The story of the S.S. Greater Detroit steamship

Steamship was burned on Detroit River in 1956

By Alex Atwell - Photojournalist , Ken Haddad

DETROIT - The S.S. Greater Detroit was one of the two largest steamships ever built on the Great Lakes. It made its maiden voyage in 1924. A piece of this great ship was recently recovered from the Detroit River - its anchor.

The Great Lakes Maritime Institute coordinated the recovery of the anchor. The rescue effort included sending out a barge with a large crane that went to the site. A group of three volunteer divers dove down to attach a chain to the anchor and it was pulled to the surface.

The Greater Detroit had 625 staterooms and a dining room capacity of 375. The most expensive accommodation was $15.00, and included twin beds, a couch, toilet, shower, bathtub and an outside veranda.

"And to give you an idea of how huge these things were - the Greater Detroit was 536 feet long. If you were to stand the Greater Detroit up straight it would be 40 feet taller than the Guardian building,” said Dan Austin of Historic Detroit.

“These were huge boats and they were decked to the nines with all sorts of frescoes, and fancy wood work. They were palaces - they were floating palaces. They had all the amenities of your top-flight hotels and so if you wanted to get from Detroit to Buffalo or Detroit to Cleveland, you would take one of these boats. This was before the freeway system, this was before airline travel."

The Greater Detroit and its smaller fleet the Eastern States went idle from 1951 to 1956. Near the end, the public was invited on board to buy whatever they wanted - dining room sets, carpets, chairs and murals.

"Sadly, by 1950, all of the steamers had stopped running, and in 1956, they moved the Greater Detroit and its smaller fleet out to the middle of the Lake St. Clair and set them on fire (see video below). It was easier to get rid of all the wood and fancy plaster and frescoes and everything else on board by just burning the thing instead of having workers Hack it to pieces."

There was just one problem: Steamships are powered by steam and the Greater Detroit hadn't run in 6 years - there wasn't any power to raise the 6,000 pound anchor.

The anchor line had to be cut to move the boat. It rested at the bottom of the Detroit River for more than 60 years.

"I never saw any of these boats, they were all long gone before I was born. So, I've been able to connect with them only through pictures and artifacts. So, this is like an actual piece of the boat that nobody has seen in 60 years,” said Austin.

“It's also a really big piece - it's 6,000 pounds. I do think that when people see this thing on display, it will help them get an appreciation for how incredibly big these boats were."

"There's so little left of this legacy. The anchor is not the most glamorous piece of that past but it certainly is a tangible piece. Anyone who looks at photos or video of these majestic steamships and never saw them in person like myself, to have any tangible piece that we can look at, touch, see, it helps make the distant past or present today."

If you'd like to donate to the recovery project, you can find details here.

VIDEO: Historic footage of the steamship being burned on Lake St. Clair (Courtesy: Great Lakes Maritime Institute)

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