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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Issue Date: January 6, 2021

From My Window

Goodbye Grand Old Lady



Janie Thibodeau Martin



My favorite grand old lady recently left the Menominee River for the last time. In the ultimate loss of dignity, she no longer had the ability to navigate on her own, and her tired old body was hauled out on Dec. 17th by a couple of powerful little tugboats. I am glad I wasn't there to watch her leave, because I would have been sad.

The William H. Donner was a classic Great Lakes bulk freight boat. She was built in Ashtabula, Ohio by The Great Lakes Engineering works, and was intended to replace laker Charles S. Price. Only three years old, the Price sank in a horrific storm in November of 1913 that besides taking her, sunk 18 other ships. The Donner was launched in 1914, making her a venerable 106 when she left us.

It is obvious that the people at Great Lakes Engineering knew how to build a stout ship. The Donner earned her keep hauling material around the lakes for 55 years until she was converted to use as a floating dock equipped with cranes in 1969. She was utilized this way in Milwaukee, tied up and storing scrap metal, then transferring it to other ships for hauling, until she was sold in 1992 to K & K warehousing in Menominee. At that time she became a fixture on the river, facing the Menekaunee lift bridge and very visible on the waterfront.

Her classic laker profile, with the pilothouse forward, marked her as a senior citizen ship even when she arrived. At 524 feet, she looked big if you were up close, but she was tiny compared to the generation of lakers built at 1,000 feet. My family and I always commented on her, never failing to look when we passed over the bridge or walked the lighthouse pier. My Dad taught me to love the lakers, and I in turn, aided by the constant physical presence of the Donner, passed the fascination on to my two little kids.

The Donner couldn't exactly talk, but we knew there had to be fascinating stories of miles under her keel and storms survived. Our imaginations filled in some of the blanks.

Countless ships, many dwarfing her in size, tied alongside her over the years, to be unloaded with the Donner's cranes. She continued to earn her keep and still looked good, if you were far enough away to not see the rust and peeling paint. Her new job was not beneath her, and that sturdy hull kept her afloat. (You also have to commend the people who kept figuring out innovative ways for her to earn money.)

In 2002 her pilothouse was removed, (and can be seen on the north side of the river across from the foundry,) but while she was visually decapitated without that and her smokestack, she kept doing her job, with her superb work ethic. In 2015, she was permanently "retired," and waited five years in the river for this final trip.

She was an antique, a classic, a living piece of history. She was more than a ship's bell and a photo in a museum, she was floating in our river. She sparked many conversations about the lives of sailors, the weather of the Lakes, the rich history of shipping and waterborne commerce the lakes provided; and the fact that Marinette and Menominee owed a lot to their fortunate location on a deep water river mouth.

The Donner, what is left of her, was hauled to Sault Saint Marie, where she will be "recycled," cut up for scrap. Even 100 plus years old, her hull has value, and she can, and should, take pride in her steel heart for the long working life she had. I will miss her each and every time I cross the bridge, and I thank her for the love of lakers she helped inspire in my kids. (In fact, my daughter, who now lives in the international seaport of Seattle, has an "app" on her phone, so that she can identify the merchant ships and the billionaire's yachts she sees. Our son lives in landlocked Oklahoma and must satisfy his ship watching urges with river tug-barges, or when he visits us.)

Lots of people love old trains and old cars. Some cherish steam-powered farm and logging equipment. I love old ships. Well done, William H. Donner.

Note: if you are interested in more of the history and pictures of the Donner in her prime, you can google her name; there is a treasure trove on the internet. I also love and follow the Facebook sites Great Lakes Ship Watchers; Boatnerds; and Ships of the Great Lakes. In addition there is a really informative piece on the Donner available at jayseaarcheology.wordpress.com, written by an author with local knowledge of the twin cities area.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.






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