William A. Irvin

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William A. Irvin
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
Location: Duluth, Minnesota
Coordinates: 46°46′59.86″N 92°5′50.62″W / 46.7832944°N 92.0973944°W / 46.7832944; -92.0973944Coordinates: 46°46′59.86″N 92°5′50.62″W / 46.7832944°N 92.0973944°W / 46.7832944; -92.0973944
Built/Founded: 1938
Architect: American Ship Building Co., Lorain, OH
Governing body: Local
Added to NRHP: July 13, 1989
NRHP Reference#: 89000858 [1]

The SS William A. Irvin is a lake freighter which sailed as a bulk freighter on the Great Lakes as part US Steel's lake fleet. She was flagship of the company fleet from her launch in the depths of the depression in 1938 until 1975 and then as a general workhorse of the fleet until her retirement in 1978. Currently, this queen of the silver stackers is resting comfortably in Duluth, Minnesota, a well maintained example of a classic laker. The Irvin is a prime example of a straight decker, as it has no self unloading system


The Irvin was launched November 10, 1937 at the yards of the American Ship Building Company in Lorain, Ohio. Her maiden voyage began June 25, 1938 after outfitting in Lorain. The Irvin was first of a four vessel class, including the Irvin, Governor Miller, John Hulst and Ralph H. Watson, each costing about 1.3 million dollars. After christening by William Irvin's wife, Gertrude Irvin, and sea trials, the boat went to work hauling bulk materials from the tip of Lake Superior (Two Harbors, MN; Duluth, MN) down to US Steel's mills of Lakes Michigan and Erie (Lorain, OH; Conneut, OH; Gary, IN). She and her three sisters incorporated many technological features in their design and proved themselves excellent workers. The Irvin also hauled many company guests in the boat's exceptional luxury on behalf US Steel. She steamed for the Pittsburgh Steamship Division of US Steel for her entire career. August 27, 1940 the Irvin set a record by unloading 13,856 tons of ore in 2 hours and 55 minutes using Hulett Unloaders. This record still stands as of 2007 and is unlikely to be broken, because all ships today use automatic self-unloaders in the bottom of their cargo holds. The Irvin is one of few Great Lakes vessels to be retired still holding a current Great Lakes cargo record. The Irvin had one of the smallest capacities when the ship entered final layup in 1978 due to the addition of the fleet's first 1000' oreboat. The Irvin sat in layup in West Duluth for 8 years until a non-profit organization purchased her for $110,000 for an addition to their convention center along the Duluth waterfront. The Irvin was repainted and sealed up before heading to her final dock near the Aerial Lift Bridge where she sits today.


File:William Irvin 2.jpg
The bow of the William A. Irvin

The SS William A Irvin stretches 610' 9.75" feet overall with a beam (width) of 60 feet (18 m) and a depth of 32'6" feet. Her carrying capacity is 13,600 gross tons. The Irvin was one of few lakers built with a three-tiered bow cabin, as opposed to the standard two. The extra deck is used to house a suite of 4 guest cabins and a guest lounge. Also a part of the guest accommodations was a guest dining room located where the number two hatch would be on most lakers. Those parts of the boat are trimmed in oak paneling and walnut veneer with brass handrailings. The Irvin and her sisters were some of the first to be powered by DeLaval Cross steam turbines as opposed to the standard reciprocating triple expansion steam engines. The Irvin also included welding in much of her construction and was also the first to have all areas of the ship accessible from the interior of the ship which allowed the boat's crew to stay inside during rough weather. All parts of the Irvin, from the woodwork in the guest quarters to the brass in the engineroom, have all been well cared for by her dedicated volunteers.

William A. Irvin

William A. Irvin was the fourth president of the U.S. Steel company. After his father died while he was in the eighth grade, he dropped out of grade school to support his mother. He went straight to the mines and worked his way up to the corporations, where he eventually became president. His first wife died giving birth to their fifth child, so although he and his second wife, Gertrude Irvin, never had any children, she did take very good care of the first five. William and Gertrude were the very first guests onboard the Irvin, and the entire Irvin family was still around after the ship was built, giving them an opportunity to sail as guests together.


The Irvin can carry up to 14,000 tons of iron ore in either the processed taconite form, or the raw iron ore straight from the mines. About 90% of what the ship carried was taconite, although she did switch to coal and limestone for periods of time. The Irvin was equipped to carry grain, although it never did due to the problems associated with switching cargoes from taconite to grain. All cargo was loaded and unloaded through the top of the ship, through the 18 hatches on deck. All hatches were covered with large one-piece steel hatch covers, which weighed 5.5 tons per cover. After all the covers were lifted off and placed aside using the hatch crane, the cargo could be dumped to the bottom of the three holds, which would normally take 3-4 hours to complete. Unloading used Hulett cranes: cranes whose necks reach down to the bottom of the holds and grab 10-15 tons per bite, much like a large playground crane. After all the cargo was either in or out of the holds, the hatch covers would be replaced and clamped down using the dog-ear or butterfly clamps. Although the covers needed a crane to move them, they would need to be secured to ensure that they would not be dislodged by waves washing the decks during storms.

The Engine Room

The Irvin is powered by geared steam turbine engines, rather than the gigantic, two-story tall reciprocating engines normally used in older ore-carrying ships of the period. The steam comes from the boiler room in front of the engine room, powered by a gravity-fed coal burner. The coal bunker is directly above the boiler room, carrying up to 266 tons of coal total. This coal drops down to the twin-arm Firite spreaders, burning 1.2 tons of coal per hour to get the steam. The steam enters the first (high pressure) turbine, turning the shaft at 5,600 rpm. This is much too fast for the propeller to go, so the turbines use reduction gears to slow the propeller to only 90 rpm. The second (low pressure) turbine extracts additional power from waste steam from the high-pressure turbine, and their combined 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kW) would move the Irvin around the lakes at 11.1 mph (17.9 km/h) fully loaded. Totally empty, the Irvin would sail at 12.5 mph (20.1 km/h), making it the slowest ship in the entire fleet. (Normally, ships at the time would move 12-14 mph. Ships were created during that period which could sail at 20 mph (32 km/h), but were scrapped or repowered immediately due to the high coal consumption.) Communication was possible using either the Chadburn telegraph or the sound-powered telephones. The Chadburn receives signals from the pilothouse, which instructs the engineers downstairs how fast the propeller needs to go. Sound-powered telephones can be used to communicate with other parts of the ship at any time, and are especially useful for blackouts or other electrical emergencies.


  1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. http://www.nr.nps.gov/.