Robert Wallace led an active career from about 1850 to just after 1900
in building the Great Lakes shipping industry. What he know about him
doesn?t come from a biography or an old Who?s Who (I checked for both)
but rather from newspaper accounts of the time and the occasional
academic monograph. And from the fact that there were two ships named
after him ? one of which was in the news last year.
There are many holes on this account: for example we don?t know his
birth date, nor do we have a copy of his obituary.
GLOBE IRON WORKS
In 1853, Wallace and three other men --- H. D. Coffinberry, J. B.
Cowle and J.F. Pankhurst founded Globe Iron Works to build the boilers
and machinery for steamers. Coffinberry was president; Pankhurst the
vice-president and lead engineer; Wallace the secretary but clearly
there were engineering responsibilities shared among them.
In this 1910 history from the Annual Report of the Lake Carriers
Association, it credits Robert Wallace with designing the first
self-unloading carrier in the spring of 1867:
Cleveland State University
?History of the Iron Ore Trade? (1910)
Though it?s not clear what Globe Iron Works did during the Civil War,
it?s likely that its production turned to machinery for rail and naval
transport. And given the later history of American Shipbuilding at
the end of the 19th Century, it?s possible that they produced
munitions as well.
In 1881, the partners formed the Globe Shipbuilding Co. at River
Street and St. Paul in Cleveland. They had supplied the mechanical
workings of more than 100 ships but construction was changing from
wooden ships to metal ? to their benefit. By the 1870s, as the
?History of the Iron Ore Trade? indicates, power had shifted from sail
to steam. But hulls were still of wood.
After the formation of Globe Shipbuilding, they built the first iron
hulled ship to ply the Great Lakes. The Onoko was at first derided as
a ?tin pan? but the 302? long freighter was for a time the largest
freighter on the lakes, capable of carrying 3,000 tons. That would
change continually, first as it was supplanted by the first
steel-hulled ship in 1886, also built by American Shipbuilding. The
Spokane was that ship, launched in 1886, at 324? long.
The Detroit Tribune article, linked below, is very interesting because
it shows the uncertainty of the success of the iron-hulled vessel.
Built for $150,000, the Spokane was thought to be capable of carrying
2,300 tons ? only 15% more than a comparable wood hulled-vessel. She
was built the same year as the 270? Walulla ? but the Spokane cost
$150,000 and the Walulla only $100,000.
Walter Lewis? Maritime History of the Great Lakes
?The Great Lakes Marine,? (Detroit Tribune, June 10, 1886)
History of the Great Lakes
?John Beswick Cowle? (undated)
The company known by that name was organized by Coffinberry and
Wallace in August, 1887. The facility that served as its home based
was purchased from the Cleveland Steam Furnace Company. The yards
were between Central, Detroit and West River streets in Cleveland,
with about 700? of frontage on the Cuyahoga River. The facility
produced its own steel plate. It acquired shipyards around Lake Erie,
then in 1889 acquired the Chicago Shipbuilding company.
By 1888, iron ore finally supplanted lumber, grain and food crops as
the majority of Great Lakes shipping. (Even the iron-hulled Onoko was
initially a grain carrier.) This resulted in the deepening of the
locks at St. Sault Marie in the mid-1890s ? then the construction of
ships that were more than 400? long. The first of those was built by
Chicago Shipbuilding ? a subsidiary acquired by American Shipbuilding
in 1889. In 1895 the first of the 400-footers appeared ? the Victory.
By the time an account of the Cleveland ship yards appeared in the New
York Times on Jan. 26, 1892, the city?s activities would be referred
to as ?making at the head of all shipbuilding ports in the United
States, both in ship tonnage produced annually and in the quality of
the output.? Globe Iron Works was still active as a separate company
? and Cleveland Shipbuilding is the lead company in the city?s
It was 1899 when the company changed its name to American
Shipbuilding, spurred by the merger of Union Dry Dock Company and
Cleveland Shipbuilding. At the time of the merger, made public in the
May 6, 1899 New York Times, Mark Hanna, senator from Ohio and
financier, was the largest shareholder ? and Robert Wallace is listed
as the second largest owner. (An interesting side note is that Hanna
was a major supporter of William McKinley in the presidential race of
1896, which McKinley won.)
Hanna?s involvement and interest in the company almost certainly
started earlier in the 1890s, being from Cleveland and being active in
the iron & coal trade. In October, 1898 there were reports of Wallace
and Cleveland Shipbuilding trying to raise $200 million in a
multi-firm trust to build the largest shipbuilding, gun-making and
armor-plate manufacturing firm in the world. A number of famous names
were associated with the scheme, including R.J. Gatling, the inventor
of the machine gun that carried his name. Undoubtedly Hanna would
have been involved in financial discussions in that era of trusts.
Though those talks appear to have resulted in little, it did result in
Hanna?s involvement in the 1899 merger. On Oct. 6, 1904 when James A.
