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From ship to shoreline cottage.

Marc and Jill VanderMeulen are in the process of scraping decades of paint and rust from the front of a retired Great Lakes freighter. Scrapped in 1980, the ship spent its career delivering cement from Alpena to ports throughout the Great Lakes. Now, its forward cabins hove been beached in a waterfront neighborhood in DeTour Village, and it is slowly being transformed into a 5,000-square-foot summer cottage.


A crowd gathered in DeTour in 2005 to watch as a barge delivered the Lewis G. Harriman to its new home on shore. It took until 2010 for the house movers to finish the work of dragging the four-deck steel hull into position and building a foundation.

But Marc VanderMeulen is not deterred by the slow progress. From three decks up on the bow, he can almost forget he's on dry ground. The hull has been positioned so that that it hits the foundation at the boat's old waterline. And the soon-to-be cottage sits close enough to the shore that when Marc stands this high and looks straight ahead, all he sees in front of him is water.

"When the waves are coming from the right direction, if I stand in the right place, I get the impression that the boat is actually moving," he says. "I feel it rocking back and forth."

Sailing on the Harriman

Don Ghiata knows that feeling well. He worked aboard the ship as a deckhand in 1948, and would return to captain the Harriman decades later.

"It [was] a good life," he says of his career in Great Lakes shipping. "I never wanted to take a lunchbox, work eight hours, and leave when the whistle blows."

He may not have wanted to be a factory man, but in those days he didn't really want to be a seaman either. Returning from service in World War II where he was plagued by seasickness, he swore he would never get on a boat again.

"I didn't get into the swing of sailing. It was an entirely different life," he says of that first summer working on the boat.

The deck may have brought plenty of sea air and cool breezes, but the men also had to work days in the hot sun and nights in the driving rain. Ghiata's first purchases for the job were a raincoat and a pair of boots.

Thankfully, as a deckhand, he didn't spend much time down below--a place he describes as unbearably hot. Down in the cargo hold, with the sun radiating off the steel surrounds, he sometimes had to scrape out the extra cement stuck after unloading.


This was also a seasonal living. Before unions and unemployment insurance, Ghiata says men would have to look for work all winter. If there were no jobs, they'd take out a loan to get by and spend the next shipping season paying it off.


It would be years before he would decide to make the sea his lifelong career. As he remembers, most of the other young guys he worked with said the same thing. They were there to earn some quick cash, and then they were going to get off the boat.

"We never called them ships. We called them boats," he says. "If you lived in Mpena, you either worked in one of the factories, or you were on the boats.

"I was a high school dropout, and I thought my best bet was to get on the boat."

In 1948, Ghiata was 21 years old and a new father with bills to pay. His plan was to work the boats just long enough to pay off his debt. At a time when the going wage in Mpena for a blue-collar job was $25 to $35 dollars a week, he could make $75 or $100 dollars a week on the Great Lakes.

It was a family decision. With a young daughter to care for, his wife Thais had to part with her husband for long stretches of time. But she couldn't resist the payout, either.

"'If you brought home $75 dollars a week,' I told him, 'I'd never ask for anything else again.'" She laughs now, remembering that promise.


Slowly, the couple adjusted to the new way of life. The boat would be in port in Mpena for at least a few hours each week, for loading and unloading. That gave the Ghiatas time to visit. Thais would bring him clean clothes as well as a carton of cigarettes and his two-dollar allowance. She took his checks, and paid the bills.

After a brief stint hauling coal and limestone for Wyandotte Chemical and working the docks in Toledo, Don returned to Alpena in the early 1970s and worked his way up the sailing chain of command.

He eventually earned his master's license and retired as a relief captain--the last captain to pilot the Lewis G. Harriman.

Revolutionizing Cement Shipping

By the time Don Ghiata took his turn at the helm of the Harriman, it was hardly in its heyday. The ship was already on its way toward retirement, as the cement company was acquiring larger freighters with more capacity. It was rapidly growing obsolete.

That was a far cry from when it was launched, in the fall of 1923. Known originally as the John W. Boardman, it was built by the Huron Portland Cement Company to ship cement in bulk instead of bags--an industry first that substantially speeded up loading and unloading.

The Boardman would go on to haul as much as 5,500 tons of cement at a time from its home port to the company's elevators in Superior, Wisconsin, Muskegon, and Detroit as well as destinations in Ohio, Ontario, and New York.

