooper and ask him to shadow him down the lake. It was really several hours later
that what could be the last transmission from the Fitzgerald was received. Essentially Captain
Cooper or the mate asked McSorley how he was doing, how the vessel was riding. He said
‘We’re holding our own, going along like an old shoe.'”

In an interview from his retirement home in Florida, Arthur Anderson Captain Jesse Cooper said
the memory of that night still haunts him. He says Captain McSorley didn’t let on that his ship
and crew were in danger.

“I think he knew he was in trouble but he couldn’t spread the word because it would panic the
crew. (Simonson): How do you think he knew he was in trouble? (Cooper) What the hell would
you think if you had a hole in your bottom and were taking in more water than you could pump

At 7:10 that evening, the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar as it sailed into a snow squall only a
few miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.

“My gut feeling was I knew she was gone when I couldn’t see her on the scope. Turning around,
I hated the thought of going back out in that sea.”

Radio communication from that night was recorded by the Coast Guard at Sault St. Marie
Michigan. The Coast Guard was asking captains to turn back into the storm and search for the
Fitzgerald. You’ll hear a distressed Captain Cooper answer the call.

“(Coast Guard:) Think there’s any possibility that you could turn around do any searching, over?’
(Cooper) ‘Oh God, I don’t know. That sea out there is tremendously large. If you want me to, I
can but I’m not going to be making any time. I’ll be lucky to do two or three miles per hour going
back out that way, over.’ (Coast Guard:) It looks like with the information we have that it is fairly
certain that the Fitzgerald went down. We’re talking now a matter of life and death and looking
for survivors that might be in life rafts or in the water. We can only ask the masters to do their
best without hazarding their vessels.'”

The U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessel Woodrush had left the Duluth port but it took 21 hours to
arrive on scene. Captain Jimmy Hobaugh says a life ring from the Fitzgerald popped up as they

“Of course we searched for the three full days and it was rougher than you can imagine. No
matter how I turned the ship, we were taking green water over the top. If there had been someone
there, I’m positive that my crew was good enough that we would’ve got ’em.”

None of the men’s bodies were recovered.

Among the crew of 29 was Third Mate Michael Armagost of Iron River, Wisconsin. His widow
Janice says the families of the 29 men who went down with the Edmund Fitzgerald struggle with
their loss…

“Nobody realizes that there are survivors. I mean, my kids’ father is on that ship and my
husband’s on that ship. And people just think of it as a shipwreck that happened so long ago, and
it’s not.”

The families of the crew of the ship now say all they want is the final resting place of their loved
ones to remain undisturbed by divers. Only the bell of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was
recovered and placed in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan ten
years ago.

For the GLRC, I’m Mike Simonson.

Related Links


Steel has once again become a big issue in U.S. trade policy. Many steel companies around the Midwest are worried about ‘steel dumping’ and are urging President Bush to support new tariffs and quotas on imported steel. But some steel users say the Bush Administration should back off. How the President handles the issue could affect both jobs and the environment in the region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Steel has once again become a big issue in United States trade policy. Many steel companies around the Midwest are worried about steel dumping and are urging President Bush to support new tariffs and quotas on imported steel. But some steel users say the Bush administration should back off. How the president handles the issue could affect both jobs and the environment in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports.

The amount of commonly used types of foreign steel coming into the United States has risen about a third over the last five years, and a federal trade panel ruled recently that much of that imported steel is being sold here at a price lower than what it cost to make it and ship it here. That’s a practice called dumping. The trade panel found that such dumping poses a serious threat to domestic steel makers. So the panel says President Bush should slap tariffs on many product lines of foreign-made steel to raise the prices of the imports. But that’s not such a hot idea to some other industries, which use plenty of foreign steel.

