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Duluth festival recalls long-gone Great Lakes era

The Pride of Baltimore II cuts a proud profile as it sails into the Duluth-Superior harbor in 2011. The ship is back in town this week for the 2016 Tall Ships Duluth festival. (News Tribune file photo)

DULUTH, Minn.—Beginning today, people will come in droves to the Tall Ships Duluth festival. They will celebrate and marvel at the majesty on display, but it's worth remembering a time when the ships fueled more industries than tourism.

Whether packed with Navy sailors or loaded with timber, tall ships once ruled the Great Lakes.

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Pat Labadie, 76, used to sit at his grandfather's knee and get lost in time as the romantic world of Great Lakes tall ships unfolded with one tale after another.

"I was his audience and I grew up not wanting anything more than to learn about that world he described to me," said Labadie, who would go on to become a maritime author, shipwreck diver, historian and museum director, including the first director of what is now Duluth's Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.

Retired, but still teaching maritime history in Alpena, Mich., Labadie recalled in a telephone interview the heyday of tall ships on the Great Lakes.

His sepia-toned recollections conjured a loud and bustling America, where there were shipbuilders at ports all across the lakes — with heavy concentrations in the more eastern ports such as Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y.

Before the completion of the Soo Locks in 1855, tall ships were portaged from the St. Marys River and into Lake Superior using timber rollers and towed by horses. Those vessels were used to carry grain, timber, iron ore and coal from the heartland that was being summoned at breakneck pace to help fuel the fast-developing nation. Everything that was needed to settle a country was moving on water.

By 1871, there were 2,000 sailing craft on the lakes compared to about 400 of the newer steamboats, said Labadie.

Alas, that was the zenith of the tall ships, as the ratio would bend wildly away from them in a move toward the engine-driven freighters that were larger and could carry many times more cargo through a developing system of locks that now number 16 between Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean.

Prior to that evolution, tall ships were king. Afterward, their masts were cut down and the ships were towed by tugs as barges that required only paltry manpower compared to what it takes to crew a sailing vessel.

"The wind only works if you have the muscle to adjust the sails to use it," said Walter Rybka, senior captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of the battleship that will be in Duluth this week.

During the War of 1812 and subsequent Battle of Lake Erie, the Niagara featured some 150 sailors — its most important cargo.

"They barely did fit," Rybka said, noting the 110-foot deck of the Niagara. "It would have been one stinking sardine can. But you needed to be able to absorb casualties and still be able to work the ship."

Another tall ship in town this weekend, the Pride of Baltimore II, exemplified the superiority of American shipmaking. Having snuck into port Monday night — through the Superior entry and quietly into Loon's Foot Marine, the famed Baltimore clipper-style vessel lived up to its reputation as it worked to evade detection in advance of the weekend's crowds.

With a skilled tactician at the helm, a ship like the Pride could outrun a blockade of enemy naval vessels. Additionally, it could be used as a deft privateer — a government-sanctioned ship used to overtake the commercial ships of the enemy.

"They were extremely fast," said Pride Captain Jordan Smith. "A vessel like this one would be used for anything where speed comes in handy — either chasing things or running away."

It wasn't uncommon for a privateer to carry as many as 100 men. Commercial vessels overtaken by privateers were immediately manned by a prize crew that would sail the captured ship into a friendly port to be sold.

But during most of the 19th century, a Baltimore clipper could have never made it into the Great Lakes from the Pride's current home in Annapolis, Md. Fierce rapids between Quebec and Montreal prevented seafaring ships from entering the Great Lakes.

The ships that did sail the Great Lakes often were poorly maintained, Labadie said, contributing to their eventual decline. Many rest at the bottom of the lakes, and Labadie recalled a harrowing diving expedition on the Lucerne, a tall ship that wrecked during a storm in November 1886 — just 13 years after she was launched.

Loaded with iron ore and bound for Cleveland, the Lucerne went to the bottom of Lake Superior just south of Madeline Island and less than 10 miles offshore from Washburn. The Lucerne was found with three of its men lashed to its rigging and frozen in ice.

Labadie dove the Lucerne to spread the ashes of a friend and fellow diver over the wreck.

"It gives me a chill," Labadie said. "I certainly remember it well."

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