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 (continued)
Niemies built Shark’s deckhouse out of ship lapped white pine boards. Alfred says that they probably built the deckhouse a foot higher than it should have been. He reasons that they laid the inside deck a foot too high in the hull, causing them to have to raise the deckhouse roof for head clearance. The change in deckhouse height gives an exaggerated angle to the house roof as it slopes down to the stem post; Shark shows a bit greater angle here than most fish tugs, giving her an unique profile. Alfred and Arvi sheathed the deckhouse roof with white pine boards, then covered it with canvas bedded in marine glue.
The Nimies used creosote on the hull as a preservative. They painted the black goo on every inch of the bilges. Then they painted it on the outside of the hull, from keel to a foot or so above the waterline. Both Alfred and Axel remember the unpleasantness of working with hot creosote. Fumes from the creosote caused the skin on Alfred’s face to peel off: twice. The brothers remember how, by the end of the day, they went home choking and gagging, with the skin sloughing off their hands. Otto repeated the creosote treatment twice a year as long as he fished the boat.
The Niemies overhauled the Fordson engine from the Elk and installed it in the Shark. They mounted an auxiliary shaft and Model T engine for emergency power. The Pentwater net lifter from the Elk also found a new home in Shark’s bow. Otto used his metalworking skills to build a galvanized metal box to protect the Fordson’s flywheel and magnetos from water damage.
The Fordson engine turned a Michigan wheel company propeller with reversible “buckets.” The helmsman controlled the boat’s speed by the infinitely variable pitch of the propeller. Axel remembers that it took only minute adjustments of prop pitch to change speed. The combination of the Fordson and the Michigan propeller drove the boat to a top speed of about eight miles an hour. At this speed, Otto’s favorite fishing grounds lay just an hour’s run to the northwest of Grand Marais.
Otto and his sons launched Shark in the spring of 1941. Axel chuckled when asked about how the boat got named. “Well,” he said, “dad kind of liked naming his boats after wildlife, and I guess he liked “Shark” because it was easy for him to spell.”
Fishing the Big Lake
All the Niemi boys worked on the boat from time to time, but Axel stayed full-time with his father. Together they fished the Shark until 1953. They put the boat in the water in May, most years, and hauled her out in September. Shark performed reliably, year in and year out. Alfred says that the Shark didn’t have the unpleasant characteristics of her predecessor; he remembers her as “really a good sea boat.”
Otto and Axel fished primarily for trout, “priding themselves on producing number one Lake Trout of the finest quality.” Axel also takes pride in saying that “dad didn’t hog the lake.” By that he means that, unlike many other fishermen who drove themselves to take increasingly large catches, the Nimies took only enough fish to make a comfortable living. They understood the fish as a finite resource and fished accordingly.
The Nimies began fishing in the spring using set hoods on long lines. They switched to using gill nets by summer. They usually set four to five boxes of nets per day. Each box contained two nets measuring six feet wide and six hundred feet long, making a 1,200 foot set. Fishermen set nets by streaming them out through the large hatch at the boat’s stern while the boat moved slowly forward. When they hauled them in, they took a wrap of net around the drum of the lifter, and while one person “tailed” the net at the lifter drum, the other took the fish off the net. Most two-men boats had an engine and steering control station up forward for use when pulling nets. They left the nets in the lake for three to four days at a time. Each net got hauled and taken onshore to dry every three to four days.
Lake Superior’s trout fishery declined by the early 1950s. The fishing business became so unprofitable that Otto Niemi hauled the Shark up on marine railway for the last time in the fall of 1953. Many people blame predation by the sea lamprey for depletion of trout stocks in the lakes. Axel Niemi acknowledges the lamprey’s effects, but places as much, or more, blame on overfishing.
The decline of the Fishery
Native Americans harvested fish from Lake Superior’s waters for thousands of years. Fishing primarily the inshore waters supplied them with abundant food. The Indians took only what they needed for survival. When the French began to explore Michigan, the total Indian population of the state numbered 15,000 or less. Most of the Indians probably lived in the Lower Peninsula, since the Chippewa did not begin to move into the Upper Peninsula until the seventeenth century. Certainly, the Indian population put no pressure on Lake Superior fish stocks.
