From Cruiseship to Warship

This article is reprinted from Lakeland Boating, February 2001 Vol LV, No. 2, Evanston, IL

From Cruiseship to Warship

The conversion of the Seeandbee and Greater Buffalo to the U.S.S. Wolverine and Sable.

Older readers of Lakeland Boating may remember the magnificent Seeandbee and Greater Buffalo. Both cruiseships were designed by Frank E. Kirby, one of the foremost marine architects of the day. Not only did they take many Cleveland and Detroit residents on their honeymoons to Niagara Falls in their second incarnation, these cruiseships also served the country during World War 11.

In the early years, paddle-wheelers were favored on the Great Lakes because of their high maneuverability and shallow draft. They could carry tons of cargo and hundreds of passengers to places that were inaccessible to schooners and screw-driven vessels. Many areas of the lakes were opened to settlement and development by paddle-wheelers. Traditional side-wheelers were in particular demand on Lake Erie. They had many advantages: The sponson construction provided greater room than a propeller of equal length; the paddles were steadier in a choppy sea; and there was less vibration – all valuable traits for a passenger boat. By 1900, steam engines could produce in excess of 20,000 hp, and the era of the giant paddle-wheeler was about to begin. It would last for almost 50 years.

The Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company owned a large number of Lake Erie passenger and freight steamers. The company was founded in 1893 and by 1911, its gross earnings had risen by more than 400 percent and the company was ready for further expansion. This included the construction of the world’s largest inland water
passenger steamer. She was 500 feet long with a 98 foot beam, housing six decks, 510 staterooms and 24 lounges. Her engines provided 12,000 hp, allowing her to cruise at 18 mph. The ship was launched at Wyandotte, Michigan in November 1912 and made her maiden voyage the following June. She was launched without a name, adorned instead with large question marks on each side of the bow. As part of a vast marketing
campaign to drum up excitement for the maiden voyage, the company was holding a “Name the Ship” contest. The winning name was submitted by a schoolgirl and Seeandbee was painted on the bow when the great steamer arrived in Buffalo for the first time on June 19, 1913.

Thousands of people jammed the lakefront to watch the enormous vessel with its four great smokestacks
maneuver up to the dock. Those lucky enough to be invited aboard found themselves in a huge Edwardian palace. Passengers entered through a lobby on the main deck. Here were the pursers’ and stewards’ offices, the ship’s telephone switchboard and the checkroom. Aft was the huge main dining room. Above the main deck were three decks of staterooms and parlors and in the center, the grand saloon – a huge room, three decks high. All the passenger areas were finished in mahogany and ivory.
Usually, the heaviest traffic was Friday evening out of Cleveland. The ship returned early on Saturday for a fairly large number of people who left on that day. The ship then brought all the weekenders back on Sunday night. There were many rumors about who traveled on the ship and how they arranged their accommodations, as most of the staterooms were doubles. One popular legend claimed that all the passengers were married – but not to their cabinmates.

The ship operated as a night boat until 1932, although the LaFolette Seaman’s Act of 1915 required the vessel carry such large crews that she could only run profitably between May 15 and September 15. By 1932, the economy had declined and the Seeandbee was temporarily retired. In 1933, she returned for lake cruises, but by 1937, the company had filed for
bankruptcy. It reorganized and tried to raise enough money to run the Seeandbee as a cruiseship, but the attempt failed. She was leased to another company in 1940 and sold to the U.S. Navy in 1942.

As for the Greater Buffalo, her story begins in the 1920’s. By then, the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company was the largest passenger and package freight fleet on the lakes. The company had prospered during WWI, and as the United States moved into the affluent 1920’s, the company’s thoughts turned to expansion. This meant two new ships designed by Frank E. Kirby.

Over the next two years, the ships were built in Lorain, Ohio and were launched in 1924 as the Greater Buffafo and the Greater Detroit. Each steamer was 518 feet long with a beam of l00 feet. They were the largest passenger ships on the lakes and the largest true paddle-steamers ever built. They had four decks, with the main saloon on the promenade deck. The saloon rose though two decks and galleries on either side gave access to the staterooms. Each ship had more than 1,500 berths.

The interior was designed by the New York firm of W&J Sloane & Co. in an adaptation of the Renaissance style. Both ships went into service on the company’s longest run between Detroit and Buffalo. Through 1929, the D&C operated at a profit. That year, it carried more freight tonnage than ever before. Revenues exceeded all years prior. But at the beginning of 1930, things began to change rapidly. By the end of the year, revenues had fallen by more than 25 percent. This was repeated in 1931 and again in 1932.

The two great ships were put out of commission through 1938. A year later, there were signs of business picking up and the two ships returned to service until the 1942 season, when the U.S. Navy bought the Greater Detroit for conversion to a
side-wheel aircraft carrier.

U.S.S. Sable Specs
Displacement – 16,000 lbs.
Flight deck –  535 feet
Aircraft –  488 landings/day
Speed –  18 knots

The two ships chosen as training carriers – the Seeandbee and the Greater Buffalo – had flight decks of similar length to the Independence class light carriers, so these two makeshift carriers could be used to train naval pilots to land without tying up seafaring combat units. The U.S.S Sable and U.S.S. Wolverine, as the new carriers were renamed, worked seven days a week throughout the year. In the winter, they were escorted by Coast Guard icebreakers.

The lack of hangar decks gave them a low freeboard and their coal-fired boilers provided them with a slow speed, which must have required great skill of the trainee pilots. Throughout the war, the two ships operated on Lake Michigan out of Chicago. They trained more than 35,000 pilots, who made more than 120,000 carrier landings. Among those who finished their training on these ships is former President George Bush. On August 24, 1943, Bush, flying an Avenger, qualified in carrier landing on board the Sable. On that day, he made six carrier landings and six deck run takeoffs in a little more than two hours. Despite their status as the only freshwater carriers ever built, both ships were retired in 1945 and later were
broken up for scrap. It’s a pity that no one had the foresight to maintain these noble vessels as memorials to those who did not return from the war. – Steven Duff