Answered By: Archives & Library Staff @The Henry Ford
Last Updated: Jun 02, 2022 Views: 7

The Ford Fleet began in 1923 when the company ordered two 600’ ore carriers, the future M/S Henry Ford II and M/S Benson Ford, to be built. As those were being constructed, they also purchased two more vessels in 1924, the S/S Oneida and the S/S Onondaga which made their first sailings under Ford in May of 1924 with the Henry and Benson following in August. These ships were used to haul iron ore, lumber, coal, and other raw materials from the Ford plants in the Upper Peninsula and other material outlets.

Ship exiting docks through draw bridge

In 1925, the Ford Fleet expanded greatly with the addition of nearly 30 U.S. Government surplus boats from World War I purchased as part of the 199 boats. This group of vessels consisted mainly of lakers and tugboats, some of which were converted into barges or for ocean-going service. Also in 1925, the Marine Department was formed with Captain Oscar A. Johnson as superintendent.

The 1930s saw another expansion of the fleet with the addition of special built canal vessels, the S/S Chester, S/S Edgewater, M/S Green Island, and M/S Norfolk, to carry parts to and from the East Coast and on to European factories. The East Coast plants, which handled exports, handled the ocean-goers and had several lighters. While the main Marine Office was in Dearborn, the company also had a traffic department at Edgewater to handle export traffic. The 1930s also saw a downturn in marine traffic and cargo needs due to the depression and a number of the ships were idled during 1932-1935.

Ship in water

The fleet was used mainly for transporting raw materials, car parts, and knocked down vehicles, but the ships were also used in other ways. In 1928, Lake Ormoc was refitted with a machine shop, hospital, chemistry lab, water distillation equipment, library and living quarters and brought a group of Ford employees to Brazil to establish the Fordlandia plantation. The Henry II was often used by Henry and Clara Ford and their guests during the summer months. Later, Marine Department personnel were allowed to take a trip with their family onboard various ships, but the ships were never used for regular passenger service.

As World War II approached, the situation of the Ford Fleet began to change. When the Ford plant finally unionized in 1941, the sailors in the Marine Department did as well, with the National Maritime Union (NMU) however rather than the UAW and the officers remained non-union. When Ford’s European plants shut down for civilian production the ocean-goers were no longer needed to ship Ford parts so in 1941 the Ford Navigation Company was incorporated to handle the traffic of the four canal boats so they could be “common carriers” and carry non-Ford cargo to fill their holds, the company was dissolved 1946. The biggest change however started in 1941 when the U.S. government began compulsory chartering or sale of vessels from the fleet and over the next few years chartered or purchased all the ships from the fleet but the M/S Henry Ford II, M/S Benson Ford, and tug Dearborn. Over the course of the war six ships in the Ford Fleet were sunk and many crew members were lost.

After the war, neither the U.S. Government nor Ford Motor Company needed the surviving ships. Ford had been chartering other ships during the war to carry their materials and it was unknown how much shipping capacity they would need post-war. The Marine Department decided to keep their big ore ships and eliminate the tugs and barges, selling off all but the M/S Henry Ford II and the M/S Benson Ford over the next few years. In 1945, the Traffic Department, including Marine Traffic, moved from the Administration Building to the B Building at the Rouge. Marine Operations was later transferred to the Transportation Department and office moved to the Transportation Garage.

By 1952, Ford Motor Company’s raw material needs had risen to over five million tons of coal, iron ore, limestone, dolomite, sand, pig iron, scrap, and bearings. They were using 15 different ship companies in addition to the M/S Henry Ford II and M/S Benson Ford to move cargo. It became clear that Marine Operations need to add more ships to the fleet. In 1953, the S/S William Clay Ford was added, sailing its first trip in August of that year. In 1957, Marine Operations was transferred to the Steel Division, with an office at the Rouge Office Building. In 1962, the fleet was further expanded with the S/S Ernest R. Breech and S/S Robert S. McNamara. With the addition of these two ships, the Ford Fleet was able to carry 84% of Ford’s tonnage. A new Marine Office Building was built at the Rouge Boat Slip in 1965 allowing for more direct access to shipping. Soon after, in 1966 the S/S John Dykstra was added to the fleet.

        Three sailors reading at table with food

The ships were continually updated. In 1960 and 1961, new crew quarters were built on the M/S Henry Ford II and M/S Benson Ford. While both the Henry and Benson always had wireless radios, in 1948 these were replaced by ship to shore telephones. In 1953, both ships were outfitted with gyro compasses to provide more precise navigation and in 1958 VHF radio telephones were installed. Ship to shore telephones were installed in the Marine Office in 1966. In 1978-1979 the S/S William Clay Ford was expanded by 120’ to provide more cargo room. The Ford Fleet was also the first fleet on the Great Lakes to meet the Michigan Watercraft Pollution Control Act requirements in 1971.

Men clearing ice off ship            Officers behind steering wheel and controls

Operations continued profitable in the 1960s and most of the 1970s. At the opening of the 1975 shipping season, the fleet was capable of handling all Ford Motor Company’s requirements of iron ore, coal, and limestone. Any leftover cargo space was chartered out for a profit. In the 1980s, the company began to reevaluate fleet operations. Fuel prices for ships had been going up and rose even more in the 1980s and tons of ore shipped had been dropping steadily and by the early 1980s the fleet had excess cargo capacity. It was decided to sell off all the ships over the course of 1984-1989, and Marine Operations was closed down in 1989.

A few pieces of the ships live on. The pilot house of the M/S Benson Ford was converted into a cottage and the original S/S William Clay Ford pilot house was placed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in 1991.

Ships

S/S Oneida
  Built: 1920
  Purchased: 1924
  First Ford Fleet voyage: May 1924
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sunk: July 1942 (6 lost)

S/S Onondaga
  Built: 1920
  Purchased: 1924
  First Ford Fleet voyage: May 1924
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sunk: July 1942 (15 lost)

M/S Henry Ford
  Built: 1924
  First Ford Fleet voyage: August 1924
  Chartered out: 1988
  Sold: 1989

M/S Benson Ford
  Built: 1924
  First Ford Fleet voyage: August 1924
  Idled: 1981
  Renamed John Dykstra: 1982
  Dismantled: 1983 (pilot house used as a cottage the rest was scrapped)

M/S East Indian
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sunk: November 1942 (57 lost)

Lake Benbow
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Sold: 1937
 
Scrapped: 1959

S/S Lake Gorin
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Sold: 1937
  Sank: 1941

M/S Lake Ormoc
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  1928 takes first settlers to Fordlandia under Captain Einard Oxholm
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1947
  Sank: 1962

M/S Lake Osweya
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sunk: February 1942 (all lost)

Barge Lake Allen
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sunk: December 1942

Barge Lake Crystal
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Returned to Ford: September 1943
  Sold: 1945
  Sank: 1946

Barge Lake Farge
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sold: 1945/1946
  Scrapped: 1953

Barge Lake Folcroft
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold as Scrap: 1946

Barge Lake Freeland
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1946
  Scrapped: 1973

Barge Lake Frugality
  Built: 1920
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1946
  Sank: 1959

Barge Lake Frumet
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sold: 1945/1946
  Scrapped: 1953

Barge Lake Hemlock
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Returned to Ford: September 1943
  Sold: 1945
  Sank: 1957

Barge Lake Inaha
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1946
  Sank: 1954

Barge Lake Kyttle
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1943
  Sold: 1945
  Sank: 1960

Barge Lake Louise
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold to Government: 1942
  Sank: 1947

Barge Lake Pleasant
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1946
  Scrapped: 1957

Barge Lake Sapor
  Built: 1918
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1946
  Sank: 1947

Tug Ballcamp
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Sold: 1933

Tug Barlow
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941/1942
  Sold: 1945

Tug Bathalum
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Sold: 1934

Tug Baymead
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Sold: 1934

Tug Barrallton
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Returned to Ford: September 1943
  Sold: 1944

Tug Buttercup
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold to Government: 1942

Tug Daniel L. Hebard
  Built: 1875
  Purchased: 1925
  Scrapped: 1930

Tug Humrick
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1925
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sold to Government: 1942

Tug Jay C. Morse
  Built: 1867
  Purchased: 1925
  Scrapped: 1932

M/S Chester (canal vessel)
  Built: 1931
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1947
  Scrapped: 1955

M/S Edgewater (canal vessel)
  Built: 1931
  Commandeered by Government: 1942
  Sold: 1947
  Sank: 1968

Tug Dearborn
  Built: 1932
  Sold: 1946

M/S Green Island (canal vessel)
  Built: 1937
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sunk: May 1942 (all survived)

M/S Norfolk (canal vessel)
  Built: 1937
  Commandeered by Government: 1941
  Sold: 1946
  Scrapped: 1967

Lighters No. 1(used on East Coast only)
  Built: 1919
  Purchased: 1920
  Sold: 1936
Lighters No. 2-4 (used on East Coast only)
  Sold: 1933
Lighter No. 5 (used on East Coast only)
  Built: 1913
  Sold:  

S/S William Clay Ford
  Built: 1953 (1st Steam Turbine in Ford Fleet)
  Lengthened 120’: 1978-1979
  Sold: 1984

S/S Ernest R. Breech
  Built: 1952
  Purchased: 1962
  Chartered out: 1983
  Sold: 1988

S/S Robert S. McNamara
  Built: 1909
  Purchased: 1962
  Sold: 1972

S/S John Dykstra
  Built: 1953
  Purchased: 1966
  Renamed Benson Ford: 1982
  Sold for Scrap: 1987

S/S William Clay Ford
  Built: S/S Walter A. Sterling
  Purchased: 1984
  Sold: 1989

S/S Benson Ford
  Built: S/S Edward B. Greene
  Purchased: 1984
  Sold: 1989

Ship Masters

M/S Henry Ford II
  Oscar A. Johnson
  John J. Pearce
  Bernard Olsen
  Sidney Inch
  Sven Fagerstrom
  Donald Erickson
  James R. Brent
  Michael A. Gerasimos
  James Van Buskirk
  Theodore Cogswell

M/S Benson Ford
  Perry Stakes
  Daniels
  John J. Pearce
  Andy Pederson
  John B. Martin
  Bernard Olsen
  Carl H. Meyers
  Gustav Goransson

S/S William Clay Ford
  John J. Pearce
  Bernard Olsen
  Donald Erickson
  James Van Buskirk

S/S Ernest R. Breech
  Sven Fagerstrom
  Gustav Goransson
  James R. Brent

S/S John Dykstra
  Gustav Goransson
  Mark Ganey
  James Van Buskirk
  Michael A. Gerasimos

S/S Robert S. McNamara
  Gustav Goransson
  James R. Brent
  James Van Buskirk
  Joseph Cusack

Relief Masters
  Charles R. Van Buskirk
  Theodore Cogswell

Marine Operations Managers/Superintendents
 
Captain Oscar A. Johnson (1925-1938)
  Norman J. Ahrens (1938-1955)
  F. Jordan Schanbeck (1955-1958)
  Clare J. Snider (1958-1975)
  Richard DeWalt (1975-1979)
  John G. Nye (1979-1985)
  James R. Commerford (1985-1988)

Bibliography
Archival

   Acc. 730 Marine Operations Records
      box 1-3 Series I, vessel trip logs
      box 4-6 Series II, daily coal shipments to the vessels from the Eastern Coal Corporation and
                Antherfine Coal Co
      box 7 Series II, commissary reports, meal reports, food invoices
      box 8 Series IV, correspondence covering the involvement of the War Shipping
                   Administration and Ford Marine Department in the war effort
      box 9-10 Series V, repair and sale of various vessels after the war
      box 11 Series VI, miscellaneous correspondence and data involving the ships
      box 12-13 Series VII, employee records
      box 14 Series VIII, communications on board ships
      box 15-17 Series IX, marine traffic correspondence

   Acc. 119 Marine Division Records Subseries
      box 1-6 Boat Operations
      box 7-56 Boat Charges
      box 57-66 Boat Manifests
      box 67-75 William McGreevy Files
                           Massey Hammer
                           Ocean Freight Rates, 1935-1940
                           Purchase Notices, 1945-1946
                           Ship Inventoried and Disbursements, 1935-1941
                           Specifications
                           S.S. Truant File
      (at this point box numbers start over again at 1)
      box 1-28 Ship Logs
      box 29-34 Trip Reports and Engineers Logs
      box 35 Correspondence and Reports
      box 36 Accident Reports
      box 37 I.A. Capizzi Correspondence
                  Crew Lists
      box 38-39 Tax Data
      Oversized Ship Logs

