ALPENA — A great lady of the lakes turns 80 this year.
The Alpena, launched in 1942 and now the oldest operating steamship on the Great Lakes, visits its namesake city throughout the sailing season, picking up cement from the Lafarge Alpena factory and ferrying it across the water to turn it into a product that helps build the country.
Sometimes perched on the Thunder Bay skyline, sometimes glimpsed heading for other ports, the ship has a following of admirers who follow its whereabouts, eager to catch a glimpse of their favorite freighter, Jeff Scott said. , plant manager at Lafarge. .
“They call me all the time,” Scott said. “They want to know, ‘When is the Alpena coming?'”
In the midst of World War II, as the SS Leon Fraser, the Alpena first entered the Great Lakes on February 28, 1942.
Longer than two football fields and half as wide, the ship stood out as a juggernaut among its peers, the longest vessel on the lakes and capable of carrying more than any other active freighter.
In 1990, a new owner renamed the ship the Alpena and shortened her by 120 feet, cutting her midsection into drydock and then flooding the drydock until both ends of the ship floated and could be brought together and welded together, the newspapers reported at the time. .
The Alpena suffered a setback when an electrical fire in December 2015 caused millions of dollars in damage to the ship’s stern, but was returned to service the following year.
Although some modern upgrades to the ship have followed the fire, the wheelhouse still shines with brass and wood and an 80-year-old elegance.
“He has his own Facebook fan page,” said Captain Steve Stanek, who started as a ship’s captain in 1997.
In the middle of the wheelhouse, brass railings surround a raised platform, on which rests a quirky steering column and compass, at chest height and oozing with nautical history vibes.
Around the platform, modern computer screens nestle among other original equipment, digital blips juxtaposed with devices looking like something out of a history book.
Below, a lounge and bedrooms welcomed visitors when Lafarge auctioned rides on the ship to support charitable causes.
A long, narrow corridor – the storm tunnel, used by the crew when waves rise and crash into the side of the ship – runs the full length of the ship along one side.
The dark hallway back and forth, hundreds of feet, a wall holding up giant storage tanks as ballast water ripples in tanks underfoot.
Beyond the holds, below the ship’s distinctive leaning stack, two four-story monsters crouch among the stairs, landings and balustrades of the boiler room, turning fire and water into steam that “propels the boat forward.” “Stanek said.
In another room, a vast white space filled with metal and chrome, lights and machinery spans at least three floors down and two floors up, unbelievably large.
Here, steam from the boilers drives the turbines that actually drive the boat, Stanek said, explaining with the authority of experience the endless pipes, tubes and tools, whirlpools and gimmicks that line the huge room. .
In an adjacent hallway lined with doors, he speaks softly. His crew is sleeping, he said.
An officers’ mess, its long table laden with bottles of condiments, is technically for the best dogs on board, but they don’t mind if other crew members hang out there, Stanek said.
He chats with the steward, who feeds the ship’s 21 crew members three meals a day, sometimes for 60 to 90 days at a stretch, with extra treats on public holidays.
An adjoining room filled with exercise equipment used to hold sofas and televisions. The crew wanted something to do during their 16 hours off, when they weren’t in port and cycling through town, Stanek said.
Atop the ship, where giant metal plates were draped across the width of the deck, a peek through a round opening in the cargo holds reveals only bottomless darkness.
Soon, thanks to dams hanging from nearby sentry silos, cement will pour at a rate of nearly 1,000 tons per hour into the holds, filling them within hours to less than two feet from the top.
Freighter crews should load and unload carefully. Ships sometimes crack in half if their cargo is not handled in this way, Stanek said.
The Alpena will come out of Alpena loaded with some 12,000 tons from Northeast Michigan, transporting it to Green Bay or Chicago, Detroit or Toledo, to be processed into products used around the world.
In the meantime, the crew will rest, pass the time and continue to tend to the oldest steamer on the Great Lakes.
“It’s an awesome boat,” Stanek said. “I hope she runs many more years.”