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History’s Gem of the Month – The Shark: Post 2

September 2012

This is the second History’s Gem of the Month posting featuring a thesis written in 1995 by Jim Williams for a class at Western Michigan University. The curator of the Michigan Maritime Museum gave me a copy of the thesis when the museum also gifted me with the Shark. The thesis is several pages long, so I’ll include it over three postings.

Shark: A Lake Superior Fish Tug

By Jim Williams

Ingredients for a New Boat


The Builder

Otto Niemi learned early how to work with his hands. As a boy, he did odd jobs around boat yards, learning from journeymen boat builders. He studied boat yards in the harbors where he sailed as a teenage crewman on the run from Finland to England. When it came time to build his fourth boat, Otto combined his memories of European boat yards with his experience building the Elk. He also drew upon his years of fishing experience to design a boat suited to conditions on Lake Superior.


Otto’s skill with his hands extended to metal-working. He learned blacksmithing as a young man, at one time having the offer made of an apprenticeship in the trade. The skill served him well when it came time to fashion the iron and steel fittings for Elk and Shark.

Otto Niemi no doubt counted the talents of his sons among his boat-building resources. The Niemis stand out as a family of energetic, resourceful, sharp-witted people. Building the Shark clearly involved all the male family members, to one degree or another.

Building the Shark took nearly two years. The Niemi boys worked alongside their father whenever they could, during that time. Axel had the most ongoing involvement, since he stayed home while his brothers went off to college. The other sons, Alfred, Arvi, and Arvo, pitched in whenever they had a break from their studies. Shark reflects the spirit of co-cooperation that the immigrant Finns brought to many ventures in their adopted homeland.

The Boat Type

Boats used for work, travel, and transport on the Great Lakes took many shapes. A boat design evolves to meet two requirements: its intended use, and the conditions the boat will face. From the Indian canoe to today’s thousand-foot bulk carriers, each design fits the boat’s niche in the maritime economy of the lakes. The fish tug typifies that type of evolution.

Mackinaw Boat

The fish tug of Shark’s type reflects a development process that began with early bateaux, tracks its lineage through the Mackinaw boat, and reaches a mid-point with the sailing workboats of the nineteenth century. This paper cannot hope to trace the workboat heritage of the Great Lakes, or even that of Lake Superior; it represents far too massive an undertaking. The venerable Mackinaw boat, with the uncertainty about its derivation and regional variants, serves as a case in point.

Collingwood Skiff

Howard Chapella, in his American Small Sailing Craft, catalogs several variations of the Mackinaw boat type. He says that “the Mackinaw boat was also known as the “Collingwood skiff.” He goes on to say that the Collingwood skiff originated with a small skiff built on Lake Ontario, about 1854. Grace Lee Nute, in her book Lake Superior, says that “by 1825 the Mackinac boat had largely supplanted the canoe on the south shore of Lake Superior.” This apparent contradiction represents two different time lines for the same boat type.

Disagreement even exists over exactly what constitutes a Mackinaw boat. Nute says a Mackinaw “was a barge of red or white oak board with a flat bottom and rather blunt ends over a stiff heavy frame.” Chapelle, on the other hand, applies several different descriptions to boats of the Mackinaw type, suggesting that no such distinct type existed. Clearly, the evolution of Great Lakes boat types needs much more research in order to clarify even the most basic questions.

Like the Mackinaw boat, no thorough tracing of the evolution of the Great Lakes fish tug exists. Robert Grunst’s unpublished work stands out as probably the most research on the type done by anyone. Talking with Grunst leads one to some basic generalizations about the boats.

The ancestry of fish tugs like the Shark goes back to sailing workboats that plied the Great Lakes in the mid-nineteenth century. With the advent of steam power, many owners retrofitted their boats with engines. The made-over workboats found employment in the lakes developing barge-towing trade. Later, when barge towing began to slacken, fishermen bought idled tugs, adapting them to work in the fishery. A recent find of an 1870 newspaper article points to Erie, Pennsylvania, as the building place of the first steam tug built expressly for fishing on the Great Lakes.

The first fish tugs had open decks, with only the wheelhouse and engine covered over. The next stage of evolution saw fishermen roofing over the sterns of their boats, but leaving the bows open for lifting nets. When fishermen began to install mechanical net lifters in their boats’ bows they found it no longer necessary to have open foredecks; they could close in that part of the boat, getting the crew out of the weather. The called this a “turtled-over box.”

