Here’s your guide to the most popular ships sailing the Great Lakes today.
MICHIGAN—Cutting through the water like scissors through paper, Great Lakes freighters—some more than 1,000 feet in length—sail from one end of the region to the next. The majestic beasts are beautiful up close, and from afar they resemble shadows on the horizon, rocking and rolling through the waves, delivering coal, ore, stone, and other materials essential to keeping our economy running.
To some, ships on the Great Lakes are reminders of loved ones who work or worked on boats. To others, they’re just beautiful to look at. Some have designated notebooks where they make note of when one freighter sails by, knowing that in a few day’s time they’ll see the ship again, on its way back with fresh cargo.
The ships sailing the Great Lakes today are, to some in the Great Lakes region, akin to celebrities. Groups on Facebook popular to “boat nerds” are sometimes filled with photos and comments from someone who saw a particular ship earlier in the day.
Some are popular for their history. The Arthur M. Anderson will forever be remembered for sailing alongside the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, the fateful night the “Big Fitz” sank into the depths of Lake Superior during a late-season storm.
Others are known for their size. There are a handful of boats longer than 1,000 feet on the lakes, and whenever someone has the chance to see them up close and personal they are usually awed by the size of the lakers.
Here are 10 of the most popular ships sailing the Great Lakes today, 10 ships that, according to groups of self-proclaimed “boat nerds” everyone should know.
Length: 519 feet
Built in 1942 by Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan, the SS Alpena has seen a lot of changes during its day. At one point it was the SS Leon Fraser. It also was once a longer ship, sailing at 639 feet from its maiden voyage in 1942 until 1990, when it was scaled back to 519 feet.
It was during that time that the Alpena was converted into a self-unloading freighter. Later that year, the ship was purchased by New Management Enterprises, which officially renamed it the Alpena.
The Alpena is currently the oldest ship sailing the lakes. It was damaged by a fire in 2015 while dry-docked in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Despite an estimated $3 million in damage, the ship was repaired and returned to service the following year.
Billy Samples is one person who said they liked the Alpena in part for its age.
“I believe she is the oldest on the lakes,” Samples commented on Facebook. “They keep her painted and looking good. I wonder what the crew thinks of her ? I’m sure newer boats would have more creature comforts.”
SS Arthur M. Anderson
Length: 767 feet
The Arthur M. Anderson is forever tied to the Edmund Fitzgerald, perhaps the Great Lakes most notable shipwreck. The Anderson was sailing behind the Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, when the “Big Fitz” sank off Whitefish Point in Lake Superior, taking all 29 of its crew with it. The Anderson was also the first ship to search for survivors of the Fitzgerald.
Hunter Wright said in a Facebook comment that the Anderson is his favorite vessel in part due to its history.
“Being from Michigan, it’s always neat to see her in action knowing she was the last ship to be in contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald,” he said. “She is a regal old girl and still shows beautifully.”
And the Anderson is a beautiful and successful ship in its own right. Built in 1952 at 647 feet and expanded to 767 feet in 1975, adding additional space for cargo in the process.
In 2015, the Anderson had its own mishap when it became stranded in ice while sailing on Lake Erie. Two years later, the ship was put into long-term lay-up in Minnesota before being returned to service in 2019.
Length: 410 feet
It’s certainly not the Great Lakes largest vessel, and it might not even be its coolest looking, but the SS Badger might be the most known ship on the lakes simply because of its purpose. The Badger is a 410-foot ferry, transporting people and vehicles between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, since 1953.
As historic boats still sailing the lakes go, the Badger is one of the most well liked. It’s the last coal-powered passenger ship on the lakes and is such a staple of the Great Lakes culture that in 2016 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Many love sharing their stories of being aboard the Badger for the trip across Lake Michigan and to Wisconsin.
“(It’s) the last coal burner operating on the lakes and also the one boat that the public can ride, excluding excursion boats and an occasional cruise ship,” said Andy Eckroth in a Facebook comment. “We crossed Lake Michigan on her in 1976, and I hope to make that trip again some day.”
Trips aboard the Badger have been delayed from time to time, with a stern issue in 2008 causing nearly a week of cancellations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, trips aboard the vessel were delayed for safety reasons.
James R. Barker
Length: 1,004 feet
The James R. Barker is one of the Great Lakes 1,000-foot freighters, making it a popular giant on the lakes. It was built in 1976 by the American Ship Building Company in Ohio. It’s owned and operated by the Interlake Shipping Company, being named after its Chairman of the Board.
The Barker was the third thousand-footer built for the Great Lakes. These vessels are restricted to the upper lakes of Michigan, Huron, Superior, and Erie because they’re too large to navigate through the Welland Canal connecting Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
One person who said they liked the Barker to other ships is Denice Mingus, who said their father worked at the American Ship Building site that constructed the vessel.
