Saturday Six #15: Freighter Fun Facts

Sometimes I’m on the fence about doing research for my historical novels. I absolutely love making discoveries that will fit into the books, but I confess to being a terrible nonfiction reader. It takes me forever to complete research, whether using primary or secondary sources, and I get distracted very easily. It’s a wonder I made it through college and grad school!

But speaking of those discoveries, I learned a lot of really interesting facts about Great Lakes shipping in the early 20th century. And I’ll tell you, it’s not a topic I ever thought I would know so much about! Some of these fun facts make an appearance in my novel, but some don’t. Here’s a little peek.

Winter Layup. Today, with the technology of ice-cutters, and with the lakes often not freezing solid anymore, shipping can go year-round, for the most part. But a hundred years ago, even the most massive of freighters took a rest for approximately four months each year, from early December through the end of March. These were the months that crew members could spend with their families.

From the December 7, 1897 Marine Review, this picture depicts Jack Frost shutting down the shipping industry for the winter.

Hot Bunking. For many crew, there were only half as many beds as men. When one went off duty, another went on, and they shared a bed. “Hot bunking” means that when the off-duty sailor climbed into his shared bunk, it was still warm. The captain and the chief steward (cook) were two crew members who had not only their own beds, but their own quarters, as well.

Women on Board. Some men who held the position of chief steward brought along their wives as assistant steward, an official job title. They got to live and work together aboard the boat, and I imagine for many, this was the best of both worlds. (Side Note: Great Lakes freighters are typically called boats, not ships.)

The Food. Simply speaking, it was legendary. The galley crew worked hard to provide top-notch meals to the sailors, a great comfort for men spending two-thirds of the year away from their families. In addition to keeping shelf-stable items and purchasing food in port when possible, they often met with supply boats along the way in order to acquire fresh ingredients.

The Post Office Boat. Since 1874, the only floating zip code in the world has been a boat in the Detroit River. When freighters pass by, postal workers pass along the mail using a rowboat, a rope, and a bucket. Before modern communication methods came into play, this was probably the most dependable way for family members to contact their loved ones working on the lakes. Today the boat is named the J.W. Westcott II, and the 48222 zip code is still in operation for those who wish to send “pail mail” to freighter workers.

A modern photo of the J.W. Prescott II approaching a freighter in the Detroit River for a mail delivery.

Guest Quarters. In addition to crew quarters, many cargo freighters also included a limited number of cabins for guests, and they were luxurious. Shipping company owners could invite friends, family, or associates, for business, pleasure, or both. It was a breathtaking way for Midwesterners to escape the hot, humid summer months. (Spoiler Alert: This fun fact inspired the whole premise of my novel!)

Uncovering information like this (and a ton more, too) took me directly into the lives of these Great Lakes sailors and their families, and that’s where I found my inspiration. People have always lived and loved and fought and hurt and lost, and imagining them doing it under circumstances wholly different from our own is the most exciting part of writing.

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