Wallace takes over as the firm?s president, the capital of the company
is listed at $70 million, which though short of $200 million is still
Though it has some errors in its short accounting of the history of
American Shipbuilding and its acquisitions, the following website has
a complete list of ships built by the company ? right from hull #1:
Marine Business Strategies, LLC
?American Shipbuilding ? Record of Pre-WWII Shipbuilding? (undated)
Steve Vanden Bosch?s very good history of shipbuilding on the Great
Lakes lists all of the ships built and active after 1900. It has all
of the American Shipbuilding yards, including the Chicago Shipbuilding
Here?s a complete copy of ?Green?s Maritime Directory of 1916,?
published in Cleveland. It includes listings of the Robert Wallace
and James A. Wallace, as well as pictures of the J.G. Schiller ? one
of American Shipbuilding?s other lake ore carriers. It?s almost 400
pages long, so you may find other tidbits of interest in it ? and the
pictures are classics:
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
?Green?s Maritime Directory,? (1916)
TALE OF 2 SHIPS NAMED ROBERT WALLACE
The first Robert Wallace, which was involved in the ore trade, sunk
off Marquette, MI in 1886 along with the sister ship the David
Wallace. Though it caught fire and was sunk in November 18, 1886 in
Lake Michigan, I initially was confused because it sank for a second
time in 1902. Which account was incorrect? Below is reference to the
1886 incident on a Coast Guard page:
U.S. Coast Guard
?A Historical Overview?
Then, on the excellent Maritime History of the Great Lakes web page, I
ran into the account of the recovery of the Robert Wallace, which had
been locked in by ice. After recovery it went back into service in
The ship then sank in Lake Superior in November, 1902 and was lost for
decades until a team of divers identified the ship last summer.
Except that they were wrong and they found the ?Thomas Friant?
The report in which they think they?ve found the Wallace:
Cyber Diver News Network (July 21, 2004)
Oops!! (Sept. 7, 2004)
An account of the sinking is here, ?She was downbound towing the
like-laden barge Ashland in a gale. The wildly bucking barge tore the
stern off the Wallace, causing her to swamp and sink. Ashland coasted
in to take off the Wallace's crew.? As the Friant error indicates,
the exact location of the sinking is not known ? and marine historians
debate whether the lost ship is in Minnesota or Wisconsin waters of
Great Lakes Shipwrecks -- W
The ?Robert Wallace? built by Amship was finished in 1903 in the
Buffalo shipyard and was the 204th hull laid by the company. I could
find no record of what happened to the ship ? nor any pictures. But
you will find it listed in the Green?s Maritime Directory mentioned
above ? and here too:
Marine Business Strategies, LLC
?American Shipbuilding ? Record of Pre-WWII Shipbuilding? (undated)
Some other resources that might help as you investigate the topic further:
Jim Hoffman?s collection of photographs of Great Lakes freighters:
This search took a little longer than expected because I wanted to
check both the Cleveland Digital Library?s collection ? and the
Smithsonian for pictures. Image databases are harder to search
because of the way they?re stored and the fact that they aren?t text
either. I?ve linked the best collections because you may find
material in them that is useful, even if I didn?t find a picture of
the ?Robert Wallace.? Note that you can use Google?s site: search
capability to look at only these websites for either:
?Robert Wallace? or
The Cleveland Digital Library is at Cleveland State University:
?Cleveland Digital Library?
The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress collections are even more
frustrating, being organized into collections the way that they were
acquired. Happily, they?ve improved the indexing at the Library of
Library of Congress
?Prints & Photographs Collection?
The National Archives are tougher because many of the links are to
pages that are off-site, so you can?t even use Google to index the
GOOGLE SEARCH STRATEGY:
?American Shipbuilding? + ?Robert Wallace?
?American Shipbuilding? + Steinbrenner
A couple of things not to forget: do a site: search on particularly
promising websites, as the Googlebot may miss key details due to the
structure of the database or eve spelling errors. This technique was
especially helpful when I fell upon the ?Great Lakes Maritime History?
page ? and succeeded in finding the Detroit Tribune 1886 article that
indicated that the Robert Wallace who invented the self-unloaded was
indeed the Robert Wallace who founded American Shipbuilding. I?d
recommend strongly going back to the ?Great Lakes Maritime History?
page as the site has 186 documents mentioning Robert Wallace ?
including maritime almanacs and lists of crew that served on the ship.
Another important resource is the New York Times index, available via
a fee-based service called Proquest Historical Newspapers. It has the
Times, which is as close to a national newspaper as the U.S. has, back
to 1851 with excellent full-text search. Though not a free service,
many public libraries have access to it for free. Suggested search
strategies for the Times would be to use a date range and the terms:
Robert Wallace (no quotes necessary)
American Shipbuilding Wallace
I did not pursue the Steinbrenner link to American Shipbuilding.
Yankees? Chairman George M. Steinbrenner was just out of college when
his father Henry, president of Kinsman Marine, bought the company.
But there was long family involvement in the industry, as indicated by
the fact that the Henry Steinbrenner I was built in 1901 (and there
were to be three or four of them). As a search for the Steinbrenner
involvement I?d use:
?Kinsman Marine? Steinbrenner
?American Shipbuilding? Steinbrenner
?American Shipbuilding? + ?Henry Steinbrenner?
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH:
? the first thing that a researcher tries to chase down is the
obituary, as it gives an idea who the children were; what professional
associations were; and where else to look for information.
Robert Wallace may be in the Cleveland Necrology file but there?s not
much detail about the Roberts who died in the early 1900s. However
it?s a hint as to where to look in library microfilms if you?re in
Cleveland Public Library
* if you?re anywhere near the Great Lakes, there are a number of
excellent maritime museums. Contacting a research librarian there may
be the best chance to find a photograph or other accounts of American