(furnace/factory ambient sound)

Here at the Engel Tool and Forge Company in Milwaukee…this second-generation family business now uses about 600 tons a year of steel imported from countries like Brazil and Sweden. In the warm and grimy forging area, workers use a robot to move five foot long steel bars that have been heated to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. Owner chuck Engel watches the orange and white-hot bars enter a machine

“That’s a preforming press …a hydraulic press that preforms the metal. It’s removed from there and moved into a finished form that we gain our finished desired shape.” (WHAM noise)

The bars are scrunched into wheel axles that’ll be shipped to heavy equipment makers in the mining or construction industries. Engel says his company is doing all right during the recession. So he’s says he strongly opposed to the president possibly tinkering with that success by slapping higher tariffs on imported steel.

“I am sure there is a certain amount of unfairness on both sides of the fence but I believe that competition should be what sorts this problem out rather than the government.”

Engel contends domestic steel makers got quote- fat and sassy — over the last twenty years…and he says mergers, downsizing and other changes now taking place among domestic manufacturers will help them compete in the world steel market. Engel says if steel tariffs do go up…he’d have to pass along the price hikes. But other players are urging President Bush to approve higher steel tariffs. The United Steelworkers of America hopes the president even goes beyond what the trade panel recommends. Some environmentalists are also quietly supporting the domestic steel industry. That’s even though green groups have a track record of battling steel manufacturers. Cameron Davis of the Chicago-based lake Michigan federation acknowledges big steel has a dirty history in the area.

“Well traditionally, the steel industry especially in northwest Indiana has been responsible for a fair amount of pollution in the Great Lakes…and that’s air-based pollution, water based pollution, land based pollution across the board.”

But lately environmentalists have been trying to forge alliances with unions like the steelworkers. And Davis notes that environmental lawsuits and other changes have gotten domestic steel makers to start cleaning up their act in recent years. He says if nothing is done to slow the rise in steel imports that could make the United States environment worse. Davis cites the aquatic nuisance species that tag along in the ballast water of foreign ships…including presumably, the ships that bring in foreign steel.

“Without some help in protecting the GL steel industry, we’ll see more and more foreign steel coming into the country. And with that foreign steel probably more aquatic nuisance species that will do more damage not only to the Great Lakes but to rest of country.”

United States flagged Great Lakes shipping companies that haul iron ore from Minnesota and northern Michigan are also siding with the domestic steel makers. George Ryan is president of the Lake Carriers Association. He says if the domestic steel industry keeps getting hurt by foreign imports…there might be some local improvements like less air pollution emitted over Gary or Cleveland, but Ryan says, what about the rest of the globe.

“For anyone who has seen photographs from outer space, we have one world that moves the air around to all parts of the world we can’t really say we condone dirty air in Brazil and in China and okay to do it there cause we’re protecting our air in the United States.”

Ryan is a member of the Great Lakes Commission…which is urging the president and congress to boost steel exports and reduce unfair competition from abroad. Commissioners do the bidding of eight Great Lakes governors…most of whom are republicans like George W. Bush. If the president does not do more to protect United States steel makers and jobs that could be an issue in the gubernatorial and congressional elections next November. Mr. Bush has to announce his plans on steel tariffs and quotas by mid-February. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium this is Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

Shipping Season Docks Early

Much of the shipping on the Great Lakes is expected to end early this year. The economy has reduced freighter traffic and some ships are already docked for the winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham explains:


Much of the shipping on the Great Lakes is expected to end early this year. The economy has reduced freighter traffic and some ships are already docked for the winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

The last couple of years, the shipping season has lasted longer. That’s because ships have been forced to carry lighter loads because of low water levels in the Great Lakes. And that meant more trips to carry the same tonnage. This year, though, some ships are tying up for the winter early. The slower economy has hit Great Lakes shipping, particularly those ships carrying raw materials for the steel industry. According to a report in the Toledo-Blade, iron ore mines have cut production and steel mills have produced significantly less steel. While only a handful of ships are berthed for the winter right now, a spokesperson for the Lake Carriers’ Association was quoted as saying they expect to see more early lay-ups. The shipping companies are hoping for an economic turnaround next year. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Second Wind for Mine

Small towns around the Great Lakes work hard to attract
businesses that will diversify their economies and thrive in a changing
world. This effort is especially important in northern Minnesota, where
iron mining has created a boom-and-bust economy with high
unemployment and low wage jobs. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports on how one small town is re-inventing itself
with the ultimate recycling project:


At the northern edge of the iron range, Tower, Minnesota is home to six hundred people.

