Ship Building in the Great Lakes

Making Waves: Michigan's Boat-Building Industry, 1865-2000

Making Waves: Michigan's Boat-Building Industry, 1865-2000

Ship building on the Great Lakes has long represented a crucial component of transportation and trade in the Michigan region. The shipbuilding industry thrived in Michigan because of ample access to waterways and natural resources. Cadillac observed the waterbourne potential of the state in the 17th century. The interior maritime network was easily traversed by the Native peoples and their birchbark canoes. Anishinaabe canoes preceded the boats and military ships of European settlers; these birchbark canoes would carry goods like furs across the Great Lakes to places such as Montreal and Hudson Bay. During the 1700s, important settlements like Michilimackinac, Detroit (called Fort Pontchartrain at the time), and Fort St. Joseph served as Native American canoe-building centers. Jacques Sabrevois de Bleury, a commandant at Fort Pornchartrain in 1714, said: "it is no small labor to make a canoe, in which there is much symmetry and measurement; and it is a curious sight" (Peters, Making Waves). Alexander Henry described the canoes' suitability for the lakes like "riding on water with the ease of a seabird" (Henry, Travels and Adventures, 33).

Shipbuilding continued to be a critical craft on the Great Lakes. By the mid-1800s, the Lakes were full of workboats used for the fur trade, commercial fishing, and the booming lumber industry. As daily wages increased and work hours decreased during the mid-to-late 1800s, more and more people living in Michigan could afford their own boats, and boating gradually became a leisure activity as well as a business one. By the 1890s, yacht and rowing clubs were well-established and swiftly growing, feeding into the expanding vacation resorts of northern Michigan. While leisure boating grew more and more popular in the late 1800s, it remained largely unattainable for most workers and instead became a hallmark of wealthier living. A small rowboat might cost $15-30 dollars, but a high-end yacht cost up to $70,000.

Michigan produced its own distinct boating designs, including the Mackinaw boat and the Au Sable River boat, both used during the 19th century. Mackinaw boats, small crafts used primarily for commercial fishing and general transport, were built from the mid-1800s until just after World War I. Based on ships from Northern Ireland and Norway, these ships were sturdy, had a large cargo capacity, and could maneuver through narrow or difficult passageways. James W. Milner, writing to the U.S. Fish Commission in 1871, stated: "They have been longer and more extensively used on the upper lakes than any other boat, and with less loss of life or accident."

The people of Michigan found other innovative ways to traverse the diverse and at-times risky waters of the state. The Au Sable River boat was designed for use in trout fishing in Michigan's interior. A long, double-ended drift boat, it was propelled by pushing poles along the bottom of river beds and fastening chains of varying weight to drag behind the boat (Peters, Making Waves).

Chris-Craft Boat Diagram

As with many other industries, new inventions changed the landscape of shipbuilding in Michigan during the turn of the century. The creation of the combustion engine transformed Michigan shipbuilding from a workshop-based to a factory-based industry, one capable of exporting ships nationally and even globally. These marine gasoline engines revolutionized shipping convenience, replacing the steam-powered boats in which the operator had to start the fire in the boiler and wait until the steam built enough pressure to move. The new combustion engines could start up right away. Early advertisements for marine gasoline engines emphasized their relative cleanliness and ease compared to old steam ships: "No Fire, Smoke or Heat. Absolutely Safe" (Peters, Making Waves).

By 1905, Michigan was a national leader in the shipbuilding industry, with its factories only growing. While wooden boats remained popularin 1912, the boat-building industry used 1,205,000 board feet of woodsteel boats began to change the face of Michigan shipbuilding once again. These new boats were promoted as far less likely to leak, shrink, or warp than wooden boats.

