Great Lakes Vessel Photography

 

I receive many requests for photos of Great Lakes vessels.  In some cases, I can easily locate an original photo of the vessel an individual is looking for, particularly if the vessel sailed in the 20th century.

 

However, significant problems arise in locating 19th century vessel photos and few people are aware of the scarcity of early Great Lakes vessel photos.  This article is designed to help people determine if a particular vessel image is likely to exist and where they might locate it.

 

To begin the discussion, a short history of photography is helpful.  The first successful photographic image was made in 1827, but photography didn’t become available outside the laboratory until about 1840 with the Daguerreotype.  These photos cost nearly a week’s wages for the average worker.  It wasn’t until about 1851 that the Collodion process made photography of moving objects possible, and photographers didn’t take much interest in Great Lakes vessel photography until after 1860.  As such, there are no photos of Great Lakes vessels known prior to 1851. 

 

The earliest known photo of a Great Lakes vessel is a Daguerreotype of the steamer Mayflower as she lay on the beach near Conneaut, Ohio in the winter of 1852/53.  Very few other photos of Great Lakes vessels are known from the 1850s.  A shot of the Lady Elgin at Northport, Michigan from about 1858 exists along with a handful (perhaps 4 or 5) other vessel photos believed to be from the 1850s.  Very few schooners were photographed until the late 19th century.  They were considered unglamorous work vessels and few people would pay to have a schooner photographed.  Nearly all photos taken before 1880 are consequently of steamers, often with unnamed schooners in the background.  One exception is an 1864 photo of the schooner George W. Ford, taken at Ontonagon, Michigan.

 

The Civil War was one of the major impetuses for the growth of field photography and as such, few Great Lakes vessel photos are known until after about 1865.  Only about thirty photos of Great Lakes vessels are believed to exist prior to 1865.  After the Civil War, photography became less expensive and many Great Lakes steamers were photographed.  Still the vast majority of steamers on the Lakes weren’t photographed until the 1880s. 

 

Many early steamers however, were drawn by noted artists.  Among the most important early Lake artists was Captain James Van Cleve.  Van Cleve served on Lake vessels in the 1820s – 1850s and was an accomplished artist.  He prepared a series of hand drawn manuscripts depicting the earliest Great Lakes vessels from the 1820s – 1850s, drawn from his memory of them.  Only a few original Van Cleve manuscripts still exist, but they are excellent sources for accurate views of important, early Lake vessels.  Another good source for early vessel drawings is Samuel Ward Stanton’s epic work American Steam Vessels.  Published in 1895, the work includes both ocean and Lake vessels from the 1820s to the 1890s.  Stanton’s drawings are done mostly from original lithographs.  Stanton was one of the most prominent marine artists of his day and ironically was lost in the sinking of the Titanic.

 

Many early paintings and lithographs exist of Great Lakes vessels at various collections around the Lakes.  The most important repositories for early Lake vessel paintings and lithographs are:

 

The Great Lakes Historical Society – Vermilion, Ohio

The Marine Museum of the Great LakesKingston, Ontario

The Dossin Maritime Museum – Detroit, Michigan

The Milwaukee Public Library – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Historical Collections of the Great LakesPerrysburg, Ohio

 

Many other small collections hold early Lake vessel lithos and paintings as well, but they can be difficult to locate.  Most of the important early Lake vessel lithos and paintings have been reproduced in books and periodicals at some point and can be located through their citation in the literature.

 

Great Lakes divers and historians will be disappointed to learn that the vast majority of Great Lakes vessels were never photographed.  It wasn’t until after 1890 that even half of the registered vessels on the Lakes were photographed.  There are numerous instances of Lake schooners that sailed well into the 20th century, for which no known photograph exists.  Prior to 1890, the odds of finding a photo of a given Lake vessel are not good, unless the vessel was a passenger steamer or had some notoriety.  Even the legendary steamer Merchant, the first iron hulled vessel on the Lakes, has no known photos.  She was lost in 1875, but only lithographs survive. 

 

The odds of finding Lake vessel photos and images are estimated as follows:

 

 

 

Steamers

Schooners

 

 

Photo

Litho

Photo

Litho

1840s

 

0%

0.5%

0%

0.5%

1850s

 

0.5%

0.5%

0%

0.5%

1860s

 

1%

5%

0.5%

0.5%

1870s

 

10%

35%

3%

5%

1880s

 

40%

40%

10%

10%

1890s

 

75%

70%

40%

25%

1900s

 

90%

90%

75%

35%

 

The table above reflects the estimated odds of finding an image of any known vessel from a given period of time.  It is estimated using the number of commercial vessels known on the Lakes during any period divided by the number of vessel images known from that period.  Percentages between 0% and 1% are shown as 0.5%, but are generally much lower.  As an example, the table above indicates that 3 of every 100 schooners on the Lakes in the 1870s was photographed during that period.  Likewise, 10 of every 100 steamers on the Lakes during the 1870s was photographed during that period.  Conversely, 3/4ths of the steamers on the Lakes in the 1890s were photographed during that period, but less than half of the schooners on the Lakes in the 1890s were photographed during that period.  It should be noted that certain sub types within steamers and schooners are over or under represented in images.  Work tugs and freight steamers are obviously far less common in images than passenger steamers.  Likewise, scow schooners are also far less common in images. 

 

In the 1900s, vessel photography became far more common and nearly all substantial commercial vessels were photographed.  The only commercial vessels that sometimes escaped photography after 1900 were scow schooners, fish tugs and some work tugs.  Photographers such as Andrew Young and Louis Pesha amassed huge collections of Great Lakes vessel images in the late 1890s and early 1900s.  Young’s collection contains several thousand images and is now at the Canadian National Archives at Ottawa. 

 

Individuals looking for photos of historic Lake vessels should begin their search by checking the most popular online indexes.  The two largest public collections with online searchable vessel photo indexes are the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes at Bowling Green State University and the Milwaukee Public Library.  In addition to these collections, those noted above for lithographs also have substantial photo collections.  Several private individuals have substantial Great Lakes vessel photo collections as well.  Among these collectors are C. Patrick Labadie, Ralph Roberts and Ken Thro. 

 

Some problems have arisen concerning the provenance of Great Lakes vessel images.  A small handful of photographers and original collectors created and/or assembled nearly all known photo collections around the Lakes.   The collections of Rick Wright, Ralph Roberts, Herman Runge, Louis Pesha, Pat Labadie, Andrew Young and Ken Thro probably account for 90% of the known historic photos of Great Lakes vessels.  All of these photographers/collectors traded images and it is consequently difficult to determine which collection to credit a given image to.  As a general rule, I credit an image to the collection that made the print I am using. 

 

Individuals with additional questions or corrections to the above can contact me at Brendon@baillod.com.