The race between two centuries

Boatmen in Detroit were convinced the Tashmoo, the first lakes steamer built in 1900 and flagship of Detroit’s White Star Line, was the fastest boat on the lakes.

One thing is certain. There never will be another race like it. Navigation men, to this day, hail the 1901 event as the high point of the whole fabulous era of steam on the Great Lakes.

The Mississippi River had a storied race, too, between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. But old timers on the lakes insist it couldn’t compare with the mighty contest between the Tashmoo and the City of Erie –“the race between two centuries.”

Boatmen in Cleveland were equally convinced that the City of Erie, built in 1898 for the Cleveland Buffalo Transit Co., was the fastest.

      Built in 1898 for the Cleveland Buffalo Transit Co. (C&B), the City of Erie established herself as the fastest ship the Great Lakes had seen in the 19th century. No brash challenger ever seriously threatened her reign — none, that is, until the fresh winds of 1900 blew across the lakes.

From the start, the Erie was a well-loved ship. Her specialty was carrying newlyweds bound for Niagara Falls from Cleveland and Erie, Pa., to Buffalo. Her nickname became famous. She was the Honeymoon Special.

But the first lake steamer built in 1900 was something special, too. That was the Tashmoo, the new flagship of Detroit’s White star Line.

Her builders embodied every new trick of construction and design. No expense was spared. They wanted speed and more speed.

Almost immediately, the Tashmoo acquired an affectionate nickname of her own — the White Flyer. She was the most luxurious day-cruise steamer on the lakes. But was she faster than the City of Erie?

The answer to this question was achieved through a chain of circumstances that began with a minor-league contest in September, 1900, between the City of Chicago and the City of Milwaukee. Both boats were owned by the Graham & Morton Co., of Chicago. Their race from the Windy City to St. Joseph, Mich., was just a friendly, intramural affair. The Chicago was the winner by a full minute.

Frank E. Kirby was one spectator who couldn’t lose — he designed both ships.

No one would have paid attention to this event outside Chicago and St. Joe except for a bit of braggadocio indulged in by a Chicago newspaper, which acclaimed the local steamboat as “the fastest on the lakes.”

This ill-advised boast was the occasion of much merriment elsewhere. In Detroit, one published riposte enumerated nine steamers that could easily leave the Chicago in the lurch: “The North West and the North Land, four Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. (D&C) boats, the City of Erie, the City of Buffalo and the Frank E. Kirby.”

Omission of the Tashmoo from this list was plainly inadvertent, but A.A. Parker, president of the White Star Line, was miffed. He promptly offered to post $1,000 that his new steamer could beat anything on fresh water.

Just as promptly, T.F. Newman, president of C&B, accepted on behalf of the City of Erie. Each line deposited its $1,000 check with J.W. Wescott, dean of Great Lakes marine reporting, with the understanding that both would be turned over to charity in either Detroit or Cleveland, depending on the winner of the race.

The course, it was arranged, would cover 94 statute miles from Cleveland to Erie.

With the onset of the 1901 navigation season, little else was talked about on the docks. The official purse was only a drop in the bucket. Rivalry between the sportsmen of Detroit and Cleveland was intense, and it was estimated that $100,000 wagered by enthusiasts in the two cities would change hands on the outcome of the race.

On Thursday, May 30, the Tashmoo was put through her paces on a 100-mile trial cruise. Her speed was a closely guarded secret. The crew was under orders to make no statements to the press.

A large party of Detroit’s Nobles of the Mystic Shrine boarded the City of Mackinac to sail to Erie to watch the race.

      The line let it be known, however, that the trials were considered “most satisfactory, even exceeding expectations.” The scuttlebutt was that the Erie would have to do better that 22 miles an hour to win.

Especially pleasing was the fact that the Tashmoo’s time for the last 50 miles was even faster than for the first 50, indicating her excellent endurance qualities for a long race.

On Saturday, the Tashmoo laid at her dock near the foot of Jos. Campau. Her engineer force was busily engaged, taking a last look at the machinery.

“Fears the Tashmoo” was the headline of a story in The News-Tribune on Sunday. “The City of Erie people are getting scared by the record-breaking trials being made by the Tashmoo,” declared the story, “and it was reported yesterday that arrangements have been made to put her in dry-dock to have her bottom cleaned,”

On Sunday afternoon, a large party of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine drew the envy of all Detroit. The nobles and their wives boarded the D&C steamer City of Mackinac for a cruise that would take them to Erie to witness the finish of the race, after a visit to the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo.