Fish Tug

Two power-plant advances affected fish tug design in the mid-1930s: the Collemberg semi-diesel, and powerful, efficient gasoline engines. Better engines brought bigger boats. Most fish tugs of the time fell into the size range of thirty-eight to sixty feet long, with a beam ranging from thirteen and a half to fourteen feet.

Location of a fish tug’s wheelhouse reflects how the fisherman uses his boat. Placement of the wheelhouse at the boat’s stern enables two people to work the boat; the helmsman tends the net setting from the stern hatch while the other person works in the bow lifting nets or carrying boxes back and forth. A boat with her pilot house sitting amidship, as a rule requires a crew of more than two people, usually three or four; the helmsman cannot easily reach either bow or stern from his middle-of-the-boat position to help with fish and nets. “Mid-house” boats run to the upper size range, averaging from forty-eight to fifty-five feet long.

Otto Niemi’s design for the Shark reveals how he intended to use her. He planned his boat for thirty-three feet long, with her wheelhouse in the stern. He clearly expected to fish with only a small crew, perhaps even single-handed on occasion. Shark’s relatively small size shows that Otto did not intend to bring home overly large catches; her carrying capacity for both gear and fish show her owner’s modest expectations. For power, he planned to use the same 1919 Fordson tractor engine that drove the Elk.

Building the Shark

When Otto Niemi wanted a new fishing boat, he hoped to have it built by the Wiinika Brothers, a boatyard on the Lower Portage Ship Channel, near Chassel, Michigan. Wiinika’s had a reputation for building good boats; over the years their yard built more than thirty tugs for the Great Lakes fishery. Niemi found the Wiinika’s price more than he could afford, so he and his sons decided to build the new boat themselves.

Otto had in mind two changes from the design he used on the Elk. Elk’s fantail stern proved itself a weak point, showing the most deterioration as the boat aged. Otto meant to remedy Elk’s stern weakness by giving his new fish a transom stern. Alfred says that his father also wanted to build the new boat narrower.

“The Elk was too beamy,” says Alfred, in any kind of a sea, you had to keep from getting caught on the quarter, or she’d roll very badly.”

Fantail Stern
Transom Stern
Fantail Stern
Transom Stern

Otto designed Shark to have an overall length of thirty-four feet and a beam of ten-and-a-half feet. Alfred remembers that his father sat down with a 1-feet by 2-foot pine board and sketched out the new tug on it. Otto drew an elevation of the boat, then a top view; he worked over his sketches until he got just the hull shape he wanted. He then marked on those views just where he would place his station molds when he set up to build the hull.

Axel responded to a question about how his father arrived at Shark’s design with a chuckle.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “I never told anybody else. When we were at Wiinika’s yard we walked around and looked at the boats they were building. We said, “We can build the boat ourselves.” So we took a good look at Wiinika’s boats and how they were putting them together, and we went home and got started.”

Niemi ordered White Oak for the hull from a mill near Corunna, Michigan. The oak arrived in Grand Marais fresh from the mill, “real green,” according to Axel. The Niemis didn’t realize until later what problems the unseasoned lumber caused.

The family laid down Shark’s keel timber first, a stick of oak measuring “about six inches by at least eight inches by thirty feet long.” They set up the oak stem and the station molds on the keel, then built a jig to bend the ribs around. Always inventive, the Niemis turned a cast-off hog scalder into a steamer for softening the rib stock.”

Pig Scalder

Otto wanted a boat capable of taking the punishment that Lake Superior dishes out, so he planned shark as a heavy-built vessel. Most boats of Shark’s size get framed with matching pairs of ribs spaced along the keel. That way the heal of each rib fits into a mortise in the keel. Niemis bent Shark’s ninety-six ribs in single pieces, so that they pass from side to side over the top of the keel. They then put a 2 ½ inch x 3 inch oak keelson on top, sandwiching the ribs between it and the keel. Niemis finished the keel framing by putting sixteen-inch bolts through keel and keelson, clamping the ribs in place.

The Niemis built the Shark in an unheated shed along the waterfront. As the first winter of boatbuilding pressed on, Otto came down with pneumonia from working in the cold. While he lay sick in bed for several days, the boys noticed a flaw in the boat’s design. Eyeballing the hull as it began taking shape, they decided that the Shark carried her beam too far aft, making her too wide in the stern. Taking it upon themselves to remedy the situation, the Niemi brothers took down the transom mold and cut six inches form each side. Replacing the transom, they continued planking the hull. Otto left the change alone when he came back to work, apparently agreeing with the boys’ design change.