   Acc. 404 Marine Division Records Subseries
      box 1 Boat Expenses, 1945-1946
                Burden Adjustments on Cost of Sales, 1942
                Cargo Costs-Lake Ships, 1927-1942
                Coal, Ore, Limestone, Timber, 1944-1946    
                Correspondence, 1942-1945
                Demurrage, 1944-1945
                Fixed Charges-Lake Ships, 1935-1940
                Gasoline Details, 1947-1948
                Johansson Gage, 1946-1947
                Marine Invoices, 1946   
                Miscellaneous, 1931-1938
      box 2-6 Operating Reports, 1935-1941
      box 6 Ship Subjects (accounting instructions), 1927-1939
                Slop Chest Summaries, 1942
                Transportation Garage Details, 1942-1948
                Water Rates, 1930-1938

   Acc. 784 Ford Motor Company Marine Reports
      box 1-2 Marine Operating Reports, 1926-1927

   Acc. 1846 Payroll Statistics Records
      box 2 Payroll Statistics (include some ocean and lake going vessels)
      box 6 Payroll Statistics (include some ocean and lake going vessels)

   Acc. 2003.11 Joseph C. Groff Papers
      box 1 Photographs, reports, and drawings from MS East Indian (Groff was the captain)

   Acc. 1754 Florence Monaghan Papers
      box 1 Correspondence regarding passage aboard MS Henry Ford II
                Diary; “My Trip Aboard Henry Ford, 2nd. August 1925”

   Acc. 93.117 Ford Motor Company Freighter Stationery
      box 1 Stationery from Ford Motor Company Great Lakes freighter ships, circa 1970

   Acc. 285 Henry Ford Office Papers
      box 210 Boats (Henry Ford II, Benson Ford, etc.)
      box 348 Boats
      box 387 River Rouge, Michigan (includes Ford Fleet Signals assigned by the Lake Carriers
                       Association.)
      box 452 Boats
      box 588 Boats
      box 746 Boats
      box 926 Boats
      box 2108 Boat Schedule - 1937-1938
      box 2240 Boat Schedule 1939
                      Boat Schedule 1940
      box 2443 Boats (Ford)
                         Miscellaneous

                         Schedule - Passenger Accommodations
                         Schedule of Freighters
      box 2626 BOA-BOD (includes Memo of data re: Boats - Fleet)
                      Boat Schedule
      box 2799 Boats - Schedule of Lake Freighters, 1945, 1946
      box 2928 Boats - Schedules of Freighters, 1947, 1948, 1949
      box 3031 BOATS (Schedule of freighters for 1950)

   Acc. 1 Fair Lane Papers
      box 183 Ford Motor Company vessels
                       MS Benson Ford (see oversize Box 195)
                       MS Henry Ford II, correspondence, itineraries, and general materials regarding,
                          1924-1945, and undated
                       MS Oneida, undated (photographic prints, black-and-white, 8x10 inches)
                       MS Onondaga, undated (photographic prints, black-and-white, 8x10 inches)
                       Unidentified vessel, undated (photographic prints, black-and-white, 8x10 inches)

   Acc. 6 Edsel B. Ford Office papers
      box 130 AMERICAN (includes American Merchant Marine Library Assoc, re: supplies Ford
                       ore boats), 1938

   Acc. 94 Dearborn Engineering Laboratory Records
      box 121 Boats - Henry Ford II - Benson Ford, 1925

   Acc. 157 C.L. Martindale and Otto H. Husen Files
      box 29 Marine Correspondence, 1939-1941
      box 175 Boats (Audit Reports) 1932, 1933, 1935, 136, 1937, 1938, 1939
      box 186 Boats - Fines - Seamen, 1929-1930
      box 262 Marine Accounting instructions, 1927-1941
      box 264 Instructions 1921-1924 (includes Marine Traffic procedures)

   Acc. 241 Department Executive Records Subseries
      box 4 Marine Traffic (ship specifications)

   Acc. 572 Nevins and Hill Research Series
      box 25 no.11.29.2 Ships (includes: Purchase of Vessels, Operations, Cost, Ford News
                    Articles Re: Shipping)

   Acc. 447 Press Releases Subseries
      box 1 Boats - Ford Fleet
                Fleet on U. S. Inland Waterways
      box 2 Ford Fleet