For the cruise, the steamer was temporarily rechristened the City of Moslem and handsomely decorated in the Shrine colors, red and yellow. Toby, Moslem Temple’s papier-mache elephant, had a prominent spot on the aft promenade.

No bigger than a man’s hand, one small cloud sullied Detroit’s confident horizon. The course agreed upon followed the Erie’s regular route, a clear advantage for the ship representing the 19th century. Nevertheless, the betting was even money.

The Tashmoo at the Woodward docks on the Detroit waterfront.

Enthusiasm reached fever pitch on the morning of Tuesday, June 4. Excursion vessels from Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo and other lake ports carried capacity loads to the starting scene. Steamboat men were there from the Mississippi, and salt-water yachtsmen from the East, too.

More than 20,000 spectators thronged the Cleveland waterfront. It was a perfect day for the race. The sky was clear except for smoke wafted out over the blue water by a gentle breeze.

At 9:18 a.m. a cannon roared and the two greyhounds of the lakes moved out amid cheers. Slim and trim, they looked almost like sister ships.

The Erie gained headway first. She was two full lengths ahead as the rivals cleared the Cleveland breakwater. Once the open lake was reached, however, the Tashmoo showed her class.

Even from shore it was clear that the White Flyer was gaining on the Honeymoon Special. The Detroit boat closed the gap as they passed into a haze three miles east of Cleveland.

One by one, the excursion boats that had steamed to vantage points ahead along the course were overtaken. Eager to give her passengers their money’s worth, the little Hawk lurched so close as the Tashmoo passed that a seaman swore at her. The steamer Frank E. Kirby considerately hove to until the racers passed.

The latter vessel had a special reason to be neutral. Kirby himself, the greatest of lake ship designers, created both the City of Erie and the Tashmoo. Whichever won, he could not lose.

As the excursion boats fell astern, Chief Engineer Winfield Dubois stood with one foot on the throttle frame in the Tashmoo’s engine room, an unlighted cigar clenched between his teeth and his eyes on the gauges. Dubois held the stroke steady at 40 revolutions a minute. Streams of water were constantly played on the giant pistons, and the blackened stokers worked like demons feeding coal into the flames.

Bit by bit the Tashmoo forged ahead, and at the end of 15 minutes she led by three lengths. Then, changing course, she seemed to yaw about uncertainly, and the Erie quickly came abeam.

The Tashmoo built an early lead but when the shoreline disappeared it began to founder — the wheelman was not used to steering by compass — and the Erie passed her.

      Arthur D. Walton, The Detroit News correspondent on the Tashmoo, saw what was wrong. “The wheelman was not used to steering by compass,” he wrote.

The steam steering gear also seemed slow in responding to the helm. Walton noted that the Erie was stripped of every possible extra pound for the race — even her rafts and lifeboats were removed — while the Tashmoo did not take down so much as a pennant.

The shoreline was five miles away now, and no one on the Tashmoo was familiar with it, or with the depth of the water. The Erie was holding her familiar course much better than her rival.

Suddenly the Tashmoo dropped back as her stroke was reduced to 38. In the engine room flustered men were shouting as they worked on a condenser that had become overheated. The Erie shot ahead half a dozen lengths, and now the cluster of boats waiting at the finish line in her namesake city could be seen ahead.

Quickly the Tashmoo’s condenser was but back in shape, and her stroke went to 42. Her upper works creaked and the whole ship trembled under the strain. To reduce resistance, cabin doors were opened and the wind whistled through. A canvas, put up to keep the wash from the lower deck, was ripped off.

There was no bad steering now. The Tashmoo’s pilot, accustomed to keeping his course by shore sights, could set the pole on the stake boat and keep it there. The Erie was straining to the utmost, black smoke pouring from her funnel. Still the Tashmoo shortened the gap, and yard by yard she made up the lost precious distance.

But not quite enough. Staggering under the pressure, the Erie passed the state boat 30 yards ahead.

The old century had won, yet it was a hollow victory. Few doubted now that on the straight-away the Tashmoo was the faster boat. On the spot, the White Star Line offered to post $10,000 for a return match.

It was in vain. Never again would her owners let the Honeymoon Special be inveigled into a race with the White Flyer.

The Tashmoo recovered and was closing the gap at the end, but the Erie (shown here) won the race. The owners refused a rematch, tacitly admitting the Tashmoo was the faster boat.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.) By Don Lochbiler / The Detroit News