In 1953, the 600-foot-long, 70-foot-wide Marine Angel transited the Chicago River. The freighter had only seven inches of clearance on each side at Van Buren Street, and was the largest ship to ply the river.
Even now, one has to gasp and wonder how the hell that happened!
On the eve of World War II, the United States Maritime Commission was created to revitalize the United States Merchant Marine. During the War, the Commission oversaw the production of thousand of transport vessels including Liberty ships (2,710), Victory ships (534), and Type C4 transports (75). Many of these vessels became surplus when the war ended and were stored in the reserve fleet at James River, Virginia.
In 1950 the United States became involved in the Korean conflict and iron ore was once again in strong demand. Unfortunately, lake carriers lacked capacity and shipyards on the Lakes could not produce boats fast enough. In late 1950, Cleveland-Cliffs announced it would convert a surplus Victory ship to a Great Lakes bulk carrier. Many questioned the wisdom. It took Bethlehem Shipbuilding in Baltimore only 90 days to build new forward cabins, add 165 feet to the midsection, and reconfigure the deck so hatches were compatible with standard lake boats.
Renamed Cliffs Victory, she was now 620 feet long with a 62-foot beam. The next task – move her to the Lakes (there was no St. Lawrence Seaway yet). She would be towed down the Atlantic coast, across the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi River, through the Illinois Waterway, and into Lake Michigan. Her superstructure was removed and stowed in the cargo hold so she would clear low bridges, and pontoons were fitted so she could make it through shallow sections of the canal system. The 3,000-mile journey from Baltimore to Chicago took 37 days. Work was completed at American Shipbuilding in South Chicago and she entered service in June of 1951. Total time for conversion was less than 6 months, compared with more than 13 months required for a new vessel. Interestingly, it took only 42 days to build the original Victory ship.
Following this success, Great Lakes fleets acquired six surplus C4-class vessels for conversion. One of these was the Marine Angel, built in 1945 by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company (Chester, PA). She was acquired by Amersand Steamship Company in 1952 and converted to a Laker at the Maryland Drydock Company (Baltimore, MD). When she emerged from the yard, she was 634 feet long with a 72-foot beam, and sported a fuller “laker” bow.
Marine Angel’s long journey to the Lakes ended on March 5, 1953, when she was towed slowly down the Chicago River, through the heart of the city with its many bridges, and then into Lake Michigan. Officials of the towing company described the job as a “routine tow.” As she cleared the double-decked Lake Shore Drive Bridge, one last obstacle remained. The lock separating Lake Michigan and the Chicago River was only 600 feet long while the Marine Angel was 634 feet. Normal lock procedures would not work.
To “cleanse” the river and prevent contamination of drinking water, the Chicago River’s flow was reversed in 1900. The harbor lock is required to control the amount of water flowing from Lake Michigan into the river. Historically, the difference in water level between the lake and river is less than 2 feet.
As she approached, the lockmaster opened the riverside gate and the Marine Angel was eased in until her bow nearly touched the lakeside gate. Large hawsers were run from her winches to mooring posts. The lakeside gate was then opened. With both gates open, she winched forward against the onrushing water until the riverside gate could be closed. The Marine Angel was now on Lake Michigan.
After a short stop at American Shipbuilding in South Chicago, the Marine Angel proceeded to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where self-unloading equipment would be installed. She arrived at Manitowoc Shipbuilding on March 13, 1953. Work was completed and the boat, renamed McKee Sons, departed Manitowoc in October 1953.
The McKee Sons sailed as a steamer until 1979. For more than 10 years she lay idle. Then, in 1991, she was acquired by the Upper Lakes Towing Company and converted to a barge. In December of 2014, after more than 2 years of inactivity, she was moved to long-term storage at Muskegon where she sits today facing an uncertain future.