AskDefine | Define whaleback

The Collaborative Dictionary

Whaleback \Whale"back`\, n. (Naut.) A form of vessel, often with steam power, having sharp ends and a very convex upper deck, much used on the Great Lakes, esp. for carrying grain. [Webster 1913 Suppl.]
The whaleback was a unique design of a vessel built for carrying bulk cargo by water. The term was never an official designation, but developed in common usage in response to the design's appearance when vessels were fully loaded. A total of 43 such vessels were constructed from 1887 to 1898. All but two were built initially as lake freighters for service on the Great Lakes of Canada and the United States. Six were built at Duluth, Minnesota; thirty-three were built at West Superior, Wisconsin; two at Brooklyn, New York; one at Everett, Washington; and one (without the designer’s approval) at Sunderland, England. A number of the Great Lakes vessels left the lakes for service on salt water seas.
The term "whaleback" has also been applied to a type of high speed launch first designed for the Royal Air Force during World War II, and to certain smaller rescue and research vessels especially in Europe that, like the Great Lakes vessels, have hulls that curve over to meet the deck. An example of the former is the British Power Boat Company Type Two 63 ft HSL. The designation in this case comes not from the curve along the gunwale, but from the fore and aft arch in the deck.
Yet another application of the term is to a sheltered portion of the forward deck on certain British fishing boats. It is designed, in part, so that water taken over the bow is more easily shed over the sides. The feature has been incorporated into some pleasure craft based on the hull design of older whaling boats, in which it becomes a "whaleback deck".
This article focuses attention on the historic whaleback vessels of the Great Lakes.


The whaleback was a design by Captain Alexander McDougall (1845–1923), a Scottish-born Great Lakes seaman and ship’s master. At the time a vessel’s size was limited by the locks and rivers that had to be navigated and by the materials and science of hull construction, not by the power and ability of steam engines to push hulls through the water. It was therefore common practice to have a powered vessel pulling one or more barges or “consorts” in tow. Many of these consorts were converted sailing schooners. Others were “schooners” that were built to be consorts and never intended to sail on their own, except in an emergency. Still others were bulk carriers that had not yet been fitted with propulsion machinery.
McDougall had learned from experience the difficulties encountered in towing these vessels. The bows and spars made them subject to the forces of wind, wave, and the prop wash from the towing vessel with the result that they often did not follow well. His purpose was specifically to create a barge design that would tow easily and track well.


His design has been likened to a cigar with bent up ends. The sheer strake (vertical hull sides) of a conventional vessel met the horizontal weather deck at a right-angle gunwale; a whaleback hull had a continuous curve above the waterline from the vertical to the horizontal to where the sides met inboard. The bow and stern were nearly identical in shape, both conoid, truncated to end in a relatively small disc. The superstructure atop the hull was in or on round or oval “turrets”, so named because of their resemblance to gunhouses on contemporary warships. Cabins, decks, and other superstructure were often mounted atop these turrets.
When fully loaded, only the curved portion of the hull remained above the water, giving the vessel its “whaleback” appearance. Instead of crashing into the sides of the hull, waves would simply wash over the deck meeting only the minor resistance of the rounded turrets. When fitted with hawse pipes for anchors and a guide for the tow cable, the bow somewhat resembled the snout of a pig, from which came the alternate and usually derisive appellation of “pig boat”. The derision of scoffers notwithstanding, the design performed as McDougall expected. Whether towed or under their own power they were seaworthy vessels and fast for their time.

Significant vessels

Most of the whalebacks (25) were tow barges, all but one of which were identified simply by hull number. Some of these barges had no boiler (and therefore no stack); others had a small boiler for operating winches and for cabin heat (often with a small stack off center). The first self-powered whaleback was the Colgate Hoyt, launched in 1890. The only passenger whaleback was the gleaming white Christopher Columbus, built to ferry passengers from downtown Chicago to the Columbian Exposition in 1893. At her launch she was not only the longest whaleback, but at also the longest vessel on the lakes, gaining her the unofficial title of “Queen of the Lakes”. Reportedly, the Christopher Columbus carried more passengers in her career than any other vessel in the world. The self-powered Charles W. Wetmore (1891 – 265 ft) was the first lake vessel to leave the lakes. She took a load of grain from Duluth to Liverpool, England, shooting the St. Lawrence rapids in the process. In Liverpool she inspired the design of turret deck ships, which were similar in some ways to whalebacks. After a stop at New York City, Wetmore rounded Cape Horn to carry supplies for McDougall’s plan to start a shipyard in Everett, Washington. Only one boat was assembled at the Everett shipyard, the SS City of Everett (1894 – 346 ft). The City of Everett sailed for 29 years and was not only the first American steamship to navigate the Suez Canal, but also the first American steamship to circumnavigate the globe. The last whaleback, the Alexander McDougall (1898 – 430 ft), was the only whaleback made with a traditionally shaped bow. The only remaining whaleback is the Meteor (formerly the Frank Rockefeller). She is ashore as a museum at Superior, Wisconsin, but is currently in danger of deteriorating beyond repair. She was listed in 2004 as among Wisconsin’s most endangered historic structures.
The remains of the Thomas Wilson lie just outside the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota. The Wilson was wrecked as a result of a collision with the George Hadley, which was inbound for the Duluth harbor at the same time the Wilson was departing Duluth. The wreck is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Why they failed

While the whalebacks were seaworthy and at times broke cargo records, they never did fully overcome the typical resistance to the unfamiliar. While there was some help from John D. Rockefeller when he was expanding his control in the steel industry, the design failed primarily due to problems with the hatches. At first the hatches were “flush mounted” and when closed almost looked like part of the hull. The hatch covers and/or the edges of the hatch openings, however, tended to warp or get bent in use, destroying the watertight seal. Later vessels had hatch coamings. While this improved upon the problem, it was not enough to make up for the relatively small size of the hatches. Because the sides of the boats curved in, the hatches were not as wide as on traditional boats. The unloading equipment was restricted in its movement, and there were often collisions between the unloading equipment and the hatch edges. As many bulk carriers have learned, speed in unloading is critical for making a profit.

A place in history

Some have claimed that the whalebacks were the prototype for the standard bulk carriers to follow. While certain design features were adapted to more traditional hull designs (most of the self-powered whalebacks were “stern enders”), the whalebacks cannot be said to be the prototypes of all to follow. They were a unique variation on a principle of design that started with the R.J. Hackett in 1869 and advanced with the Onoko (the second iron hulled Great Lakes bulk carrier) in 1882. These principles included the consolidation of above deck cabins at the extreme forward and aft limits of the hull to leave a large open area above the hold for both loading and unloading equipment, as well as a nearly box like cross section to the hull to enable heavy cargos in shallow water.



  • McDougall’s Dream, The American Whaleback by John H. Wilterding, Jr.; Lakeside Publications Ltd; Printed by Badger Bay Printers, Green Bay, Wisconsin; Copyright 1969 by John H. Wilterding, Jr.
  • Great Lakes Bulk Carriers 1869–1985 by John F. Devendorf; Published 1996 by John F. Devendorf, Niles, MI; Printed by Apollo Printing and Graphics Center, South Bend, Indiana; Copyright 1995 by John F. Devendorf
whaleback in French: Whaleback
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