By Richard Kruzel
Toledo’s history and the history of commerce on the Great Lakes has been intertwined since the city’s inception. Toledo’s position on the Maumee River at the western end of Lake Erie has made it one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes. It is fitting then that Toledo is home to the National Museum of the Great Lakes which includes the museum ship Col. James M. Schoonmaker.
The Schoonmaker is one of the few Great Lakes freighters from the “Golden Age of Shipping” to be preserved. And, she is not just a classic freighter, she was one of a “Queen of the Lakes.” Queen of the Lakes is an unofficial, though widely recognized, title bestowed upon the longest, most beautiful, and richly appointed vessel working the Great Lakes. The Schoonmaker held the title from her launch in 1911 until 1914, when the W. Grant Morden was launched.
The Col. James M. Schoonmaker began life as Hull Number 82 at the Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan. She was launched on July 1, 1911. At 617 feet, the Schoonmaker was the largest ship on the lakes. But more than that, she was also the most elegant. The Schoonmaker was fitted with luxury guest suites in the bow of the ship. She also carried a guest lounge and dining room for the comfort of passengers. She was named after Col. James M. Schoonmaker, a Medal of Honor recipient in the Civil War who went on to great success after the war as a coal merchant and banker. Schoonmaker later became vice president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railway.
The Col. James M. Schoonmaker served as the flagship of the Shenango Furnace Company. She broke many cargo records for iron ore, grain and coal in her first year. In 1969 the ship was sold to the Interlake Steamship Company. In 1971 the ship changed hands again. This time she went to the Cleveland Cliff’s Iron Company. The ship was painted in Cleveland Cliffs colors and rechristened the Willis B. Boyer after the vice president of Republic Steel, one of Cleveland Cliff’s best customers. The Schoonmaker continued her career on the lakes for another seven years before being laid up in 1980 during the downturn in the steel industry.
In 1987 the city of Toledo purchased the ship to become a museum ship tourist attraction. In 2007 the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority took over the museum ship. She sat as the centerpiece of International Park for several years until the Port Authority agreed to transfer the ship to the newly built Museum of the Great Lakes. On July 1, 2011, the 100th anniversary of her launch, the Willis B. Boyer was rechristened the Col. James M. Schoonmaker by Treecie Schoonmaker, the grand daughter-in-law of Col. Schoonmaker.
In October 2012, the Schoonmaker was moved one last time to her permanent berth at the site of the National Museum of the Great Lakes on the banks of the Maumee River in Toledo. The ship is open for tours May through October as part of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.
Additional photos and a virtual tour are available at http://www.inlandseas.org/col-james-m-schoonmaker/