Henry Cort

The Whaleback Steamer Henry Cort

The steel whaleback propeller Pillsbury was built by the American Steel Barge Company at Superior, Wisconsin in 1892. She was launched with her sister ship the Washburn on June 22, 1892 at Superior. This 320 foot long, 42 foot wide, 2234 gross ton vessel was one of several built on the plans of Alexander McDougall who developed the whaleback design to handle bulk cargo on the Great Lakes. However, the Pillsbury was different from others since it was originally set up as a package freighter.

The Henry Cort

The Henry Cort

She operated for the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Buffalo Steamship Company, part of the Soo Line Railroad Company out of Buffalo, New York from 1892 to 1896.

In 1896, Rockefeller steel interests in the form of the Bessemer Steamship Company out of Duluth, Minnesota bought the Pillsbury, converted it to haul bulk iron ore like other whalebacks, and renamed it Henry Cort. In 1901 the Cort and many other vessels became part of the much larger U. S. Steel Corporation, and its subsidiary the Pittsburgh Steamship Company in Cleveland, Ohio. She would serve that line until 1927.

As the Henry Cort, she had an eventful career. On December 17, 1917 she sank in 30 feet of water, about 4 1/2 miles from Colchester Reef after a collision with the steamer Midvale while breaking ice in Lake Erie. The crew rescued themselves by walking across the ice to take shelter aboard the Midvale.

The vessel was located the following April almost four miles from the reported collision site, with seven feet of water above her decks. She was finally raised after four attempts on September 22, 1918 and towed to Bar Point, then to the Toledo Ship Building Co. for major repairs. During this rebuild, the Cort was refitted with straight sides and a flattened deck.

The Cort arrived at Conneaut, Ohio on October 17, 1918, for more rebuilding by the Pittsburgh Steamship Company and put back into operation.

She later stranded on Colchester Reef in Lake Erie in 1927, was abandoned for the insurance value, and rebuilt and sold again. During this rebuild, she was converted to a crane vessel to allow her to operate as more of a self-unloader. The Cort was purchased this time by Andrew H. Green, Jr. of the Lake Ports Shipping & Navigation Company of Detroit, Michigan.

In one other incident, this time in 1933, she was holed by ice in the Detroit River, while tied to the Nicholson Transit Company dock at Ecorse, Michigan and settled to the bottom.

The Henry Cort wrecked at Muskegon

The Henry Cort wrecked at Muskegon

The Henry Cort ended her days wrecked on the north side of the Muskegon channel break wall in Muskegon, Michigan on November 30, 1934. The 320-foot whaleback steamer hit the heavy stone breakwater after encountering a storm packing 45 mph winds.

The incident showcased a dramatic rescue attempt by the U.S. Coast Guard . One of the Coast Guard crew members, Jack Dipert, died after being washed out of the surfboat. His body has never been found.

Hundreds on shore watched while the Coast Guard then shot a line from the pier to the Henry Cort and all 25 men climbed hand over hand, or used an improvised breeches buoy, to find safety on the pier. From there, the men huddled together and slowly made the trek along the slippery rocks of the breakwater dodging huge waves that broke over their heads.

The Henry Cort on the rocks at Muskegon

The Henry Cort on the rocks at Muskegon

wrecked-henry-cortBroken in two by December’s winds and waves, the Henry Cort was declared a total loss. The vessel was scrapped in 1935.

Today, the wreck of the Henry Cort isn’t much to look at. It sits on the outside of the north breakwater in about 30 feet of water.

Take a video tour of the Henry Cort as she rests alongside the pier in Muskegon, Michigan.

Jack and Valerie van Heest surveyed the wreck in 2009 and captured the following still images: