Captain Alexander McDougall


 Volume VII, Number 4
Summer, 1988

In 1892 Alexander McDougall guided a whaleback ship of his own design, the Charles W. Wetmore, through the St. Lawrence River rapids between Kingston and Montreal. Navigating this section of the river had always been challenging, even for the experienced river pilots who had cautioned McDougall that attempting to run the tortuous rapids in a 265-foot steel-hulled boat would be nothing less than reckless. Employing the same calculated daring with which he approached challenges throughout his life, McDougall made three preliminary trips through the rapids in a smaller craft to familiarize himself with the obstacles he would face. Finally, after securing the services of an old riverman "who said it did not make much difference if drowned then or died a little later," he brought the Wetmore through the difficult passage without even damaging the paint.1

McDougall had been born in Scotland and emigrated with his parents to Canada in 1854 when he was nine years old. He first worked as a deckhand at sixteen, quickly progressing through the ranks to first mate. By the time he became the captain of the Thomas A. Scott in 1870, Great Lakes shipbuilding was entering a transitional phase. Speed, economy, reliability, and capacity were beginning to force wood and sail to give way to iron and steam. His second command, the Japan, in 1871 required that he actually help construct this early iron steamer. It provided McDougall with an understanding of the possibilities of iron vessels, ships whose dimensions and design seemed restricted only by the limitations imposed on them by the locks and harbors of the Great Lakes.2

He was fortunate to have had a variety of maritime experiences "before the mast" when he retired from shipboard duty in 1881. These adventures inspired McDougall's creativity as he devoted his full energies to the development of a radically new steam barge. He was fired by the prospects of transporting the iron ore of the Upper Lakes in a steel vessel whose efficient methods of construction, increased cargo capacity, and "no frills" design could provide a very inexpensive bulk carrier.3

Designing and building scale models and testing them in his home at Duluth, McDougall created a hull that featured a rounded top and a flat bottom. This provided his ship with an incomparable stability, much as a log sawed in half and floated in water with the flat side down tends to be very difficult to upset. It had the added advantage of allowing water and ice to run off more quickly. Double-hull construction, he believed, would render his new design virtually unsinkable. And he could reduce construction costs by assembling each ship over circular steel ribs.4

With their dark, rounded hulls, these vessels became known as "whalebacks" following their introduction in 1888. To the 20th century eye, the ships take on the appearance of a submarine traveling on the surface, especially if they can be seen running fully loaded. Traditional lake sailors, more comfortable with the pointed bow of conventional ships christened McDougall's rounded snout invention a "pig-nose." Eventually this term of derision took on an affectionate tone with less skeptical onlookers, especially with the introduction of the only whaleback passenger ship, the Christopher Columbus.5

For all their stability, strength, and efficiency, McDougall's American Steel Barge Company built only thirty-nine whaleback barges and steamers. By the late 1890s larger and faster ships could be built more cheaply than the pignoses. Furthermore, the rounded hulls not only permitted water to run off, but they also allowed bulk cargo spilt during loading and unloading to fall into the water. The sturdy ribbed construction could be used effectively only up to a width of forty-three feet; beyond that point cumbersome support beams had to be added. These adversely affected the loading and unloading of bulk cargo from the whaleback holds.6

In addition to design problems in McDougall's ships, the Depression of 1893 occurred during the critical early years of their construction. Lake trade dried up, and with it the need for cargo steamers and barges. This downturn was even worse for McDougall who also found himself caught in the midst of the John D. Rockefeller - Andrew Carnegie contest for control of the rich Mesabi ore range north of Duluth. He had used Rockefeller money to help finance his whaleback fleet, planning to use the relationship to help him tie up the lucrative transportation of bulk ore to the southern lake ports. When the struggle finally was resolved by the creation of the United States Steel Corporation under the direction of J. P. Morgan, McDougall's dream of a whaleback fleet transporting the wealth of the Mesabi became so much flotsam. During this lull his competitors had developed new designs and larger ships; McDougall's whalebacks effectively had been bypassed.7

Although McDougall poured a great deal of effort into promoting his whaleback, it was by no means the only outlet for his energy and inventiveness. He designed ocean-going canal boats, an ore-washing device, a hydraulic transporting system, built several Great Lakes shipyards and dry docks, designed and operated Mississippi River barges, and created a torpedo-proof military vessel. In fact, forty-nine patents were registered in his name, sixteen of which are foreign. McDougall speculated in land on the west coast, served as president of Duluth's Highland Canal and Power Company, and chaired Minnesota's display at the 1903 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo.8

Alexander McDougall achieved success and experienced adversity during a period when the varied resources of the Great Lakes had become indispensable to the expanding economy of Gilded Age America. Michigan timber, Lake Superior iron and copper, mid-western grain, and fish from the Lakes all required vessels capable of transporting ever-increasing amounts to the insatiable markets around the country. McDougall's whaleback and his related innovations were designed to respond to these needs.

But, as port facilities were enlarged and locks widened to accommodate the more efficient vessels of other shipbuilders, the condensed features and size limitations of the whaleback combined with unfortunate economic developments to scuttle McDougall's vision. Even he had failed to grasp the celerity and diversity of maritime development.

Still, it was through the efforts of risk-takers like Alexander McDougall that Great Lakes, even ocean, ships developed as they did. He deserves to be remembered for his bold innovation and persistence.



1 Alexander McDougall, "The Autobiography of Captain Alexander McDougall," Inland Seas, XXIII (Winter, 1967), 294.

2 Ibid, XXIII (Fall, 1967), 202; Richard Wright, Freshwater Whales: A History of the American Shipbuilding Company and Its Predecessors (Kent, Ohio, 1969), 43. 

3 James Cooke Mills, Our Inland Seas: Their Shipping and Commerce for Three Centuries (Chicago, 1910), 187. 

4 McDougall, Inland Seas, XXIII (Winter, 1967), 282; Ibid, XXIV (Spring, 1968), 24; Edward J. Dowling, "The Story of the Whaleback Vessels and of Their Inventor, Alexander McDougall," Inland Seas, XIII (Fall, 1957), 174.

5 McDougall, Inland Seas, XXIII (Winter, 1967), 282. 

6 Wright, Freshwater Whales, 52. 

7 Ibid, 49-50. 

8 For a complete listing of McDougall's patents and the whalebacks, see McDougall, Inland Seas, XXIV (Summer, 1968), 143-147.