Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Launched six years before the RMS Titanic sailed and sank, the St. Marys Challenger is still hauling cargo on Lake Michigan and charming steamship aficionados. The 101-year-old ship transports cement from the St. Marys Cement Co. plant in Charlevoix, Mich., to Chicago, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Wis., and Ferrysburg, Mich. It is one of only two Great Lakes ships still powered by a Skinner Marine Unaflow steam engine. The other is the car ferry Badger. ``In boat nerd land, the Challenger is a big deal,'' said George Wharton, a Canadian retiree who spends his time ``chasing'' and photographing ships. ``It's a bit romantic to see this boat still going after 100 years.'' The Challenger launched in 1906, two years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile. It is docked this winter in South Chicago while a maintenance crew from Milwaukee gets it ready for spring sailing.
St. Marys Challenger``Everything was built strong back then,'' said Kevin Rogers, the ship's port engineer. ``This boat has steel plating that's an inch thick.'' The ship's small size 551 feet allows it to fit into shallower ports where big ships can't go, said John Polacsek, who works at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit. The Challenger runs on Bunkersea fuel, which Rogers likens to road tar. Heated to 230 degrees, the fuel produces steam that runs the main engine, steering system, deck winches and nearly everything else on board. Much of its original equipment remains. A crank-operated telephone system from the early 1900s works even if the ship's electrical system fails. Because it is smaller than modern ships, the Challenger must make more trips to haul comparable cargo. It logs about 6,000 miles per season on Lake Michigan. But it has benefited from sailing in the fresh lake, rather than corrosive salt water. ``There are boats half the Challenger's age that are already retired,'' Rogers said.