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This entry includes a walking tour! Take the tour.

This ¼ mile, nineteen-stop walking tour highlights Simon Langell’s prime role in St. Clair’s “heady” days of wooden shipbuilding. Langell came to St. Clair in 1860 to build wooden freighters for the growing Great Lakes shipping industry. Initially, Simon Langell built boats (locals refer to Great Lakes freighters as “boats”) on the St. Clair River south of the mouth of the Pine River. In 1872 he moved his shipyard to the Pine River where a slower current and deeper water shoreline made side-launching boats much easier. By 1900, Langell had built 30 boats ranging from 40 to 269 ft. long. Data and stories of 17 of those boats are shared on the walking tour. 

Sign and marker in Patrick Sinclair Park starting the Langell Shipyard Walking Tour

Horse, Working animal, Rectangle, Font

Marker on the Langell Shipyard Walking Tour along Clinton Ave. and the Pine River

Plant, Tree, Outdoor bench, Land lot

Logo St. Clair Historical Museum

Rectangle, Font, Electric blue, Logo

In 1864 the master shipbuilder, Simon Langell, entered St. Clair’s shipbuilding industry. Langell, of French descent, was born in Nova Scotia in 1835. His family moved to Marine City (Michigan) when he was eight. Langell was mostly self-educated but went to the State Normal School at Ypsilanti, Michigan. His remarkable string of careers included teacher, sailor, shipyard worker, ship designer, and shipbuilder.

Simon Langell proved his worth as a shipbuilder when he built the 138.5 ft. wooden bark HEMISPHERE in 1864 and a scow dubbed the LIBERTY in 1865. Both vessels were built in a shipyard on the St. Clair River. Sawmill owner Eugene Smith bought the HEMISPHERE in 1868. The little 59-ton LIBERTY was purchased by Fred H. Blood of St. Clair.

In 1870, the new Interocean Transportation Company bought its first ship, the AGNES L. POTTER from Langell’s St. Clair shipyard. In 1872, Langell sold the Wilson Transit Company its first ship, the D.N. WILSON. This was also Langell’s first steamer. Most small shipyards would not install steam engines, so the hulls were launched, and then towed to Detroit or Port Huron to have the engines installed. However, in the case of the D.N. WILSON, Langell had the steam engine shipped by rail to St. Clair and he installed it at his shipyard. Often Langell sent his hulls to Detroit to have engines made by the Samuel F. Hodge Company installed.

By 1872 it was clear that the shipyard on the St. Clair River was too small and the river at that site was too shallow. Simon Langell then began to build a new shipyard on the Pine River to be called the Langell Yard. Today this is the location of the St. Clair Boar Harbor. The Panic of 1873 began an economic depression in the United States which slowed the shipbuilding business for several years including Langell’s. Therefore, the Langell Yard was not fully completed until 1878. As business picked up in 1878, Langell bought a stand of oak timber and began construction of two steam barges. The steamer OSCODA was launched in 1878. The decade of the 1880’s saw the peak years for the Langell Shipyard. Fifteen ships were built in that decade and the yard was enlarged to accommodate the business. Langell could not find enough skilled workers, so he went to Montreal and recruited French Canadian ship carpenters who came to St. Clair with their families.

In 1881, Langell completed and launched the OGEMAW which was used in the years to come mostly to haul lumber and pull schooner barges. Its last owner was Richard Burns whose misfortune it was to have it burn to the waterline near St. Clair on December 3, 1922.

One of Langell’s most memorable ships was the SIMON LANGELL, built in 1886 for Captain J. Pringle. During the SIMON LANGELL'S 50-year career on the Great Lakes, it had five owners but kept its original name throughout. In November of 1936 it was tied up at Kingston, Ontario alongside three other steamers.  A fire started in one and quickly spread to the other three. The SIMON LANGELL was a total loss. Its remains were towed into Lake Ontario and sunk.

The largest wooden schooner built by the Langell Yard was the KALIYUGA in 1887. Its construction was financed by a group of St. Clair investors including Eugene Smith. Later KALIYUGA was owned by Cleveland Cliffs when it disappeared in a storm on Lake Huron called the “Big Blow of 1905.” Fourteen ships sank in that storm’s 60 to 80 mile per hour winds. Twelve days after the storm, the KALIYUGA’S pilothouse was sighted floating near Cove Island off the Bruce Peninsula. All sixteen people aboard the KALIYUGA were lost.

In 1888, Langell launched the 221-foot schooner FONTANA in the Pine River. It was built for Edward Recor’s St. Clair Steamship Company. On August 4, 1900, with a cargo of iron ore, it was being towed by the KALIYUGA. At the entrance to the St. Clair River in Port Huron, the schooner SANTIAGO collided with the FONTANA which sank with the loss of one life. Weeks of discussion took place over what to do with the wreck. On September 17th the stern of the ship, which had been above water, sank slowly below the surface. At that point its owners officially abandoned the ship and, since it was a hazard to navigation, the government dynamited and dredged its remains.

The peak years of the Langell Shipyard ended in 1890 with the construction of the steam barge LANGELL BOYS. For several years, the 151-foot ship was operated by the Simon Langell and Sons Steamship Company of St. Clair. Then it went through a series of owners. In 1920, it was completely rebuilt and enlarged at the McLouth Yards in Marine City. Its service ended on June 13, 1931 while sailing from Saginaw, Michigan to Sprague, Ontario. A fire broke out in the empty cargo hold and soon was out of control. The crew abandoned ship and were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. The remains of the LANGELL BOYS sank two miles off Oscoda, Michigan.

By the 1890’s, the era of wooden ships was coming to an end. During the decade only two ships were built in the Langell Shipyard. In 1892 the steam yacht PENELOPE was completed. Built for J. Lee Borden of Chicago, it became one of the Great Lakes best known yachts. In 1894, the ferry WELCOME was launched at the shipyard on the Pine River. In 1896, the wooden steamer ALFRED MITCHELL was started on speculation by the Langells. It stood on the stocks for four years because they found it hard to find a buyer but finally on June 16, 1900 it was launched into the Pine River. Its construction was the end of wooden boat building in St. Clair.

The Langell Shipyard remained open for a few years longer to repair and winter ships. Some of the decaying building remained until the early 1960’s. By then the Diamond Crystal Salt Company owned the property. The company donated it to the City of St. Clair for the construction of the Charles F. Moore Boat Harbor which was opened in 1970.

Shipbuilding, pgs. 33-40, St. Clair, Michigan, by Charles Homberg with contributions by Suzanne Frantz and Chrissy Gorzen, St. Clair Historical Commission, 2007. “Shipbuilding in St. Clair,” Research Binder, Ships File Cabinet, St. Clair Historical Museum and Research Center. Great Lakes Maritime Database, Great Lakes Maritime Collection, Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

St. Clair Historical Museum & Research Center

St. Clair Historical Museum and Research Center

St. Clair Historical Museum & Research Center