2011 and Earlier / Special Interests

'Port Leelanau' only a memory

A tragic airplane accident.
A 91-year-old mystery.
A sudden tugboat sinking that claimed the life of a crewman.

All of the events are connected to the Rennie Oil dock, Leelanau’s longest-serving commercial marine facility.
THE SHIP Chicago Socony was covered in ice at the Rennie Dock after a rough trip on Lake Michigan in March 1959.THE SHIP Chicago Socony was covered in ice at the Rennie Dock after a rough trip on Lake Michigan in March 1959.
The old coal dock in Greilickville, meanwhile, has been largely bereft of coal for a number of years and is now known as “Heritage Harbor.” And the adjacent former Sinclair oil dock is now the jumping-off point for local pleasure cruises aboard “windjammers.”

But, in the years following World War II, the three Greilickville structures all hosted large ships and were collectively known as “Port Leelanau.”

All of commercial activity gradually wound down, and the term Port Leelanau is rarely heard anymore although the three docks remain.

The southernmost dock, the last to see waterborne shipments of petroleum, was the first oil dock to be built, despite a family tragedy at the very outset.

Greilickville’s commercial port era began after the close of an earlier, more colorful era – when freight and passenger vessels called on scheduled stops.

After the stock market crash of 1929, the steel steamers “Puritan and the Manitou continued to make regular calls at Traverse Bay ports, but the company became insolvent in 1931 and operations were abandoned,” the late area historian Larry Wakefield wrote in his book, Rail and Sail.

“This, for all practical purposes, marked the end of regular passenger service on Bay waters,” he continued. “Henceforth, the only large ships to be seen on Grand Traverse Bay, were the oil tankers, coal and chemical boats, and an occasional cruise ship of the Georgian Bay Line – North American, South American and Alabama.”

Modest beginnings
The Rennie Oil Company, which called itself the “Pioneer Station of the North,” had a modest beginning at the northwest corner of State and Union streets in Traverse City. Nevertheless, it claimed in 1920 to be the first “drive-in station” north of Grand Rapids, although it could boast of just one hand-operated pump.

Twenty-seven years later, thanks in large part to the Greilickville Marine Terminal, Rennie was supplying dozens of regional outlets with “Mobilgas,” then the country’s best-selling gasoline.

Most of the stations were “mom and pop” operations, and they were, indeed, “service stations.” Not only would a vehicle be fueled for a motorist, but the attendant would also normally wash the windshield and check the oil as well. If any tires low, he’d fill them, too.
These small stations were truly prolific.
A SIGN with the Mobil Gas logo marked the location of the Rennie Oil Co. dock in a photo from more than 40 years ago. In port at the time was the Pleides.A SIGN with the Mobil Gas logo marked the location of the Rennie Oil Co. dock in a photo from more than 40 years ago. In port at the time was the Pleides.
In the Maple City area alone, in 1947, Rennie supplied Fred Lanham’s Service and Ervin Amidon’s Grocery, as well as J.E. Poulin, Deck’s Boat Service and George Shalda.

Mobil dealers in Empire included Jim Johnson, Henry LaBeau and William Sattler. Then there was Louis Warnes in Glen Haven and Erv Feigel’s Service in Glen Arbor.

In Cedar it was Paul Garvin’s Garage, and Albin Belanger served Lake Leelanau, while John Van Raalte took care of Leland.

In Suttons Bay there was Herman Fischer’s Garage and E.M. Cummings. Northport was served by Cook and Parker.

An airplane tragedy
An unfortunate accident coincided with the establishment of the marine terminal, and three men lost their lives. It occurred in the summer of 1933 when Charles E. Rennie, Jr. (vice-president of the family business) made arrangements to fly to Milwaukee in conjunction with the permitting process for the dock.

Rennie, along with his wife, Margaret, and pilot Jim Gillette, as well as mechanic George Keller, left Traverse City in mid-morning on June 22 in Gillette’s pontoon-equipped Stinson airplane.

Although the weather was fair, the party encountered heavy fog over Lake Michigan and Gillette decided to land the plane on the water and taxi to the beach until the fog lifted.
The plane, however, hit the water much too hard.

“We struck the water on an angle which turned the pontoons backward and we were somewhat bruised when the plane lurched upon hitting the water,” Margaret Rennie related a few days after the tragedy. ”We immediately took off all our heavier clothing and made flags with which to signal and also to be prepared to take to the water.”

The men made a makeshift raft from anything aboard that would float. Swimming behind it with Margaret Rennie aboard, they tried to push it ashore after the plane sank several hours after the impact.

The task, however, was too arduous and the lake, even in June, was too cold. One by one, they dropped off the raft and drowned within 24 hours.

Thirty-three hours after the crash, with darkness approaching, crewmen on the Ann Arbor No. 7, bound for Kewaunee, Wis., from Frankfort, spotted the raft and its lone occupant.

