Alpena: Classic Laker 80 Years Young

By Ed Bansek  |  Lakers & Salties, Meet the Fleet
In mid-March, the cement carrier Alpena departed her winter lay up dock in Cleveland sporting a fresh coat of paint from her five year inspection at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding at the end of the 2021 season. The Alpena began its 80th year on the Great Lakes by heading to its homeport of Alpena, Michigan, for their first load of powdered cement.

The Alpena has had a long and interesting career on the Great Lakes. The keel for hull number 287 was laid down on June 5, 1941 at the Great Lakes Engineering Works River Rouge yard in Ecorse, Michigan and launched on February 28,1942 for the Pittsburgh Steamship Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Hull 287 was named for Leon Fraser who served as vice president of the First National Bank of New York from 1935 until his retirement in 1937. Mr. Fraser also served as a director of the United States Steel Corporation. The Leon Fraser departed the shipyard on June 21, 1942 bound for Duluth, Minnesota, for her first cargo of iron ore.

Alpena in Cleveland
Alpena in Cleveland

The Leon Fraser was the first of a class of identical ships called the “Supers” or “AA’s” built during World War II to carry iron ore for the war effort. The other four ships in the class were the Benjamin F. Fairless, A.H. Ferbert, Irving S. Olds, and the Enders M. Voorhees. All the ships had dimensions of 639’ 6” length, 67’ 2” beam and 35’ depth with a gross registered tonnage of 10,294. The Voorhees and Ferbert were also built at Great Lakes Engineering Works, while the Fairless and Olds were built at the American Shipbuilding yard in Lorain, Ohio.

One notable achievement in the Leon Fraser’s career was the modifications to operate in slat water down the St. Lawrence Seaway to bring back Labrador ore for U.S. Steel mills on the lakes. The Leon Fraser was also the first to transit downbound in the new McArthur lock at the Soo on July 11, 1943, and to participate in the winter-long navigation program in the mid 1970’s.

The Fraser’s 4,400 shp DeLaval double reduction cross-compound steam engine and two coal-fired water tube boilers were converted to oil and a bow thruster was installed over the winter of 1969-1970 at Amship.

The Fraser laid up for the last time for U.S. Steel on December 20, 1981 at the old Amship dock in Lorain, Ohio. The boat was sold in 1985 to Spitzer Marine LTD of Lorain for potential use as a casino and entertainment complex. When that plan fell through the Fraser was sold again in 1989 to Fraser Shipyard in Superior, Wisconsin.

The Fraser was towed from her lay up berth at Lorain on October 22, 1989 by the tugs Malcolm and Superior with a destination of the Fraser Shipyard at Superior, Wisconsin, where she was to be converted to a cement carrier arriving on October 27, 1989.

While in the drydock at Fraser Shipyard during 1990, the 120-foot mid-section was removed and then the drydock was flooded to float the two ends of the ship where they were welded back together and a self-unloading system was installed. Her new dimensions are now 519’6” length, 67’ wide and 35’ depth with a gross tonnage of 8,018 and a capacity of 14,000 long tons. This smaller size allows her to call on the small ports.

The reconfigured boat underwent sea trials on May 31, 1991. She then departed Fraser Shipyards on June 6, 1991 on her way to Alpena arriving on June 8, 1991. Re-christening ceremonies were held on June 10, 1991, where she was given the name Alpena after the city situated on Thunder Bay, an arm of Lake Huron and the location of LaFarge’s main cement plant.

On December 11, 2015, while in the drydock at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, for her five-year survey, the Alpena suffered a major fire in the aft end of the vessel in the electrical control room for the aft winches causing an estimated $4 million in damage. The decision was made to repair the vessel and it returned to service in 2016.

The Alpena continues to sail the Great Lakes for Inland Lakes Management and this classic boat is a favorite of boat watchers.

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