Planking the hull presented its own set of problems. First of all, they bought the plank material rough cut, planning to hand plane it. By chance, a man with a portable electric planer came to town. When he saw that Otto and his sons had all that hand work to do, he offered to plane it for them. In the end, he charged them $15.00 to plane what Axel remembers as 1,500 to 2,000, board feet of green white oak down to 1 ¼ inch thickness. Axel laughs when he talks about how much work that man saved them.

Axel remembers that as they started planking, he realized that they could not just lay straight planks up to the boat’s stem. Instead, each plank needed a taper cut in it, so that as it bent around the curve of the bow it would lay fair to the stem, and to the planks above and below it. They had no power tools, so they tapered each plank using a hand saw and plane. They also planed the edge of each plank to accept caulking.

Planking became a time-consuming process, according to Alfred. The process started by steaming each plank until it softened enough to allow bending to the shape of the hull. When the plank became workable, the builders took it out of the steam box, clamped it to the ribs, and marked it for shaping. They then took it off the ribs and either sawed or planed to the marks. Then the plank went back into the steam box for re-softening. Once it got soft again it came back out of the steamer and re-hung. The clamp, mark, cut, and re-steam process continued until the plank fit properly.

They clamped the fitted plank to the ribs and drilled through both pieces. They then drove galvanized nails through the tight-fitting holes, leaving two inches of nail inside the hull for clenching over. The Niemis worked at each plank in that manner, the archetypal “cut-and-try” method. Both Alfred and Axel have vivid memories of the lengthy planking process.

Boat Planks

As the oak dried during the planking process, the seams began to open up wider than expected. The Niemis realized the problem when caulking began. Instead of narrow seams requiring a single strand of cotton caulking, many seams opened wide enough to require two or three strands. Axel remembers that this problem dogged the boat as the planks swelled and shrank. The Niemis occasionally had to lay in extra strands of caulking in order to keep the boat dry. As a side note, Axel carefully points out that they did not use oakum to fill the Shark’s plank seams, but used only spun cotton caulking. When they finished caulking and painting the hull they gave Shark an “ice iron, ´a piece of galvanized iron mounted on the stem at the waterline to protect it from ice damage.

Cotton Caulking


History's Gems Archives

May 2007
(The Telescope Story)

June 2007
(The Story of the Grand Marais "Meteor")

July 2007
(Hints on Hunting Glacial Agate Article)

August 2007
(Lake Superior Origin from 1957)

Fall 2007
(Tourist Information from the 1920s)

December 2007
(Lake Superior Editorial)

January 2008
(Grand Marais Tourist Signpost)

February 2008
(Unusual Wedding Invitation)

March 2008
(1915 Rules for Teachers)

April 2008
(Cedar Stump article from 1962)

May 2008
(Old Postcards)

June 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal Proposal-Part 1)

Summer 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 2)

Summer 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 3)

October 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal Proposal-Part 4)

November 2008
(Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Proposal-Part 5)

December 2008
(Agate Leaflet from 1927)

January 2009
(Old Postcards)

February 2009
(Snowstorm Article from 1988)

March 2009
(Lake Superior Agate Poem)

Spring 2009
(History of M77)

July 2009
(Axel Niemi Photo)

August 2009
(Ship Travel on Lake Superior)

September 2009
(Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates)

Fall 2009
(Hints on Hunting and Finding Agates Part 2)

February 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 1)

February 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 2)

April/May 2010
(The Story of Grand Marais Part 3)

June 2010
(Box of Rocks Gets Diploma)

July 2010
(Shipwrecks at Agate Beach)

August/September 2010
(1958 Detroit News Article about Axel Niemi)

Fall 2010
(Reprint from the Douglas Houghton Expedition)

Winter 2011
(Old Postcards and Pictures)

Spring 2011
(1905 Grand Marais Article)

September 2011
(Michigan Log Marks)

March 2012
(John Keating)

January 2012
(Axel Remembered)

March 2012
(John Keating)

June 2012
(The Shark: Post 1)

September 2012
(The Shark: Post 2)

March 2013
(The Shark: Post 3)

August 2013
(All That Glitters. . .)

November 2013
(Excerpts from The Grand Marais Herald)

April 2014
(Souvenir View Book of Sault Ste. Marie)

September 2014
(Michigan Beach Stones)

February 2015
(Michiganís Mystic Dunes)

June 2015
(Vintage Grand Marais Photos)

November 2015
(Gitchee Agomowin)

June 2016
(Grand Marais Poems)

March 2017
(Logging Era Photos)

July 2017
(Jonas Hill Letters)

December 2017
(Seagull (Lost) Island, Grand Marais Bay)


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