St. Marys Challenger
October 1, 2010
Story & Photos by Daniel Gray
The big gray hull looms up from the narrow channel of the Kinnickinnic River, dwarfing the drawbridge and the trees on the north bank.
What is this ship doing here, nosed up against the KK bridge, docked just a few feet from the road? How did it manage to squeeze its way up the tiniest of Milwaukee’s rivers? How will it ever get back out?
The St. Marys Challenger, under the direction of Captain Al Tielke, delivers powdered cement to the St. Marys Cement Company distribution silo located on the south bank of the Kinnickinnic River, just east of Kinnickinnic Avenue. Cement is then picked up by trucks and delivered to construction sites throughout the region.
This reliable workhorse has performed similar duty for a number of cement companies since the 1960s, but, believe it or not, the vessel itself has plied the waters for over a century, outlasting all others to earn it the title of the oldest lake boat operating on the Great Lakes.
Big Little Boat
At 551 feet long with a capacity of 10,250 tons, the St. Marys Challenger is fairly small by Great Lakes freighter standards. For comparison’s sake, the Stewart J. Cort, which winters in the Milwaukee harbor, is 1,000 feet long and has a capacity of 58,000 tons.
Built in 1906 and put into service as the William P. Snyder, the steam-powered Challenger hauled iron ore on the Great Lakes for about 50 years. By the mid-1960s, the ship appeared to be headed to the scrap yard due to its small size relative to the newer freighters.
However, it was purchased by the Medusa Portland Cement Company in Charlevoix, Mich. and refitted to transport powdered cement. Self-unloading equipment including air slides, conveyors, and bucket elevators comprise an enclosed system for moving the bulk cement from the ship’s holds to onshore storage silos.
According to Chris Winters, author of Centennial: Steaming through the American Century, the shorter and narrower Challenger, just 56 feet abeam, was ideal for Medusa’s business plan. The smaller size allowed shipping access far up small, narrow channels like the Kinnickinnic River. This was desirable because the cost of riverside property for unloading and distribution facilities is much lower than the huge harbor docks and piers the larger carriers require. The Challenger just clears the old iron pivot bridge near the mouth of the KK—by only three feet on each side.
Currently, the lake boat delivers cement from Charlevoix, Mich. to Chicago, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, and Ferrysburg, Mich. When asked which of the ports was hardest to maneuver, Captain Tielke said, “They’re all bad. But Manitowoc is the worst.”
Best Job Ever
When leaving the cement silo dock, the Challenger uses its bow thrusters to push backwards down the KK until it can turn around in the larger harbor. Winters refers to Great Lakes freighters as “world-class ships which are the most efficient for bulk cargo in these complicated waters. Captains of these large boats have to maneuver narrow locks and dredged canals. If you can handle a ship here, you can handle one anywhere. Ship handling on the Great Lakes is a remarkable thing because of the difficult access.”
Tielke, current skipper of the Challenger, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where he worked in a bank after graduating high school in 1969. A friend whose uncle was first mate on a lake freighter asked Tielke why he was working in a bank when he could be onboard a freighter. His friend then helped him land a job as deckhand on the Harry Colby, transporting iron ore and coal.
Tielke loved the work, and progressed from deckhand to able-bodied seaman to wheelman, then third mate, and eventually earned his Master Mariners License. He became a ship’s captain in 1988 working for the Interlake Steamship Company. In the years since, he has captained many of the large cargo vessels in the Great Lakes including the Stewart J. Cort.
Tielke is in his second year commanding the Challenger. “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I work with the same people, and go to the same docks.”
Hauling Tons of Cement
A standard contract has crew members working 60 days on the boat with 30 days off. However, Captain Tielke said their actual schedule varies because the Challenger’s cement season is only about five months long, from mid-May to the beginning of December. Crew members said it can be hard being away from family for such a long stretch, though they like the outdoor work and being on the water.
Oldest working ship on Great Lakes harbors in Kinnickinnic River
Tielke and Sam the cook walk several miles of laps around the deck every day to get some exercise and to “break in” Tielke’s recent knee replacement. Off-duty crew also play cards and watch DVDs to pass the time.
St. Marys Conquest
You might also see the St. Marys Conquest docked on the KK River. The Conquest is a 437-foot-long barge which can transport 8,500 tons of cement and is mated with the tugboat Prentiss Brown.
A barge is more economical for a company to operate than a self-contained ship because it requires a crew of only 12 people. “However, barges don’t handle bad weather as well as self-contained ships,” according to Chris Winters. Tugboats that push barges also offer limited amenities. “It is hard to keep crews on a barge. The tugboats are so small there is not a full-time cook. Crew members take turns cooking and there is just not enough time off.”
Centenarian Vessel with a Future
In 2005, nine months short of its 100th anniversary, the Challenger narrowly escaped having its stern cut off when its owners planned to convert it into a barge.
But when Hurricane Katrina caused the price of diesel fuel to skyrocket, the Challenger—whose steam engine is powered with inexpensive heavy fuel oil and not diesel—was spared.
In 2009, the Challenger passed its five-year inspection and is estimated to be operable for about another 15 years. So, for the foreseeable future, the Challenger will continue to sail the waters of Lake Michigan delivering cement for our roads and buildings.
A Portrait of the St. Marys Challenger
Centennial: Steaming through the American Century, by author and photographer Chris Winters, is a coffee-table book celebration of the career of the St. Marys Challenger, the Great Lakes’ oldest operating steamship.
Winters, Discovery World’s staff photographer, grew up in Wauwatosa and was fascinated from a young age by the ships and maritime history of the Great Lakes. After photographing other big freighters, Winters was captivated by the Challenger in 2003, realizing that it might reach the milestone of 100 years of consecutive service in 2006.
He spent much of the next five years researching, photographing, riding on, and following the Challenger. The resulting book contains over 300 archival and original photos, documenting the ship’s story and mirroring the history of Great Lakes shipping during the 20th century.
Centennial is available at Discovery World and at runninglightpress.com.
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