Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Convict Ship in Sandusky, Ohio

A sign at the Cedar Point dock directs visitors to the Convict Ship. (Author's collection)

Of the many cities on the Great Lakes where the Success docked over a span of 17 years, her roots to the modest-sized city of Sandusky on Lake Erie are as strong as any. A quick review of history will demonstrate why.

The famed "convict ship" entered the Great Lakes in 1923, with Cleveland having the distinction of being her first port of call. It was a prosperous time for the ship and her owners. The economic engine of the U.S. was just hitting its stride after the Great War and the "roaring twenties" were kicking into high gear. The Success embarked on a successful tour of our inland seas that took her from Lake Erie to Lake Huron and, finally, Lake Michigan, culminating in a triumphant and wildly successful showing in Chicago during 1925. She started back down the lakes and, after a showing at Oswego, New York, in Lake Ontario in August of 1928, departed for the eastern seaboard.

When she returned to the lakes five years later with a showing at Chicago for the Century of Progress International Exposition, it was a profoundly different country, having plunged into the throws of the Great Depression. With 25 percent unemployment across the country, people struggled to put food on their tables, let alone spend money on entertainment.

After Chicago, the Success was not shown for two years. Once back in operation she had several years of marginal success. She arrived in Sandusky for the first time in September 1938, at the tail end of the exhibition season. She wintered there, and in the spring received a new, badly-needed main deck. In May she was towed to Lorain, Ohio for caulking and other repairs, and in June she was taken to Cleveland and berthed at the East Ninth Street Pier. This was to be her home for the next three years. Then in late 1942, pressure for dock space at the height of World War II forced her out of Cleveland.

The Success on show at Sandusky

Thus she returned to Sandusky, lashed to the Hunt Coal Company dock, her future at that point uncertain. Before her owner could decide, nature intervened and did it for him when, in March of 1943 a spring storm pounded the ship's hull so hard against the bottom that she took in more water than her already overworked pumps could handle and she sank at her dock. For the next two and a half years various attempts were made to float her, with little success. She proved to be a worrisome problem for city fathers and for the owners of the popular excursion steamer Put-in-Bay which now had to share its dock with the old prison ship. Something had to be done.

In the meantime, with no one at the dock watching out for her, the darker side of human nature took over. Anything that wasn't tied down was carried away. Exhibits such as the Iron Maiden, dozens of chains and shackles, and numerous wax figures disappeared. Fittings such as the red and green running lights - gone.

The ice shrouded hull of the Success at Sandusky (author's collection)

Had it not been for Harry Van Stack, there would be nothing left. Harry, a naturalized citizen born in South Africa, who for the last 18 years had been a trusted, lecturer, caretaker, and general hand on board the Success. Seeing that the end was near, Stack salvaged what he could from the ship and took it to his new home in Sandusky. Years later, after his death, his wife saw to it the documents and artifacts Harry saved found a permanent home at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library in nearby Fremont. In addition to advertising posters, teakwood, and a ship model, there were scrapbooks, photographs, and other rare documents that tell the fascinating story of the Success.

The Berkley Salvage Company of Detroit finally succeeded in raising the Success in September, 1945. They turned the ship over to an eccentric salvage operator from Port Clinton. I will tell the story of the ship's journey from Sandusky to Port Clinton in a future blog. But history records that the old prison ship Success has a strong connection to Sandusky - one that will be long remembered.

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