(sound of cafe)

At the cafe, regulars stop by for coffee. Outside, in the four-block stretch of main street, no stoplights get in the way on the drive to work. People here workin the woods, cutting trees for the paper mill. Or they have summer jobs in nearby resorts, or they drive south, to the mines that are still working.

Just outside of town, the Soudan mine was teh first iron mine in Minnesota. The Soudan mine closed in 1962, and the town has been scraping by since then. Herb Lamppa helped dig the last shaft. Today, Lamppa is the Mayor of Tower.

“We had over three hundred people working there, in three shifts. Can you imagine what it was like when they had to go elsewhere to look for work? It was veyr devastating. And a lot of jobs we’ve got around here are low-income jobs.”

(sound of hoist)

This hoist was built at the turn of the century to drag high-grade iron ore from deep in the earth. Steel from here helped industrialize America and build the weapons that won two World Wars. The mine provided jobs – and a chance to become Americans – for two generations of immigrants.

Down a side corridor, the lights are brighter and the walls are lined with concrete. Here, the old mine is transforming itself, bringing new jobs to Tower and helping scientists learn about the nature of the universe. It’s a room the size of a football field, four stories high, packed with computers and other high-tech gear. The rock walls offer protection from the cosmic rays that bombard the surface of the earth. That makes it theoretically possible to detect proton decay – a very rare event in which a particle inside an atom releases most of its energy by breaking down into other particles.

Jim Beatty is a technician who’s keeping an eye on the equipment.

“There’s a theory that a proton will decay every ten to the thirty-second years or something to that effect, so we’ve got close to one thousand tons of protons stacked up here, and they’re watching it electronically to see if a proton does decay.”

So far in fifteen years they haven’t observed a proton decaying, but they’ve learned other interesting things about cosmic rays. A new experiment will team up two hundred researchers from around the world. They will beam streams of neutrinos from the Fermi National Accelerator near Chicago, through four hundred miles of rock to detectors in the mine. They’ll try to determine the mass of the neutrino, which can help them understand how the universe expands.

The projects are expected to pump nearly twenty million dollars into the local economy. Hardware stores, hotels, and restaurants have felt the impact. A new building is also being built. It will house the assembly plant for the neutrino detectors, and once they’re assembled, the building can be used to incubate other industries. Eighty people will be hired for the assembly work. Mayor Herb Lamppa says those jobs will help, but he’s looking even further into the future.

“I suspect it’s not just neutrinos they’re going to look at, there must be all kinds of other things the physicists will be looking at. I dont know what it’ll be, but there’s any number of subatomic particles that we don’t even know about.”

The researchers come for just a week or two, but Jim Beatty works here full time. He traded a seasonal construction job for a year-round employment with benefits, and he enjoys the contact with other cultures.

“We have members from Russia, China, Greece, the UK, Australia, New Zealand. My friends talk about seeing these strange guys speaking a strange language walking down the street. I tell them it’s not a strange language, it’s physics.”

That’s just the kind of talk that really excites Herb Lamppa. he’s hoping the researchers will contribute a new thread to the culture here.

“If we could get some of these people living here, their families here, it would be a real big advantage to the school system because they’d be children whose parents are interested in math and science. I think it would have a tremendous impact as far as the kids’ desire to learn.”

Lamppa and his friends used their brawn to put food on the table and build a nation. He’s hoping their grandchildren will be able to use their brains to make a living and help decode some of the mysteries of the universe.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill in Tower, Minnesota.

Ships May Freeze Before Lakes Do

The National Weather Service’s end of season freeze-up forecast for the
Great Lakes is out. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson
reports that even though the outlook is mild for the rest of December
and January…all is not sunny in the shipping forecast:

Shipping Strike Averted

The Great Lakes Sailors Union has decided not to strike against two steel-hauling fleets this year. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson reports, a strike could have been disastrous for an otherwise strong shipping season: