BY FRANK KOOTSILLAS
The City of Cleveland III was a ship built in 1907 at the Wyandotte Ship Building Co. in Wyandotte. Her length was over 400 feet, making her the largest paddle-wheel steamer in the world and one of the most luxurious. She was built to carry 4,500 passengers, with sleeping accommodations for 1,500, with additional capacity to carry freight.
Unfortunately, just before her scheduled launch on June 30, 1907, she was heavily damaged by a fire while still in dry dock. Her elaborate interior was almost destroyed. After the reconstruction was completed in 1908, she made her first trial trip on April 22, 1908 and her maiden voyage on June 4, 1908 to Sault Ste Marie. She joined her sister ships of the D&C Fleet in Detroit. They were the Eastern States, the Western States, The Greater Detroit, The Greater Buffalo, and The City of Detroit III.
The City of Cleveland III traveled the Great Lakes profitably for 42 years, until that fateful day of June 26, 1950. On that day, she was heavily damaged in a collision with a Norwegian freighter, The Ravenfjell, in heavy fog off Harbor Beach, Michigan. There were eight fatalities and many injuries. Among the dead were the Benton Harbor Police Chief and the former Mayor of Benton Harbor. This was a special cruise chartered by the Benton Harbor Chamber of Commerce. It was headed for Detroit to watch the Detroit Tigers play the New York Yankees that afternoon.
There was heavy damage to the port side sleeping cabins near the stern where most of the casualities occurred. The damage was confined above the hull line. After discharging the casualties to a Saginaw area hospital, she made her way under her own power back to Detroit. The mangled hulk was moored next to her sister ships at the Detroit dock, never to sail again.
At this time the cruise business went downhill due to the interstate highway system. The City of Detroit initiated condemnation proceedings against the docks and waterfront property for the coming building of the new Cobo Hall Convention Center.
The board of directors of the D&C Line voted to liquidate the cruise line and the sister ships were sold off. The hulk of The City of Cleveland III was moved to the Windsor side of the river and put up for auction in a salvage sale. The bid was won by a Detroit company, The Ventimiglia Demolition Company.
On Oct. 21, 1953, the City of Cleveland III caught fire at the Windsor dock. Sparks from a torch ignited 2000 gallons of remaining bunker fuel left in the bottom of the ship. It was the largest fire in Windsor’s recent history, using all of Windsor’s resources. The city of Windsor called Detroit for the use of their fire boat. However, protocol dictated the use of the fire boat had to be authorized by the mayor of Detroit. Unfortunately, Mayor Cobo was away on vacation. Acting Mayor Mirani was tied up in a business conference and could not be reached (Note: This was well before cell phones). This proved to be a consternation between Windsor and the city of Detroit for many years (This political problem was later taken up by Detroit City Council for future clarification).
On Sept. 13, 1954, the Amhursburg tug “The Atomic” towed the City of Cleveland III to a slip near LaSalle, Ontario to be stripped to the hull, which later would be converted to a Derrick Barge to work on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Partway during the demolition the new owner of the ship, Mr. Ventimiglia, got into a dispute with one of the Canadian contractors and ordered him off the ship, threatening him with a gun. The contractor had already performed $4000 worth of work.
The City of Cleveland III was then towed back to Wyandotte and moored at the north end of the Wyandotte Chemical property, just a short distance from where it was built in 1907. Wyandotte Police Investigators received a criminal complaint of a Canadian man that had got into a dispute with the owner of the ship threatening him with a gun. There was a complaint also filed with the Canadian Justice System.
On Sept. 28, 1954, The City of Cleveland III was placed “under arrest” by the Canadian officials. A Deputy nailed the warrant to the main mast of the ship. This followed “arrest of ship” proceedings, a traditional part of maritime law. The warrant was in a suit by the contractor of LaSalle, Ontario. The warrant claimed: “The current owner Mr. Ventimiglia broke his contract at ‘gun point’ and ordered him off the ship after he had completed $4000 worth of work.” The warrant specified that the ship was not to be moved during court proceedings.
A week later, Royal Canadian Police boarded the vessel and confiscated the gun, which was also imported illegally into Canada and a part of the official case.
During the time the ship was docked in Wyandotte, young adventurers boarded the ship. Some partying and pillaging occurred; artifacts were thrown overboard or taken for souvenirs. The Wyandotte Police Station was only about 1000 feet away and had a hard time keeping the young vandals off the ship.
A short time later, a severe summer storm arose and ripped the ship loose from its mooring. Mother Nature was oblivious to the warrant restrictions posted on the ship, freeing her to float across the river to the Grosse Ile side next to Hennepin Point and grounded there. The Coast Guard issued maritime warnings to all shipping using the partially blocked Trenton channel.
The City of Cleveland III was towed back to her Wyandotte berth several weeks later. Sometime later after legal issues were cleared she was towed to Buffalo, N.Y. to complete salvage operations. However, further inspection of the hull proved to be unable to be used as a Derrick Barge. The oil fire in Windsor had considerably weakened her hull.
The City of Cleveland III was then completely scrapped, ending her glorious but troubled past on the Great Lakes. Her sister ships from the D&C lines eventually met the same fate, “Death by cutting torch.”
(Thanks to Wyandotte-Bacon Memorial Library and its resources.)