Mystery Boat: Alone and Idle in a Waterlogged Corner of Chicago

Mystery Boat: Alone and Idle in a Waterlogged Corner of Chicago
Mystery Boat: Alone and Idle in a Waterlogged Corner of Chicago

Mystery Boat: Alone and Idle in a Waterlogged Corner of Chicago

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There is something incongruous, maybe even outlandish, about seeing a big rusty ship from a freeway in America’s Breadbasket.

Have you ever seen it? The 620-foot vessel docked up on the Calumet River under the Illinois International Port sign, clearly visible by anyone driving north on the Bishop Ford Expressway.

Our questioner, Chicagoan Samantha Kruse, saw it while out on her uncle’s boat. They’d set out for a leisurely cruise on the Calumet River when, there she blew: a giant old hulk of a ship. Seemingly abandoned. Covered in rust.

She joked with her uncle that it was likely haunted and filled with ghosts. But ultimately, she wondered, “What is the deal with that ship?”

So she came to Curious City for help. (As did two other people who asked about this boat).

An answer, though? This turned out to be a bit of a head scratcher. Initial research brought up very little. And most people we asked had absolutely no clue. Even the security guard who guards the Port’s entrance, where the ship is docked, had no idea why the boat was there. He just knew it never moved.

But we do have an account of the boat’s predicament, one that reveals a lot about the fate of a regional industry as well as a waterlogged corner of the city that — when it’s not just passed up entirely — is probably best known for heavy industry, as well as black clouds of swirling petroleum coke pollution or a colorful shack that produces famous smoked shrimp and sturgeon.

The mystery boat, uncovered

Our research produced a name for the vessel: the C.T.C No. 1.

The C.T.C No. 1 — just the latest in a string of five names given by each new owner — was built in 1942 and moved iron ore to steel mills throughout the Great Lakes. It was wartime, and the country was hungry for raw materials to produce more ships, tanks and aircraft. The ship continued to ferry bulk materials around the Great Lakes until 1980, when it was converted into a cement storage facility, a job it stopped doing in 2009.

So, clearly the ship had been useful at one point, but what was it doing now? And why didn’t it ever move?

Even in the Google age, you can’t get a succinct account of why the boat’s idle. To get a fuller picture, I interviewed people in the ship’s neighborhood, a sleepy industrial swath on the city’s Southeast Side that’s home steel processing facilities, the Ford Motor Co. plant, as well as yacht clubs and tugboat companies.

I got some of the most useful information from the International Shipmasters Association, which, lucky for me, was holding its monthly meeting at Georgie’s Tavern on 134th Street. Several members said the boat had been a mystery to them, too.

“I’ve heard the question many, many, many times,” said Marshal Bundren, the chaplain of the shipmasters local. “Because there is a great big ship and here we are in the middle of the Midwest on a ten-lane highway driving by. Why is that there?”

But Bob Hansen, the shipmasters secretary, was familiar with the mystery boat and its history.

“[It’s the] Bethlehem Steel boat,” he said, referring to an earlier owner. “It says C.T.C. 1 on it because they use it for storing cement.” (The C.T.C comes from its time in service for Cement Transit Co. of Detroit.)

Hansen went on to say, in rapid-fire succession, what our earlier research had shown: that the ship was built in 1942 and was used to move iron ore throughout the Great Lakes during World War II.

“She’s empty and there is no place for her to go. She has no home,” Hansen said. He went on to explain that the walls of the ship contain asbestos, a highly carcinogenic mineral fiber once commonly used for insulation and fireproofing. Scrapping the boat, he added, would likely require expensive safety procedures.

And with the shipping industry as it is, struggling, it was too expensive to justify the rehab.

“So for the moment it’s sitting,” he said of the vessel.

Why it doesn’t shove off

Scott Bravener, the president of Grand River Navigation, who owns the C.T.C. No. 1, assured me that the asbestos is well contained, though its future is unknown. He said it would cost the company roughly $30 million to rehabilitate the ship and integrate it back into the company’s fleet as a working barge. (The boat no longer has an engine.) The company already owns three of its sister ships. And with the C.T.C.’s hull still in relatively good condition, the ship acts almost like an insurance policy if something goes wrong with one of the other vessels.

It’s also pretty inexpensive to keep it where it is. According to the Port, Grand River pays $600 per month to keep the C.T.C. No.1 docked there.

But, according to Bravener, the ultimate reason the ship sits idle is because there isn’t enough demand to justify putting it into service, a view corroborated by William Strauss, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago specializing in manufacturing and shipping on the Great Lakes.

Strauss said softness in the shipping industry is due to sluggish global growth and a lack of investment in the country’s infrastructure for shipping.

“Low commodity prices [and] some struggle with regard to growth of different markets for commodities, has really left a challenge to justify the expenditure,” he said.

Overall, the shipping industry is still relatively active, but the Port of Chicago is not the economic engine it once was. According to a 2011 report, the most recent data available, the Port generates nearly 2,700 jobs, 25 percent less than it did nearly a decade prior. And the jobs the Port creates indirectly have dropped by 22 percent over the same period. Industry-wide, shipping on the Great Lakes faces headwinds, due to the phasing out of coal and a steel industry that has yet to return to its pre-Recession peak.  

“It’s an industry that will never die. But it will never get better,” Hansen said. “It just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. As we lose our steel. As we lose our cement. As we lose our coal.”

Still, marine transport is the most economic way to get cargo from one place to another — far cheaper than trucking and even rail.

But a struggling manufacturing sector mixed with low commodity prices, means ships like the C.T.C. No. 1 are left waiting in the wings, stuck in a kind of limbo where they’re too valuable to ditch, but not useful enough to repair.

However, there is one thing working in the favor of Great Lakes shipping. Despite the rusty look of the ship, Strauss said the fresh water of the Great Lakes is forgiving on vessels, nearly tripling their lifespan compared to their ocean-going counterparts. Boats like C.T.C. No. 1 have the possibility of being reintroduced to fleet, even after years spent idle.

When I told our questioner, Samantha Kruse, that her mystery ship was not abandoned, but just empty and unused, she wasn’t all that surprised. “I think that is where I thought it was heading,” she said.

What’s more, she said she’s glad to be reminded that the Calumet River isn’t just for recreational boating. That in fact, there is an active shipping industry still there.

“There are all these people working on barges. It’s not something I think about everyday,” she said.

One thing she is a little bummed about, she said: “That I probably can’t make the boat into an awesome haunted house one day.”

Questioner Samantha Kruse at the WBEZ studios. (WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)

More about our questioner

Samantha Kruse grew up in the South suburb of Lansing, Illinois. The 27-year-old program adviser at the University of Illinois at Chicago said she noticed the ship — never moving, always there — for years. But it wasn’t until she saw the mammoth ship from the waterside that her curiosity peaked.\

She tried the usual Googling spree, but couldn’t find much of anything. Only one article that referred to it as simply, “a rusted boat.” Clearly, she knew that already.

“I was so fascinated that this whole other part of Chicago existed that I never really thought about,” Kruse says, referring to the shipping industry on the Great Lakes. “Then we came close to that rusted boat and I was like what’s the deal with that boat.”

Her family has always been big boaters, but even they didn’t know anything about the ship. “It was accepted. It was just there,” she says.

Kruse lives in Logan Square with her rescue dog. She says she’s glad to know the ship had a past, though she’s not all that surprised it’s idle and empty.

“It’s good to know she had a name and where she was from … and people cared about her,” she says.