1882: The Public Debut of a Pioneering Great Lakes Freighter

February 16, 1882

The iron-hulled Great Lakes freighter SS Onoko was launched from the shipyard of Globe Iron Works in Cleveland. The steam-powered Onoko, which measured 302.6 feet (92.2 meters) in length and 24.8 feet (7.6 meters) in height, was the first large commercial ship on the Great Lakes to be made of iron.

Globe Iron Works employee John H. Smith, who had learned all about iron shipbuilding techniques during his time in Scotland, oversaw the construction of Onoko. This vessel was built for businessman Philip J. Minch on behalf of the Kinsman Steamship Company and a syndicate of other investors.

Approximately 5,000 people braved rough weather conditions to watch the afternoon launch of Onoko. At 3:00 p.m., Smith gave the signal for the ropes keeping Onoko in place to be cut at each end. The new freighter then slid into Lake Erie. “The boat sits gracefully in the water, and is satisfactorily regarded by her owners,” noted the next day’s edition of the Detroit Free Press in its account of this launch.

The maiden voyage of Onoko took place on April 19 of that year, with the vessel departing from Cleveland at 11:00 p.m. and arriving in Chicago sometime around 2:00 p.m. the following day. W.H. Pringle, Onoko’s captain, confirmed that the freighter “behaved splendidly and steered like a yacht.” The cargo on board Onoko for that inaugural journey consisted of 2,536 tons (2,300.6 metric tons) of coal.

Onoko was subsequently used on a regular basis throughout the Great Lakes region not only for continued shipments of coal but also similarly efficient and inexpensive deliveries of such other bulk cargoes as wheat and oats. While achieving extensive acclaim for both her pioneering status as a large iron-hulled Great Lakes vessel and her overall performance, Onoko was not without her critics. “The Onoko is the largest vessel afloat on the lakes – and by far the homeliest,” asserted the Buffalo Courier less than three months after the freighter was launched. “For a new vessel she is the worst looking sight that ever appeared on our inland waters . . . The Onoko is an eye-sore.”

Notwithstanding that commentary on her aesthetic shortcomings, Onko continued to receive quite a few favorable reviews when it came to transporting bulk cargoes. During the summer of 1884, for example, the Cleveland Herald proclaimed that the vessel had “proved even more successful than her owners hoped for.”

Onoko remained in service until September 15, 1915, when she sprang a major leak while sailing from Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior to deliver 110,000 bushels (2,993.7 metric tons) of wheat to Toledo, Ohio, on Lake Erie. The leak took place about 15 miles (24.1 kilometers) from Duluth. The Standard Oil Company tanker Renown was in the vicinity, and that vessel’s crew was able to rescue all of those who had been on board Onoko. The damaged freighter eventually sank to the bottom of Lake Superior. The wreckage of Onoko, which remains there today, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on SS Onoko, please check out https://greatlakes.bgsu.edu/item/437180

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