The ship was stopped and a lifeboat was quickly dispatched. Despite her ordeal, the lone survivor recovered quickly and went on to live a long life.

A few months later, some of the lost men’s jettisoned clothing was found by Capt. Fred Marsh’s Coast Guardsmen on South Manitou Island – about 33 miles north of where the plane struck the water.

Event remains mystery

One of Lake Michigan’s most familiar ships in the first half of the 20th century was the freight and passenger liner Alabama. In its final years of operation, following World War II, it made occasional stops at the Greilickville dock, loaded with passengers on special excursions.

But it was a regular run from West Michigan to Chicago, in the summer of 1919, that left area people scratching their heads.

Ralph Anderson, a third generation prominent Traverse City businessman, was to have returned from a business trip via the steamer Alabama and Pere Marquette Railroad.

But he never disembarked from the ship when it docked at Muskegon on June 10, although his undisturbed luggage was found in a stateroom he had rented.

“They searched the Alabama from stem to stern and found nothing,” says Elmwood Township resident Curtis Frook. The 38-year-old Anderson, an undertaker, was Frook’s maternal grandfather.

“The ship’s captain called my grandmother regarding the incident and suggested her husband may have jumped overboard. ‘No way!’ was her reaction,” said Frook.

Apparently, Anderson had no financial or health concerns and had never spoken of suicide. “Certainly, something has happened to him,” lamented Orpha Anderson, speculating he may have met with some sort of foul play.

“In the absence of conclusive proof that her husband was dead, Mrs. Anderson was years in recovering her husband’s life insurance money,” Wakefield wrote. “She finally had to take the Illinois insurance firm to court in that state, and eventually obtained a judgment in her favor.”

But what actually happened to Ralph Anderson, 91 years ago, remains a mystery.
Tugboat sinks suddenly

In early November 1980, the tanker Amoco Wisconsin was headed for Greilickville when it experienced engine failure off Cathead Point.

Coast Guard vessels were dispatched and towed the stricken vessel as far as Suttons Bay, where the towing was taken over by two commercial tugs – the William Selvick and the Lauren Castle.

Heading for the marine terminal on Nov. 5, the Castle collided with the tanker and quickly sank in about 400 feet of water. Several tug crewmen were rescued, but an engineer, 51-year-old William Stephan of Elmhurst, Ill., drowned.

The Wisconsin was the most frequent visitor of three Amoco tankers that regularly served the terminal throughout the 1970s. The other two were the Amoco Illinois and the Amoco Illinois.

Prior to that, the terminal was routinely visited by smaller vessels such as the Traverse City Socony and the Chicago Socony (Standard Oil Company of New York).

Traverse City Socony

The Traverse City Socony, one of the few ships built on the Great Lakes during the Great Depression, was launched at Manitowoc, Wis., in 1938.

It could be argued that the name was something of a misnomer since, technically, it was routinely docking at Greilickville, and not Traverse City.

After a few decades of service on the lakes, the vessel was taken to Brooklyn in New York City for saltwater service in 1962, and renamed the Raymond Bushey.

About 20 years later, the tanker underwent a remarkable conversion.

The 290-foot ship was again re-named, this time Bering Trader, and the vessel’s theater of operations shifted again – this time even more dramatically than the first time around.

She was taken to the West Coast and then Alaska.

But the really big change was the conversion of the boat to a modern, floating fish processing factory.
Special equipment, made in Denmark, was reportedly capable of freezing 10,000 pounds of fish in an hour.
Tanks on the Bering Trader were said to be capable of holding 240,000 pounds of salmon or 400,000 pounds of crab.

Despite the fact the ship was over 40 years old, no one balked at the expense of conversion.
A number of Great Lakes ships older than that have been totally rebuilt and gone on to lead “second careers.”

Historic vessels
Other ships that called at the Rennie Dock included some now historic vessels.

The Cleveland Tankers’ 1912 vessel Mercury was the first large American tanker to be built on the Great Lakes.

And the Meteor, built in 1896 and converted to a tanker during World War II, is now a marine museum at Superior, Wis. Launched as the Frank Rockefeller, she is the last of her breed – a “whaleback” vessel that featured a unique, cigar-shaped design developed by Capt. Alexander McDougal.

The design was so unique to the lakes that many people once thought these steamers were the only type of vessel operating on the lakes, although fewer than 50 – mostly barges – were actually constructed.

Other tankers calling at Greilickville included Comet, Blue Comet, Plelades, Polaris (formerly a World War II LST), Jupiter, Saturn, Gemini and Daniel Pierce (from saltwater).

In addition to the conventional tankers, many tug/barge combinations delivered various petroleum products to the terminal down through the years.

And, for the foreseeable future at least, our world still runs on oil.

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