“The James R. Barker has one of the neatest dual tone whistles/horns often called the ‘Barker Bark,’” they said. “I beam with pride knowing my Dad literally had his hands in on the building of such a neat freighter.”
MV Kaye E. Barker
Length: 767 feet
Before it was the Kaye E. Barker, the ship was built as the Edward B. Greene, and then later was named the Benson Ford. Such is life for a Great Lakes freighter, switched between shipping companies and given a new name every time.
But the Barker has remained a popular beauty sailing the lakes throughout those changes. Launched in 1952, the Barker is a 767-foot ship known for primarily carrying taconite across the lakes.
In 2012, the Barker was given a remodel of sorts. It was repowered, with Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, swapping its steam turbine with two diesel engines.
MV Roger Blough
Length: 858 feet
See where it is now!
Built in 1972, the MV Roger Blough is a 858-foot Great Lakes freighter that has had a history of near misses and tragedy. From the get-go, tragedy surrounded the ship. Originally set to be launched in 1971, an engine room fire killed four people and damaged the ship before it could even take its trial runs.
In 1975, the ship was one of a few that helped search for crew that may have abandoned the Edmund Fitzgerald when that ship sank. It recovered a life raft from the Fitzgerald, but no crew were found.
Shortly after those incidents, the Blough found itself stuck in ice on Lake Erie for eight days in 1979. It was then laid up for six years due to a struggling economy. The ship ran aground in 2016 near Whitefish Bay, reporting some minor flooding.
Capping things off, in February 2021, the vessel caught fire while docked in Wisconsin.
Despite its history with mishaps, the vessel has brought joy to many who have seen it sail by. Carl Juchem said the Blough is his favorite Great Lakes ship because he was lucky enough to be invited to its launching as a youngster.
“Let me tell you how thrilling that was for a ten year old,” he commented. “I can still remember how Mrs. Blough had a hard time breaking the champagne bottle and then hearing my dad whisper how that was a bad omen.”
MV Stewart J. Cort
Length: 1,000 feet
The MV Stewart J. Cort was the first of the Great Lakes thousand-footer ships. Unlike most Great Lakes vessels, which were built in the Great Lakes region, the Cort was built in Mississippi in 1970.
According to boatnerd.com, the Cort was sailed up to the Lakes where it was cut apart using “Cut here” instructions painted on its hull. Two ends were assembled together in Pennsylvania and it eventually sailed the lakes for the first time in 1972.
STR Wilfred Sykes
Length: 678 feet
The STR Wilfred Sykes is a veteran of the Great Lakes, built in 1949. The ship set a few records early on for the amount of ore it carried across the lakes, and while those records would later be broken by larger, faster ships, the vessel continues to hold its own as a dependable freighter.
Late in life, the Sykes ran into its fair share of maintenance problems, according to Boatnerd.com. Boiler problems led to the ship’s layup in 2017. Damage sustained in 2018 led to another layup for repairs. By 2018, the ship was again a common site on the lakes.
Lee A. Tregurtha
Length: 826 feet
When it comes to Great Lakes ships, there might not be any boat with more history or with as unique a history as the Lee A. Tregurtha. The Tregurtha was built in 1942 as a tanker with the US Navy. Then named the Chiwawa, the vessel was attacked once but survived a battle that sank four other ships in its convoy. It continued serving as an Atlantic cargo ship for the US until 1946, when it was decommissioned.
But the Tregurtha’s career was far from over. The ship was rebuilt as a Great Lakes freighter and renamed the SS Walter A. Sterling. The conversion meant adding 510-feet of cargo holds into the ship’s midsection. The Sterling would later be told again, renamed the William Clay Ford, and then sold a final time to the Interlake Steamship Co., where it was renamed the Lee A. Tregurtha.
The Tregurtha was inactive for most of 2020 due to the pandemic, but as of November 2021, the ship is once again active and sailing.
MV Paul R. Tregurtha
Length: 1,013 feet
The Paul R. Tregurtha is known around the Great Lakes region as the “Queen of the Lakes,” a title slapped onto the longest ships sailing the lakes. Built in 1981, the ship was launched originally as the William J. De Lancey, the most recent of the 13 thousand-footer ships on the lakes.
The De Lancey was renamed the Tregurtha in 1990. The giant ship has had its share of incidents, as well, sustaining damage after being stuck in ice in 2008 and running aground in 2012 and 2014.
The size of the Tregurtha makes it a site to see in person. Diane Ripke said the vessel has been a favorite of hers for years.
“We even vacation in Duluth, Mn. In hopes of it coming in the canal,” she said on Facebook. “We have a cottage on Lake Huron and this summer it went by our cottage and it was exciting. My husband has the ship app and I knew it was her by the white cabin in the back.”
Others like watching how a vessel of such size can navigate the shipping channels on the lake.
“She is so majestic in the open waters,” Joy Friedman said of the Tregurtha in a Facebook comment. “Watching her maneuver upbound & downbound at the Soo Locks is such an amazing sight.”