In the 1960s, the ship even did its part to help construct the largest and newest of the locks in the St. Mary's River at Sault Ste. Marie. While moored at the worksite, it stored cement needed for the substantial civil engineering project.

After Huron Cement was bought by National Gypsum in 1965, the freighter's new owners changed its name to the Lewis G. Harriman. The ship continued to ply the waters of the Great Lakes until 1980.

Decades later, at a Canadian scrapyard, the Harriman would be discovered again: this time, by its current owners. The VanderMeulens were looking for a pilot house to turn into a small beachfront cabin. They ended up with much more than that: 5,000 square feet and four decks of the forward bow.

A New Life on Shore

The Boardman/Harriman's history has been painstakingly researched by the ship's new owners. Marc and Jill VanderMeulen have pumped much of their savings into the project of turning this fabled freighter into a beachside cottage. They're also doing much of the remodeling themselves, on long weekends and vacations from work in their hometown of Holland, 325 miles to the south.

Marc grew up watching the boats with his father in Frankfort and has long been fascinated with the history and culture of life on the water. And, over the years, his fascination has caught on with Jill, too. They chose DeTour for their summer home because of the view.

In its new life on shore, the Harriman overlooks the St. Mary's River and Potagannissing Bay, nestled between lakes Superior and Huron and Canada's North Channel.

"All of the downbound shipping, coming from Lake Superior, passes between us and Pipe Island, close enough that you can read the names on the boats without binoculars," Marc says.

Marc and Jill have learned the names of the freighters that sail the Great Lakes, and the companies that own them. Sometimes, the crew of a passing boat will reward the VanderMeulens' efforts with a horn salute.

A Peek Inside

At present, Marc and Jill enter the boat through a square-shaped hole in what has become the basement deck. Little here, or anywhere on the first few decks, resembles a beachfront residence. Steel from floor to ceiling, the space is painted in the shade of green you might remember from elementary school bathrooms. It's dark, with lots of tight spaces. One crew cabin, designed to sleep four, is so small you can't stretch out your arms between bunks.

With its narrow staircases and metal-rung ladders, the Harriman can be a tough place to navigate. And the steel is not much of an insulator. According to the owners, it radiates whatever temperature is found outside. Given the winters of the Upper Peninsula, it's clear this cottage will never become a year-round residence.


But if you keep climbing to the deck just below the pilot house, you'll find a place covered in maple paneling that looks much more inviting. This is what the VanderMeulens had their eyes on all along. "These are the captain's quarters," Jill says as she tours through the area. "This would have been his office up in the front, and his bedroom and the bathroom with a full tub and shower."

There are also rooms on this floor that were used to entertain special guests. The couple intends to restore these and the pilot house to their original appearance.

"The plans called for a leather couch in this room," notes Marc, "which would have been appropriate in the 1920s. We'll try to find something that will look right."

"This is where we're thinking of developing a bed and breakfast," Jill says with a smile. "If we ever get that far."

The remodel will take years; the couple calls it a "working-class" job. That's only fitting they say, for the Harriman was a "working-class" boat.


The cement freighter that the VanderMeulens are converting into a cottage was launched in 1923 as the John W. Boardman.


Little is known about the man for whom the ship was named, except that Boardman was vice president in charge of sales at Huron Portland Cement Company when the boat first entered the water. He died in 1928.

When the freighter became the property of the National Gypsum Company in 1965, its name was changed to the Lewis G. Harriman. Harriman was National Gypsum's banker in Buffalo, New York. He led his bank through the Great Depression, and pushed to make the University of Buffalo a state institution. He also extended National Gypsum its first line of credit, and served on its executive committee.

"Manufacturing companies like to suck up to their bankers, you know," quips Harriman's grandson, Lewis G. Harriman III, who lives in New Hampshire and goes by "Lew."

Lew doesn't remember his grandfather ever mentioning the boat, but he knows the first Harriman was proud to have a freighter bear his name. He had a picture of it framed and hanging in his office.

Lew Harriman says he loves that he can do a quick Internet search and find in the boat, anytime, a lasting legacy of his grandfather. And, he says, members of his extended family are "charmed" by the VanderMeulens' DeTour cottage project.

Linda Stephan is a reporter for Interlochen Public Radio, near Traverse City.
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Author:Stephan, Linda
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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