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Port of call: Cleveland ; Relive the days when lake freighters were a symbol of American industrial might aboard an old ore boat converted into a maritime museum

I have a confession: I've had a lifelong love affair with the Great Lakes.

It's something I can't control, and it continues to this day.

My wonder and amazement stretches from wild Isle Royale to the picturesque Thousand Islands, from the Indiana dunes to blue-water Georgian Bay, from thundering Niagara to fudge shops on Mackinac Island, from Lake Erie islands to old lighthouses.

Those feelings were undoubtedly nurtured by family vacations and trips to the Welland Canal linking Lakes Ontario and Erie, and the mighty Sault Ste. Marie locks connecting Lake Superior and the four other lakes.

But a big part of the Great Lakes' charm when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was the hard-working iron-ore boats that traveled their waters.

The boats carried ore, coal, grain and limestone, but for decades, they were a symbol of America's industrial might. They had a special mystique, a Great Lakes aura.

The boats -- big, bulky and clunky in a homely sort of way -- hauled Minnesota iron ore south to Cleveland and other Ohio ports to be turned into steel.

One place where you can get a glimpse of what life was like on the Great Lakes is to tour the William G. Mather, a decommissioned ore boat built in 1925.

It is a floating maritime museum docked at the Great Lakes Science Center/NASA Glenn Visitor Center on the Cleveland waterfront. It attempts to interpret the relationship between technology, history, commerce and the environment. It is a reminder of a once-golden era on the Great Lakes.

The steamship, 618 feet in length, 62 feet wide and drawing nearly 33 feet of water when fully loaded, is billed as "the ship that built Cleveland."

That's because the bulk carrier, the flagship of the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co., was often bound for the steel mills in Cleveland. It was retired in 1980.

The Mather is a Northeast Ohio attraction worth seeing -- from inside its cargo holds that could store up to 14,000 tons to the surprisingly compact engine room, from a formal dining room for as many as eight guests to the bridge from which the captain ran the ship.

The ship was the state of the art when it was built and was known for its gracious passenger quarters. Today the once-elegant ship has the look and feel of your grandmother's attic.

You can explore the Mather on a do-it-yourself tour -- just follow the orange signals on the deck -- in about 90 minutes. That requires going up and down ladders between decks.

The Mather is filled with stories -- hundreds of stories and volunteers who staff the floating museum are prepared to fill you in.

For example, the Mather led a convoy of 13 ore boats through the ice-filled Great Lakes to Duluth, Minn., in early 1941 because of the Allies' need for steel, setting a record for the first arrival in a northern port.

It was one of the first Great Lakes boats to be equipped with radar in 1946, and in 1964, bow thrusters, or dual propellers, were installed at the front of the boat to make it easier to negotiate the twists on the Cuyahoga River to reach Cleveland's steel mills.

It had a crew of 37 until 1964, then 29 for its last years, until 1980.

The Mather -- named after Cleveland Cliffs' president in 1925 -- was fired with coal from 1925 to 1954. It had a quadruple expansion reciprocating steam engine. Then it was retrofitted with an oil-fired steam turbine. With its new engines, the Mather could go 15 mph.

All the changes on the Mather led to the boat being named a National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1995.

The ship features what's called a bluff bow: It is high and designed to push water aside. Cargo capacity is more important than speed on the Great Lakes.

There are 18 cargo hatches on the Mather. They lead to four holds, all 30 feet deep.

The boat was what was called a "straight decker" and had to be unloaded with equipment on shore.

Standing on the deck of the Mather, it is hard to fathom how the crew could work aboard such a vessel when winds and storms hit the Great Lakes.

Two lifeboats, each capable of holding 25 people, are displayed on the boat deck, along with other memorabilia.

On the boat deck, you can get a look at the Mather's two distinctive Leslie Tyfons boat whistles. One produced a C note one octave below middle C; the other generated an F note, a half-octave lower. The reverberating bass chord could be heard for miles across the waters.

In the early 1980s, the Mather was docked in storage by Cleveland-Cliffs in Toledo. In 1987, the boat was donated to the Great Lakes Historical Society, which gave it to the newly formed Harbor Heritage Society. The ship was acquired by the Great Lakes Science Center in late 2006.

Today the Mather draws about 25,000 visitors a year.


If you go:

The Mather is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in June, July and August and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday in May, September and October.

Admission is $6.95 plus tax for adults and $4.95 for youths 2 to 17.