Beyond their place in trade and leisure, Michigan boats also played fast and flashy roles in both rum running during the Prohibition and high-speed boat racing. Michigan became known for its ideal placement to smuggle alcohol across the Canadian border through waterways. The need to evade authorities led smugglers in Michigan to create faster and faster boats. The increased speed paid offin narrower parts of the Detroit River, smugglers could make alcohol runs in under five minutes, and roughly 75% of the United States' smuggled alcohol crossed Michigan's border with Canada (Peters, Making Waves). Newer speedboats also propelled racers like Gar Wood of Algonac, Michigancalled the "Gray Fox of Algonac"to celebrity. He raced down waterways at 120 miles per hour, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators to the Detroit River in some of the largest sporting events of the time.

Michigan shipbuilding also played a key role in World War II. Scott M. Peters, author of Making Waves: Michigan's Boat-Building Industry, 1865-2000, called Michigan "the center of the Arsenal of Democracy" for wartime producing during WWII. "Without landing craft from Michigan," he wrote, "the invasions of Europe and the Pacific Islands would have been long delayed, if not impossible." During the Second World War, Michigan wooden boat builders comprised the largest sector in Michigan's maritime, wartime construction firms.

Chris-Craft Warships

Chris-Craft warship during WWII

One of the most important shipbuilding companies in Michigan's history is the Chris-Craft company. Started by Christopher Columbus Smith in the late 1800s, the company began by building duck boats, canoes, sailboats, and rowboats before eventually producing speed and runabout boats. The wooden runabout boats, in particular, were designed to be affordable to the masses. Chris-Craft was hugely successful and popular throughout the first half of the 20th century; in 1940, Chris-Craft brought in over $3 million with its boats, which included Utility Roundabouts, Express Cruisers, and Motor Yachts. The Utility Runabouts ranged from $845 to $6,290, spanning the economic classes of the United States (Rodengen, The Lengend of Chris-Craft).

Before the 1940s, however, Chris-Craft became renowned for its speed. Chris Smith designed the Miss Detroit, a boat which was entered into and won the 1915 Gold Cup Trophy Race, a race held in New York and traditionally won by east coast speedboats. The boat that year was piloted by a last-minute substitution: a young man from Algonac, Michigan named John Milot, who had no goggles, gloves, or knee-pads and did an extra two laps at the end of the race because he "forgot to count the laps" (Rodengen, The Legend of Chris-Craft). Chris-Craft boats went on to win the Gold Cup for six years straight.

Chris-Craft Advertisement and Thrill Ride Booth

Chris-Craft Advertisement and thrill ride booth

In the 1940s, the legacy of Chris-Craft transformed alongside the political state of the world. As World War II ravaged Europe, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into the War, Chris-Craft received its first government contract for over 1,000 36-foot Landing Boats, which were made in Algonac, Holland, and Cadillac, Michigan. Within 90 days, they had received orders for nearly 1,000 more boats.

Chris-Craft played an instrumental role in WWII, building a total of 12,000 military vessels for the United States Armed Forces by 1945 and carrying tens of millions of pounds of soldiers and materials across the oceans (Rodengen, The Legend of Chris Craft). A Chris-Craft vessel was also the first boat to land on the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day. For their crucial contributions to the war efforts, The United States Navy bestowed the Navy 'E' award on all three of the Chris-Craft plants. The Navy 'E' is the most prestigious award that an American plant or civilian can receive from the U.S. Navy. In response to this honor, Chris-Craft stated that "With One Cause, One Single Aim, we are working as One, even as the United States Armed Forces are fighting as One, for Victory." 

Chris-Craft built their final wooden boatcrafted out of mahoganyin 1971. Their legacy continues into today, however, as they continue to produce high-quality boats. Today, they are based out of Sarasota, Florida. 

While Michigan's boatbuilding has reduced in recent years, boating nonetheless remains an important part of Michigan's past and present. The recreational boating industry in Michigan generated nearly $4 billion worth of economic acitivity in 2010 and the state remains one of the national leaders in the number of boat registrations (Peters, Making Waves). 

To learn and read more about shipbuilding in Michigan, visit the Clarke Historical Library and the CMU Digital Michigan Newspapers Collection

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