Remembering the day Stewart J. Cort sailed by

From the New York Times, May 27, 1980: Stewart J. Cort, former president and chairman of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation who was one of the ...

From the New York Times, May 27, 1980:

Stewart J. Cort, former president and chairman of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation who was one of the industry's most aggressive leaders in the early 1970's, died Sunday at his home in Bethlehem, Pa. He was 69 years old.

Unless you or a family member worked for Bethlehem Steel before its demise, or you are a business historian, you have probably never heard the name. There is small group of people in the Upper Midwest coastal areas however who know the name but not because of Mr. Cort's steel executive career.

Many Great Lake coastal residents might know that name as the first 1,000-foot lake freighter placed into operation. The Stewart J. Cort was placed into operation 50 years ago yesterday.

Much like train spotters, there is a devoted subculture in the Great Lakes region of people who observe and track the movement of lake freighters. Although the number of lake freighters in operation has declined in the last 40-year with the deindustrialization along the Great Lakes, there are still lake freighters in operation moving a variety of commodities.

As unusual as it seems, when I was an 8th grader at Grosse Ile Junior High School, now call Grosse Ile Middle School in Grosse Ile, Mich (see map here), looking at freighters passing by on the Detroit River from class was a pass time for many students, especially boys. Residents of Grosse Ile regularly saw freighters go up and down the wide eastern channel of the Detroit River that separates the U.S. from Canada and are still part of the day-to-day scenery. 

Based on its formal launch on May 1, 1972, from Erie, Penn. and that it passed through the Soo Lock in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on the 3rd, it probably passed Grosse Ile on the morning of May 2, 1972, the only likely time it would sail the Detroit River as it was going to be on a dedicated run between Superior, Wisc., and Bethlehem Steel's Burns Harbour, Ind. mill. It was a big enough event that 50 years ago today the 600 or so GIJHS students were allowed out of class to congregate on the school's front lawn to watch the massive ship pass.  

Given we saw the ship around 10 a.m. it would have passed through the narrow straits of the Detroit River between Downtown Detroit and Downtown Windsor, Ontario right around lunch hour. It was a big event to watch the passing massive ship. 

As noted on

Well-wishers lined the shores of the Detroit, St. Clair and St. Mary's rivers to what the super ship make her maiden voyage. She passed through the Soo Locks on May 3, 1972 under the command of Capt. Edward P. Fitch.

Even though the original owner of the Stewart J. Cort, Bethlehem Steel is gone and steel manufacturing in the Upper Midwest is a fraction of it what it once was, the Cort still operates and is now owned by Ohio-based The Interlake Steamship Company. Not long after launch, Cort was breaking several records of one of the previous big lake freighters on "the pride of the American side," as Gordon Lightfoot would later memorialize, The Edmund Fitzgerald. 

Since that time other 1,000-foot plus lake freighters were put in operation, but she was the first.

D.A. Gougherty

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