Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Historic Description

The steamer Onoko was the first iron-hulled, iron-screw steam freighter on the Great Lakes. The Onoko was built at Radcliff's yard in Cleveland by the Globe Iron Works at a cost of $220,000. It was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes until steel hull freighters were introduced 10 years later. The steamer was launched Feb. 16, 1882, and on its maiden voyage to Chicago made up to 15 miles per hour. Because of its economic success, the Onoko was the prototype for all modern bulk freighters.

Onoko builder's plan; C. Patrick Labadie Collection, Duluth, MN

The Onoko was registered at 2,164.42 gross tons and 1,933.20 net tons. The dimensions of the vessel were 286 feet in length with an overall length of 302.5 feet and 39 feet in beam with a depth of hold of 25 feet. The hull was comprised of riveted iron plate 3/4 and 9/16 inches thick with thicker plates placed in the lower portion of the hull. The water ballast tank, with a capacity of 700 tons of water, extended from a collision bulkhead approximately 15 feet aft to the stem of the engine room bulkhead 38 feet forward of the stern post. The tank was divided into five compartments, three fore and two athwartships. A double thickness of white pine planking separated the top of the water ballast from the cargo. The main deck was supported fore and aft by three rows of evenly spaced iron stanchions. The spar deck, however, was supported by only one central row of stanchions. The average draught light was 5 feet, being an average of 3 feet forward and 7 feet aft.

The Onoko had two cylinder fore and aft compound steam engines with cylinders 30 and 56 by 48 inches that could produce 900 horsepower at 75 revolutions per minute. The cranks were of forged iron, placed at right angles to each other. Two tubular boilers of 8 feet 8 inches by 18 feet with steel fire surfaces and iron shells provided the steam power. The working pressure allowed was 100 pounds per square inch. The boilers were arranged to work separately or together. The engineering space including engine room, boilers, fire room, coal bunker and boiler house were all constructed of iron and located on the spar deck level in the after portion of the ship. The screw wheel was 12 feet in diameter and steered by the first patent of a steam steering gear used on the lakes. The steam valve arrangement for the steering was placed under the pilot house and was reportedly designed to be changed to manual steering without delay.

The original superstructure of the Onoko was constructed of wood. The pilot house and forward quarters were situated on the foredeck with the bridge on top of the living space. The pilot house had a flat roof which was enclosed by a railing and probably served as a lookout or navigating bridge. Below the pilot house was the captain's room which was divided into three separate compartments. Below this level was the captain's quarters on the starboard side and the first and second mates and watchman's quarters on the port side separated by a hallway. The captain's quarters occupied the entire port side of this level that included a day room, separated from the berth and head. Forward on the port side cabin was the lamp room followed aft by the wheelman or watchman's quarters followed by a combined first and second mates quarters.

The aft superstructure and living quarter arrangement was built around the engine room which protruded above the level of the spar deck. The after cabin included an engineer's room on the forward starboard side followed by a large washroom/head, the engineer's quarters, two state rooms and a water closet on the aft starboard side. Directly aft of the engine room above the spar deck were the deck hands' quarters and water closet. On the starboard side was a large ice room and water closet. Just forward and on the port side of the engine room was the fireman's quarters.

Starboard bow view in Soo Locks, ca. 1900; Courtesy of the Great Lakes Historical Society, Vermillion, OH

The Onoko was originally constructed with four masts; the foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast were schooner-rigged. The jigger mast carried no sail and its intended use is not fully understood. The Onoko had eight 7- by 27-foot hatches, evenly spaced between the forward and after cabin arrangements. The arrangement was common to steam barges of the period.

On Feb. 16, 1882, the Cleveland Herald detailed the Onoko extensively in one of their articles:

The monster new iron steamer Onokol [sic] will be launched from the iron shipyard near the head of the river bed this afternoon between 2 and 3 o'clock. This is the first steamer of its kind built on the lakes, and when launched will be the largest boat afloat on the lakes. The construction and building was done by the Globe Iron Works, who have spared no trouble or expense in giving the steamer the best possible strength. Captain Pringle, who will sail her, has closely watched her construction. The keel is 286 feet long; over all 302 1/2 feet, breadth of beam 39 feet, and depth of hold 25 feet.

The iron plating is 3/4 and 9/16 inches thick, and reaches up to the spar deck. At the end of each plate is a heavy butt strap. On the outside, running around the vessel, are thick wooden fenders in an iron socket. Corresponding to this, on the inside, is a bulb iron beam running fore and aft clear around the vessel. The deck beams are riveted in between the frames and the reverse bar. The iron frames are about two and half feet apart. Every other reverse bar goes across the water bottom, and up on the opposite side, making a half circle. Three rows of solid iron stanchion support the main deck, and one row the spar deck. There are heavy belt frames on each side, running up the side of the vessel.

The Onoko has a water ballast ranging from three feet to three feet eight inches deep, extending from the collision bulkhead forward to the engine bulkhead aft, divided into compartments, three being fore and aft, and two athwartships. There is one heavy main keelson, and three three-wing keelsons ou [sic] either side. They run the entire length of the boat, and act as a support for the water compartments. The capacity of the compartments is over 700 tons of water. Each compartment can be filled or emptied at will by means of a large Worthington duplex pump located in the engine room. The top of the ballast bottom is protected from the cargo by a double thickness of plank breaking joints, and secured with bolts, so that it can be removed easily to paint.

The main and spar decks are of white pine, over wide iron stringers and diagonal ties. There are four masts, three of them carrying fore and aft canvas, and one pole being bare. She has a patent Providence steam windlass. The double hoisting engine for freight is on the spar deck. The vessel has the first patent steam steering gear on the lakes. The arrangement consists of two cylinders located below the pilot house. The valve motion is so arranged as to be operated by the ordinary steering wheel in the pilot house. The ordinary had steering gear can be substituted without any delay or interruption. The cabins are located forward and aft, as is usual in steambarges. There are eight hatchways. The estimated capacity of the Onoko is 100,000 bushels of corn, or 3,000 gross tons of iron ore, on a draught of fourteen and one-half feet.

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