White explorers saw vast wealth in the north country’s resources. As early as 134, efforts began to establish a fishing industry on Lake Superior. The American Fur Company set up fishing stations on the lake in 1835, 1836, and 1837. The fishing industry caught hold, creating a need for more and bigger boats. Opening of the first lock system at Sault Ste. Marie made it possible to ship ever larger catches to down lake markets. Lake Superior fishermen soon shipped many tons of fish annual out of the north country. Pressure on native fish stocks increased exponentially as fishing became a primary industry on the big lake.
Seasonal catches for two sections of the lake serve as examples of the extent of the fishery. Fishermen on the section of Lake Superior between Ontonagon and L’Anse brought in “nearly 405,000 pounds of fresh fish and about 4,200 barrels of salt fish” in 1879. Thirty-three men fishing out of Marquette brought in a total catch of 450,000 pounds that same year. Trout, whitefish, siskowet, herring, and a few incidental species made up the catch.
Dramatic changes occurred in the Lake Superior fishery by the 1920s. For one thing, from a commercial point of view the whitefish had become virtually extinct along the American shore of Lake Superior. The trout catch plummeted from a peak of almost 5 million pounds in 1903, to 2.8 million in 1922. The trout catch for 1940 amounted to about 2.6 million pounds, a slight increase from immediately preceding years.
Lake Superior fish stocks continued to decline through the 1940s. A simplistic explanation blames the sea lamprey. A close look reveals that the sea lamprey did not enter Lake Superior until sometime in the 1940s. Scientists collected the first confirmed adult lamprey in Lake Superior in 1946, an immature adult. Scientists correlate scarring on lake trout with lamprey abundance. Commercial fisherman reported that less than one percent of the lake trout were scarred in 946 and five percent in 1951. The trend of increased scarring continued, peaking in 1959 and 1960 when more than 90 percent of trout taken bore lamprey scars. Lamprey took a terrible toll on the fishery, but so did other factors.
A U.S. Fish and wildlife Service study outlines a broader explanation for the fisheries’ decline; “undesirable changes have been attributed to the overharvest of desirable species, the invasion and introduction of undesirable exotic species, lowered water quality, and the destruction of portions of the physical habitat, including spawning grounds, vital to the maintenance of the recourse base.” Overfishing stands out as a major destroyer of fish stocks, from Axel Niemi’s point of view.
Not more than a dozen boats fished commercially out of Grand Marais at any one time until the 1940s, according to Axel Niemi. Popularity of trolling for trout brought an explosion of fishing boats to the lake by the end of World War II. According to Axel, “nine out of ten fish caught with trolling spoons are female.” He remembers seeing the trollers cleaning fish on the Grand Marais docks, throwing away barrels of fish innards containing millions of trout eggs. By 1950, fifteen to twenty trolling boats fished regularly out of Grand Marais.
Nylon nets also contributed to overfishing, says Axel. The ten to fifteen foot width of a nylon net takes more fish than the traditional six foot wide cotton cord net. Nylon nets will not rot, so fishermen leave them in the water all the time, never relieving the pressure on the fish stocks.
Whatever the causes, by 1953, Otto and Axel Niemi pulled the Shark out of the water for the last time. Otto retired and Axel pursued his passion for making agate jewelry, opening a rock shop and museum in Grand Marais.
The story of the Shark’s later years remains incomplete. She sat on her marine railway outside Niemis net shack for three years. In 1956, two men from Cheboygan, Michigan, who had the idea of fishing for sturgeon in Lake Huron, approached Otto about buying the Shark. He told the “you can have it for a song.” Shark went off to Cheboygan on a flatbed semi-tractor after Axel helped load her. According to Axel, the men tried for two years, but never caught one sturgeon.
Shark reportedly saw some use as a pleasure boat after her time in Cheboygan. She then spent several years fishing out of St. Joseph, Michigan. Along the way, one of her owners took out the Fordson engine, re-powering her with a Perkins diesel with 60-70 horsepower, coupled to a Chris Craft transmission. Robert Trowbridge, of South Haven, acquired the boat, by now called Tug Her, in order to get the engine. He, of course, ultimately gave her to the Michigan Maritime Museum.
Museum post cards
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