   Acc. 536 Public Relations Research Library Press Releases Subseries
      box 9 Boats
                    General, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1952 (4 folders)
                    Benson Ford
      box 10 Boats
                     Benson Ford
                     Casualties, World War II Eagle
                     East Indian
                     Ford Fleet, World War II
                     Green Island Photographs (2 folders)
                     Henry Ford II and Benson Ford, 1952 Shipping Season Deliveries
                     Henry Ford Photographs (7 folders)
                     Idled by Steel Strike Photographs, 1952
                     Kearny Plant Photographs (2 folders)
                     Lake Ormoc Photographs
                     Lake Pleasant Photographs
                     Mail Photographs
                     Oneida Photographs
                     Onondaga Photographs (2 folders)
      box 11 Boats
                     Smokestack Painting Photographs
                     Statistics
                     Tom N. Girdler Photographs
                     Tonnage Record, 1948-1954 (5 folders)
                     William Clay Ford

   Acc. 378 Public Relations Research Library Subject Files Subseries
      box 1 Ford, Benson; Correspondence about Henry Ford II Boat

   Acc. AR.71.08653 Ford Fleet Marine Traffic Press Releases, 1966
      box 1 Press releases relating to S/S John Dykstra

   Acc. 951 Ford Motor Company Non-Serial Publications Collection
      box 35 Passenger Guide, 1979
      box 53 Welcome Aboard

   Acc. 390 AM Wibel Office Papers. Purchasing Department
      box 68 Ford Boat Operations (Marine File), 1928-1942 (2 folders)

   Acc. 479 OH Husen Records. Accounting Department
     box 1 Volume IV Ocean and Lake - Marine Operations, 1930
                Volume V Statement of Operations for 1931; Marine, May 1932

   Acc. 235 Administration Building Third Floor Vault Records Series
      box 35 Marine Operations

   Acc. 748 Defense Contracts Department Records Series
      box 1-3 Maritime Administration, WWII files

   Acc. 833 General Photographs Series
      box 49 Boat "Oneida" (111a)
                  Boat “Onondoga” (111b)
      box 50 Boats (2 folders, 115a and 115b)
      box 51 Boats (5 folders, 115c - 116c)
      box 52 Boats (6 folders, 117a - 118a)
      box 53 Boats (3 folders, 118b - 119a)

   Acc. 1660 Photographic Vertical File
      box 61 Barges; Ford Motor Company
      box 151 Ships; Ford Motor Company
                       General
                       MS Benson Ford
                       MS East Indian
                       MS Edgewater
                       MS Green Island
                       MS Henry Ford II (2 folder)
                       MS John Dykstra
                       MS Lake Benbow
                       MS Lake Osweya
                       MS Oneida
                       MS Onondaga
                       MS William Clay Ford
      box 162 Tugboats; Ford Motor Company

   Acc. 34 Topical for Henry Ford Series
      box 3 MS Benson Ford (photograph album)

   Acc. 1160 Viggo J Thomsen Photographs
      box 1 Ford Fleet maritime snapshots including images of ships and freighters

   Acc. 823 P.E. Martin Paper
      box 1 Photographs; Freighter Henry Ford II construction, 1924

   Acc. 1505 Photographs for the Ford News Bureau Album
      box 1 (includes images of the Ford Fleet and MS Benson Ford)

   Engineering and Blueprint Aperture Cards
      Drawer 4 SS Chester

Ford News
   Ford Fleet (Barges)
   Ford Fleet (Freighters)
   Ford Fleet (Tugboats)

Rouge News
   Ford Fleet (Barges)
   Ford Fleet (Freighters)

Oral Histories
   65_ 2 Norman J. Ahrens

Vertical File
   Ford Fleet
      “Benson Ford”
      “East Indian”
      “Ernest R. Breech”
       Edgewater
       General (2 folders)
      “Henry Ford II”
      “John Dykstra”
      “Oneida”
      “Onondaga”
      “Robert S. McNamara”
      “William Clay Ford”

Books
   The Ford Fleet (1923-1989). Clare J. Snider and Michael W. R. Davis
      387.544 F699 S672 1994 (OS)

 

 

 

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ATTN: The Benson Ford Research Center remains closed to the public for in-person research, tours, and visits. It will remain closed until further notice, but Research Center staff members continue to respond to inquiries. Please contact us by email, mail, or by submitting a question.

Mail:

Benson Ford Research Center
The Henry Ford
P.O. Box 1970
Dearborn, Michigan, USA 48121-1970