CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES IN THE 1930s ABOARD THE STEAMER SEEANDBEE

YOUTUBE VIDEO – EXCELLENT GREAT LAKES FOOTAGE – MERIT CLUB CRUISE ON BOARD S.S. SEEANDBEE, SEPTEMBER 1937

SS Seeandbee (1913-1947) Built in 1913 by the American Shipbuilding Company, Wyandotte, MI as SS Seeandbee for the U.S.-based Cleveland and Buffalo (hence, the name See and Bee) Transit Company as a side-wheel coal-burning excursion steamer destined for their Great Lakes service.

The ship, made out of all-steel, 6,381 grt, with a passenger capacity of 1,500  on four decks, was the largest and most costly inland steamer on the Great Lakes.

One of her trademark features was an elegant ballroom.

On her maiden voyage, she carried members of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce to Buffalo, NY. Regular trips began in 1913 from the East 9th Street Pier operating on a Cleveland to Buffalo route with special cruises to additional ports such as Detroit, MI and Chicago, IL.

The S.S. Seeandbee docked in Buffalo, ca. 1930. Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Archives

The Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Co. (C&B), a popular steamship line and later a trucking firm, was established by Morris A. Bradley in 1885 and incorporated in 1892. Passenger and freight service was initiated between Cleveland and Buffalo on the “State of Ohio” and the “State of New York,” leaving Cleveland from the foot of St. Clair Ave, and in 1896, the “City of Buffalo” was added. The “City of Erie” replaced the “State of Ohio” in 1898, providing a night-time service from Cleveland to Toledo. In 1914, Cedar Point, Ohio and Put-in-Bay, Ohio were added to the C&B route. At the time the SS Seeandbee joined the fleet, C&B and the Detroit & Cleveland (D&C) Line obtained a 50-year lease from Cleveland for property at the foot of 9th Street for $55,000. There, the two companies built the E. 9th Street Pier and a new lake terminal dedicated in 1915. In exchange, the city built a bridge over the E. 9th Street railroad tracks, paved the E. 9th Street approach, and provided a street railway to the pier.

Seeandbee was the pride of the C&B Transit Company and a consistent moneymaker for them on her summer cruises. However, the destruction of the “City of Buffalo” by fire in 1938, along with the effects of the Great Depression and increasing competition from trucks and railroads caused heavy losses and ultimately resulted in the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company in 1939. That year, the SS Seeandbee was sold to the Chicago-based C&B Transit Company who operated her on a regular schedule through 1941.

The entry of the United States into World War II saw a massive increase in the demand for carrier-qualified pilots. However, it was not always possible to remove a combat carrier from the theater of war to use as a training ship, although some escort carriers occasionally served in this capacity. A unique solution was found to this problem.

On 12 March 1942, the SS Seeandbee, complete with 470 staterooms, 24 parlors, loads of mahogany trim and two side paddle wheels that made her look more like a Mississippi riverboat then a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, was acquired by the U.S. Navy for $756,000. She was initially designated as an unclassified miscellaneous auxiliary. The ship was stripped of all her plush amenities at the American Shipbuilding Company in Cleveland, Ohio She was then towed to Buffalo, NY were on 6 May 1942 1,200 men worked around the clock to transform her into a training aircraft carrier. Her upper work was removed and replaced by a 550-foot-long wooden flight deck that extended well past her bow and stern and a small island was affixed to her starboard side. There was no need for a hangar since trainee pilots landed and, if successful, immediately took off again. Upon completion of the refit, she was commissioned on 2 August 1942 as the USS Wolverine, IX-64, in Buffalo, NY with Commander George R. Fairlamb as her CO. The name “Wolverine” was chosen to honor the state of Michigan, the Wolverine state. Another paddle wheeler, the Greater Buffalo, was also converted and assumed the name of USS Sable, IX-81.

Once in service, their training operations were conducted on Lake Michigan. As the only inland aircraft carriers ever commissioned by the U.S. Navy, they became part of a fleet, commonly known as the “Corn Belt Fleet”. Since access to the Great Lakes was limited by the Saint Lawrence River, neither carrier mounted any weapons since they operated beyond the reach of potential German or Japanese submarines. The hybrids had two unique features. First, they were the only U.S. Navy carriers to use coal for fuel. Second, their primary, and only, propulsion was provided by side paddle wheels, making them the only paddlewheel carriers in history.

Wolverine and Sable, based at Chicago, IL, trained pilots and flight deck personnel, specifically Landing Signal Officers or LSO’s, seven days a week, year round (weather permitting), throughout the war. Together they logged over 135,000 landings and qualified 17,820 Navy and Marine Corps aviators, among them a young pilot by the name of George Herbert Walker Bush who would later become the 41st President of the United States. Wolverine and Sable were a far cry from the Navy’s front-line carriers, but they were found suitable for accomplishing the Navy’s purpose of qualifying naval aviators, fresh out of operational flight training, in carrier landings. The two carriers had certain limitations such as having no elevators or a hangar deck. When crashes used up the allotted spots on the flight deck for parking dud aircraft, the day’s operation would be over and the carriers headed back to the Navy Pier in Chicago.

Once the war was over, USS Wolverine was decommissioned on 7 November 1945, three months after VJ-Day, and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 28 November 1945. On 26 November 1947, she was transferred to the Maritime Commission for disposal and in December 1947 she was sold for scrap and as part of her final disposition broken up at Cleveland, Ohio.

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3 comments

  1. I remember as a 10 year old taking a train from Chicago to Detroit with my father and brother to take a cruise back to Chicago on the Greater Detroit. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

  2. Jeanne Backensto

    I own a large picture of the Seeandbee which is framed. My great aunt Pearl took a trip on it for their honeymoon. I was wanting to know more about it and if was worth any kind of money. It is pretty good size.

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