Ashtabula stockholders invested in Normania

The shipping season of 1909 delivered nothing but progress to Ashtabula Harbor.

The first four of eight Hulett electric unloaders went online that summer at the Lake Shore’s (New York Central) Superior extension docks on the river’s east side. As the operators became comfortable with the behemoths’ controls, ore unloading records began to fall. Meanwhile, nearly 250 men worked on the Lake Shore’s docks that would accommodate the ore shipments for Jones & Laughlin mills.

In their haste to unload and drive the hundreds of piles required to create the slip, Frank Ferguson, a foreman, was nearly killed in October. A piling, thrown out of a rail car, struck Ferguson on the side of his head, knocked out a few teeth and dislocated his jawbone. The timber hit O. Else, a worker, in the chest and knocked him 10 feet. A couple of days later, Antonio Pondico, 45, was crushed between a rail car and clam bucket filled with coal and being swung into the hold of a vessel. He died on the way to the hospital and left behind a wife and seven children, still in Italy. He was saving his money to bring them to the United States, where a daughter and son already lived.

Such was the nature of work and life in The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

Also in 1909, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated on the west side, announced an investment of $100,000 in its Ashtabula docks at Ashtabula; the work would be done during the winter of 1909-1910. That August, a steam shovel devoured slices of Point Park, “what was once the pride of the north end,” as the prime real estate was removed to make way for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks to the lakefront. The dirt thus removed was used to fill low spots where the coal and ore cars would terminate their journey to the docks.

Mean, the pay cars of both The Lake Shore and Pennsylvania railroads delivered glad tidings to workers; in August, 1909, the biggest pay day in two years put extra dollars into the railroaders’ pockets and Ashtabula economy.

A deal between the city and Great Lakes Engineering was signed that summer, as well. Although the shipyard failed to bring the touted economic boom to the city, it built Liberty Ships during World War I and provided drydock facilities for smaller lake vessels for several decades.

Port lists attest to the volume of bulk carrier business handled at The Harbor. On a typical day, a dozen ore boats arrived at The Harbor and as many cleared the port.

The steamer Normania was among those received in August. Its arrival was received with much fanfare, for the Normania had a strong hometown connection: Many of its shareholders were Ashtabula investors, who came to The Harbor the afternoon of August 15 to see what their $300,000 had purchased.

Normania was built the prior year at the St. Clair, Michigan, works of Great Lakes Engineering. She was 420 feet long, 52 feet wide and drew 24 feet. Gross tonnage was 4,871; net, 4705. The steel hull was number 39 for the shipbuilder.

There is no explanation for its name, but the owners were incorporated as the Ashtabula Steamship Company. The Normania appears to have been the firm’s only project. Pickens-Mather & Co. managed the vessel, which  was skippered by Captain Oscar Olesen of Ashtabula.

He welcomed 15 of the shareholders onto the vessel that evening as its cargo of iron ore was unloaded. The tables were set with “a lunch that would have done credit to the swell hotels of New York city.” The owners then toured the vessel, which, according to the Ashtabula Beacon-Record, was “a model of utility, convenience and comfort. … The cabins are neat and commodious, affording ample accommodations for the crew and officers. Each department is provided with private bath rooms and each gang-way has a separate shower bat equipment. The passenger rooms are elegantly appointed, with their tall, brass bedsteads, chiffoniers, private lavatories, electric lights and fans.” The rooms compared favorably to those in “leading hotels.”

After eight years of ownership, the Ashtabula Steamship Company sold the vessel to the Ottawa Transit Co. of Mentor (Lake County). An act of the 64th Congress, June 22, 1916, approved changing the vessel’s name to William F. Stifel. It retained that name when it was sold to Columbia Steamship Co. in 1921 and to Oglebay Norton Co. in 1958.

By then, the 420-foot-long vessel was too aged and inefficient for the lake trade, and she was sold through Marine Salvage, Ltd., of Port Colborne, Ontario, to Italian shipbreakers. The Normania, which had proudly sailed into Ashtabula Harbor, her colors floating in a stiff breeze, to meet her owners some 51 years prior, arrived in tow at Savona, Italy, Dec. 27, 1960, for scrapping.

Such was the way of life and work at The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

by

Writer, photographer, video producer and film collector, Carl E. Feather has a passion for Appalachia and its people and landscape.

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