1912 : City of Detroit III Begins Luxury Trips to Buffalo

May 30, 2022 all-day

Postcard image of City of Detroit III

More than 6,000 people turned out to see the City of Detroit III launched at the Wyandotte, Mich., yard of the Detroit Shipbuilding Company on Oct. 7, 1911. Among the dignitaries on hand were Kirby, Detroit mayor William B. Thompson and a number of D&C officials and luminaries. The vessel was christened by Doris McMillan, the granddaughter of the senator. The Detroit Free Press provided the play-by-play: “Tense silence, the scarcely audible thump of a sharp-bladed ax biting through hempen bonds, a creaking of timbers, the splintering crackle of breaking glass, then an ear-filling, nerve-jarring volume of sound, ending in a mighty crash as the water displaced by the great mass of steel swept the opposite side of the slip.”

While the boat was tied up at the foot of Orleans Street, an army of carpenters, painters, decorators, machinists and steelworkers swarmed over the vessel and worked frantically to have it ready in time for the opening of the Detroit–Buffalo steamship travel season. The Free Press noted at this point of construction that it looked like “a human anthill.” And the ants moved quickly. In little more than a month’s time, on Nov. 15, with the engines and machinery in place, the hull was turned over to the builders and craftsmen. Twenty-five working days later, five stories of cabins rose from the deck, and the roof was in place. The next five months would be spent applying the finishing touches—carving the balustrades and banisters, painting the walls and decking the vessel out—to say nothing of installing more than two thousand windows.

After much anticipation — thanks in large part to the constant coverage in the newspapers — the queen of the Great Lakes was ready to sail on May 30, 1912. But the vessel would initially find itself in rough waters. Shortly after 10 a.m., as the City of Detroit III was pulling out of the dock, a miscommunication to the engine room resulted in it clobbering the Joseph C. Suit, a small wooden passenger and freight carrier that had been moored at dock. There were no injuries because the City of Detroit III’s crew was able to holler warnings to the nine people aboard the Suit to get out of the way. The dinky 110-foot vessel was ripped from its moorings and got wedged between the anchor and port rudder of the colossal boat. The Suit was dragged about 200 feet downstream, and a tug had to pry the boat out of the giant’s clutches. The Suit, which was built in 1884, sank almost immediately. Understandably, the mammoth marvel’s arrival was delayed a bit, and it didn’t pull in until shortly after 6:15 p.m. The rest of the vessel’s voyages, however, would prove to be smooth sailing.

The D-III, as it was known, cost $1.5 million (the equivalent of $31.8 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Structurally, there was perhaps no sturdier vessel on the lakes. The five-story floating fortress had a 455-foot-long hull of steel. It was the largest side-wheeler in the world when it was built — its paddle wheel was about 30 feet in diameter and had paddles 8 feet wide. For perspective, it was about as long as a forty-five-story skyscraper is tall.

“When you refer to the City of Detroit III as a leviathan, you are well within the bounds of conservatism, for … it is some boat,” the Free Press wrote. For perspective, six laps around the Great Lakes goliath’s hurricane deck would tally a mile. The D-III’s capacity was 5,000 day passengers, though it usually carried far fewer, and no more than 1,500 on an overnight voyage.

In accordance with its general scale, three smokestacks eight and a half feet in diameter towered three stories over the main deck. These smoke-belching monsters were fed by dozens of men slinging coal to feed the fires that powered the mighty vessel. The stacks were vertical, not slanted — a signature of Kirby’s designs.

It was a significant milestone and testament to the burgeoning growth and economic rise of Detroit and the Midwest. And when its bow cut through the waves at night, its 2,700 lights must have made it look like a giant floating light show. What a sight it must have been for those stuck on shore.

Source: Dan Austin, “City of Detroit III”, HistoricDetroit.org

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