In a radio broadcast on December 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the United States to arm and support the Allies in their resistance to a rapidly expanding Nazi Germany. Roosevelt asked that the United States become an “arsenal of democracy” and apply its industry towards supporting the war effort. Some of that effort was undertaken by the Steamship William G. Mather.
The William G. Mather, built and launched in 1925, was the flagship of the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company. The ship runs 618 feet long, with a cargo capacity of 14,000 tons. In operation for 55 years, it carried millions of tons of iron ore from the mines of Minnesota and Upper Michigan across the Great Lakes to the steel mills of Cleveland, as well as coal and limestone.
In 1941, following Roosevelt’s exhortation, the Mather took on a new role as an icebreaker. It led a 13-freighter convoy through the frozen Great Lakes, not only collecting a massive quantity of iron from the ore docks in Duluth, but also setting a speed record. This feat was chronicled in an issue of Life magazine and became a significant part of the ship’s mythology.
The record-setting trip to Minnesota would not be the Mather’s only first. It was one of the earliest ships in this region to be outfitted with radar and the first to have a fully automated boiler system. Indeed, it went through such a sequence of restorations that it seems its owners were determined not to let it go, whatever the cost. At the end of its career, it would be the very last freighter in the Cleveland Cliffs fleet—they had already sold off or retired all of the rest.
The Mather faithfully traversed the Great Lakes until 1980. It opened as a museum in 1990 and is now a popular attraction in the Cleveland area. Visitors can walk the lengthy deck, explore the cavernous cargo holds, and poke around the towering engine room. The Mather is now docked by the Great Lakes Science Center, which acquired the great ship in 2006.
Know Before You Go
The William G. Mather is docked at Dock 32, west of the East Ninth Street Pier.