Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pics from "Last Days of the Success" at the Ottawa County Museum

Attendees sitting in rapt attention during my presentation

Showing the crowd a piece of teak from the Success

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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Another Success Ship Model

In a previous post I related the history of two models of the ship Success that had been created by professional modelers. I pointed out that these were but two of many models created memorializing this remarkable. It's time to continue that discussion.

Of all the models of the Success to surface over the years, perhaps the most unique--and by far the biggest--has to be one fashioned in the late 1930's by a Swedish immigrant. Here is his story.

John Hallen left his home in Warberg, Sweden, in 1906 at the age of 26 to begin a new life in America. After false starts, first in New York and then in Pennsylvania, the blue-eyed Swede, aw woodworker by trade, settled in  the tiny lumber town of Manistique on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In 1917, shortly after arriving, he and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased one of the town's oldest buildings for the nominal sum of $1. The building had served as a boarding house and the office for the Chicago Lumber Company. (The Consolidated Lumber Company maintained an office there until 1925.) John and Elizabeth converted the building into a hotel, naming it the Park Hotel.

To relieve the boredom of manning the desk at the hotel, Hallen would occupy his time with projects that showcased his skill as a woodworker. Where is first saw or read about the Success is not clear. The ship never visited Manistique, which was too small and off the beaten path to make a showing there financially viable. Perhaps he saw the ship while visiting Green Bay or one of the other ports on Lake Michigan where the Success made an appearance. (She had spent the entire year at Chicago in 1925, that city standing as one of its most successful show venues.) In any event, in the late 1930s Hallen began working on a ship model. A big one.

There is only one known photograph of Hallen with the finished model. In it, Hallen stands at the stern, smiling proudly. The photo was made into postcards. At nine feet in length and some six feet tall, it's the biggest ship model of the Success I have ever seen. The appears to be plenty of detail in the model, although the depth is wrong. (Hallen obviously never saw her in dry dock.)

It may not be the most finally crafted or detailed of Success ship models, but the one crafted by Swedish immigrant John Hallen is by far the the most unique.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rare poster - The Success at Pittsburgh, 1919

One of the benefits of giving talks on the Success is the many wonderful people you meet and the stories they have to tell. After my talk for the Port Clinton Museum here a week ago today, Dave, one of the folks who came to watch approached me holding a large framed picture. When I saw it I almost did a back flip! (Which would be practically a physical impossibility at my age, but I digress.) The picture in the frame was actually an original posted on thick poster board adverting the appearance of the Success in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when the ship was there in 1919. Dave had bought it off an antique dealer friend of his some 25 years ago here in northern Ohio. Dave was kind enough to let me come out to his house this past week and photograph it.

Part of what makes the poster so unique is that it shows how the manager of the ship cleverly adapted the ship's exhibition to the current place and time. As the poster indicates, the ship was also doing duty at that time as a 'U.S. Marine Recruiting Station' and that the showing of the ship was a 'Benefit for the Fatherless Children of France.' This was a brilliant strategy, meant to dispel any suggestion that the exhibition was intended to exploit the people in time of war. This strategy was employed to good effect during the war years, 1917 through 1919, while the ship was touring the inland rivers.

Dave and I spent a most pleasant afternoon talking about the Success, but also (and mostly) about the Civil War. His personal collection of Civil War memorabilia was most impressive. Mostly, though, I felt as though I'd found a friend, and that's worth far more than any musket, or poster.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Success: From prison ship to tourist trap, fiery end on Lake Erie

The Port Clinton News-Herald ran a front page story about my talk on the Success at the local museum. There is a nice brief summary of the ship's history. There was one error that I will note here. The owner who was from Cleveland was Frank Jontzen, not Johnson, as stated in the News-Herald article. Otherwise the story was accurate. Click on the title above to read the story online.

Monday, July 4, 2011

65 years ago today - Port Clinton's unforgettable fireworks display

Thursday, July 4th, 1946. It was a near-perfect day on Lake Erie, much like it is today. On this post-war holiday, vacationers filled the beaches and roads around Port Clinton, Ohio, the center of one of the midwest's premier vacation spots. The Convict Ship Success, which had been a local topic of conversation - and gossip - since being brought here the previous August, lay almost unnoticed offshore as the holiday revelers focused on swimming, picnics, fishing, and other activities. Holiday vehicle traffic was heavy.

Sometime in the late afternoon (no one knows exactly when), someone glanced out from shore and noticed a column of dark smoke rising up from somewhere near the center of the grounded ship. As more and more onlookers took notice, the beginnings of a fire took hold and began to lick at the dry wood and in a fairly short time the read third of the vessel was fully ablaze. Like moths to a flame, boat large and small were pulled to the scene and began circling. A number of people on shore who had boats rushed to them so they could witness the fire up close. Some grabbed still or movie cameras to document what was was happening. And not only boats: At least one airplane did a flyover to check out the scene.

On shore, meanwhile, traffic was jammed along nearby roads as motorists stopped to watch the blaze, finding any place they could to pull over. And what a show it was, as the conflagration gradually consumed the entire vessel. The heat was intense, fanned by a stiff evening breeze. As Port Clinton had no fire boats, no attempt was made to put out the blaze.

The fire continued on into the night. No one knows exactly how long it took but, before it ended, the famous old ship had burned to the waterline, nothing rising above the lake's surface more than a foot or so save for a blackened section of the middle mast.

The water was sprinkled with debris from the ship, which washed ashore for days afterward. Local residents, eager for a souvenir, scoured the beaches for anything they could find, and many a local garage, attic, or curio box still contains a charred piece of wood from the ship. It was well known that the ship had been built of teak, so even a small chunk of the prized wood was considered a lucky find. Many of these pieces were cut or carved into souvenirs. (I own a letter opener that someone had whittled from a piece of teak.)

After the fire there were many rumors circulating about the cause of the fire. There was no question that it had been arson. The only question was, who had done it? The most obvious theory was that it had been local youths acting on a dare or as a holiday prank. But others suggested a more sinister motive; that the ship's owner, Walter Kolbe, had had someone destroy the ship, supposedly because he was catching heat from the local coast guard. Some years ago I attempted to verify this but was informed by the coast guard that records from that era were no longer kept. So unless someone steps forward to reveal some personal knowledge of what happened that day, we will likely never know. I for one would like to have a conversation with that person.

Of course, it would be just between us.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Success: A "Bucket List" Dive

Ellsworth Boyd, who blogs for Sport Diver, has posted on their Wreck Chat Forum that the the prison ship Success will be added to his "bucket list" of must-do dives. His post features a nice (and, thankfully, accurate) history of the ship and its current condition in the lake.
Scuba divers who wreck dive in Lake Erie will tell you that the Success is Lake Erie's most famous shipwreck, though admittedly not the best wreck dive. While easily accessible, the visibility there is poor due to the muddy bottom, making for a spooky experience. Nonetheless, its a dive worth making, if only because of the rich history of the ship.
I recall that some years back, Ellsworth wrote an article on the ship for Skin Diver Magazine.
Clicking on the title above will take you to his blog post.
This is a good time for a last-minute reminder about my talk at the Port Clinton Museum this Saturday at 2pm. For full details, see my last post.