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The Onoko was built in 1882 for Capt. Phillip Minch of Vermilion, Ohio, Minch Transportation Company of the Kinsman Steamship Company and a syndicate of investors. The ship was built to take advantage of the 16 foot channels opened in 1881 when the new Weitzel Lock was built at Sault Ste. Marie. The consortium owned and operated the ship until 1894. Capt. Minch founded what later became known as the Steinbrenner fleet. Following the sale of the vessel, the Onoko was registered to P.G. Minch et al. of Cleveland from 1894-1895 and then as property of the Nicholas Transit Company of Mentor, Ohio, from 1895-1915. The concept of building an iron-hulled steam freighter was a radical change from the traditional construction wooden-hulled vessels on the Great Lakes. However, Captain Minch's speculation proved to be a success and the freighter consistently broke her own records with bulk cargoes for the next decade.
Superintendent of the Onoko's construction was John H. Smith, who learned iron shipbuilding technology on the Clyde River in Scotland. Smith worked for the newly organized Globe Shipbuilding Company, successors to an old, respected boiler and engine works. The Globe firm and its successor, the American Shipbuilding Company, later built thousands of iron and steel ships in Cleveland and subsidiary shipyards at several Great Lakes and salt-water ports. Interestingly, the Minch and Steinbrenner families, who owned shares in the Onoko, later owned the American Shipbuilding Company as well. From a technological standpoint, the Onoko was probably the most important ship among the literally thousands of hulls built by the American Shipbuilding Company.
On its maiden voyage the Onoko sailed from Cleveland on April 19, 1882, leaving at 11 p.m. and arriving in Chicago around 2 p.m. the following day. The cargo consisted of 2,536 tons of coal bringing its draft to 13 feet of water. The Onoko's captain, W.H. Pringle, reported that the ship behaved splendidly and steered like a yacht. By April 25, the Onoko had been loaded with a cargo of wheat for Buffalo and left at 3:30 p.m. Its draft of water with load amounted to only 14 feet 4 inches aft. The Onoko discharged 88,140 bushels of wheat, short 75 bushels, at Niagara B Elevator, not a pound of which was wet. It was believed that the Onoko could carry 115,000 to 120,000 bushels of wheat on 15 feet of water. The Onoko's capacity to carry oats was thought to be 155,000 bushels. The Buffalo Courier provides an account of the arrival of the Onoko in that town. It states that "about noon on Saturday the new iron steamer Onoko arrived here with something over 88,000 bushels wheat. She left Chicago last Tuesday at 4:20PM and her time in coming down was three days and nineteen and a half hours".
The Buffalo Courier of May 2, 1882, article contains a less than flattering description of the freighter:
The Onoko is the largest vessel afloat on the lakes - and by far the homeliest. She looks very like a huge canal boat with a smokestack and four sticks. Her model is really frightful; her upper works are without decent shape, and to cap all her painting is but a daub. For a new vessel she is the worst looking sight that ever appeared on our inland waters. She could have been given a respectable appearance without much interfering with her carrying qualities. One of these days we will show those Cleveland fellows an iron steamer that will be worth looking at. The Onoko is an eye-sore.
The attack on the appearance of the Onoko did not go over well in Cleveland with the ship owners. The Cleveland Herald on May 5, 1882, responded to the accusations with this reply:
The Buffalo papers took occasion when the steamship Onoko was there a few days ago to speak disparagingly of her qualities, especially her homeliness, and wound up by call [sic] her an "eye-sore." This is ridiculous, in view of late developments. A Buffalo party has been in this city the past few days negotiating with the owners of the Onoko with a view to her purchase. He was anxious to secure her, "eye-sore" and all, at a price considerably above the cost of building. There was a disposition on the part of some of her owners to accept his terms, but the others would not part with their interest, and the arrangement fell through. The owners are well satisfied with the way the boat works.
The Onoko had shown itself to be a success in its first two years of carrying large cargoes on the Great Lakes. The Cleveland Herald, August 22, 1884, reported the bulk-freighter Onoko had "proved even more successful than her owners hoped for". By the following year the economic situation for shipping had worsened and the livelihood of cargo-carrying vessels on the lakes was bleak. Despite depression in the Great Lakes trade, the Onoko continued to set cargo capacity records. In September 1985, the Onoko carried the largest cargo of wheat ever shipped down the lakes at 92,210 bushels. In June 1886, it passed through the Sault Canal with 2,812 net tons of ore, the largest cargo by 182 tons. This is in sharp contrast to just a week later when the Onoko returned light to Duluth rather than accept forty cent coal per ton. On one trip during late spring of the following year, the Onoko was in Buffalo loaded with a cargo of 75,000 bushels of corn and 50,000 bushels of oats. Capt. Trinter stated that when he had 16 feet of water for his ship he would show the newer craft "how to carry a load a grain". Previously, the Onoko had carried as much as 164,000 bushels of oats, 107,000 bushels of corn and just over 100,000 bushels of wheat in single cargoes.
In 1890, eight years after her construction, the Onoko still retained its A1 rating and was valued at $190,000, only $30,000 less than its original cost. Four years later its value had dropped to $170,000 and then in 1895 to $160,000, although its rating remained the same. In 1895, probably under its new owners the Nicholas Transit Company of Mentor, Ohio, modifications were made to the Onoko. The ships rig was changed to two masts and its wooden forecastle replaced with a steel deck and steel pilothouse structure. It was reboilered in 1896 with two 12 x 12.5 foot scotch boilers. The Onoko's wooden spar deck was replaced with steel in 1901 and several years later steel cabins aft were added in 1907-08. The Onoko continued to compete successfully in the lakes trade into the 20th century. The principal owners of the Onoko, the Nicholas Transportation Company, bought out all the lesser stockholders to become sole owner in 1901. That same year the rating of the Onoko changed to A 1-1/2. The rating returned to A1 in 1902 after it received a new steel deck, but its value was now listed at $120,000.
In 1910, Capt. Harry Stewart was appointed master of the steamer Onoko. On the night of Dec. 1, 1910, the Onoko ran aground on Southeast Shoal during a snow storm, 60 miles below Amherstburg. Located between Point Pelee and Wheatley, Ontario, it was about eight miles east of the extremity of the point. Three tugs, including the Harding, and the lighter Rescue were dispatched to the relief of the steamer. The Onoko was carrying coal at the time and was not in any serious danger according to the Duluth Herald, Dec. 2, 1910. The tugs succeeded in refloating the freighter without serious damage to the hull. On Oct. 7, 1912, the Onoko began leaking and was intentionally beached in the Apostle Islands. Repair by patching was minimal in cost. Three years later the Onoko would not be so lucky.
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