The Frank Rockefeller, first launched in 1896, is an example of the whaleback ship designed and patented by Captain Alexander McDougall. The American Steel Barge Company of Superior fabricated this steamer to transport iron ore from the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. In 1969, when it was taken out of service, the Rockefeller was the world’s last active whaleback. Its name comes from its whale-like appearance, created by a long, narrow steel-plate hull with rounded sides, tapered fore and aft. At the bow, a circular flat plate truncated the conical form, giving it the appearance of a pig’s snout, and consequently, whalebacks were also called “pigboats.” The ship’s design brought fuel economy, and its standardized spacing of the hatches and un-obstructed cargo hold made loading more efficient and rapid. Once the hatch covers were sealed with gaskets and bolted, they were water-tight—at least in theory. But the clamshell-shaped buckets used for unloading the ships dented the deck plates, which caused the hatch covers to leak. The rounded shape meant that spilled cargo fell overboard. And when the ship was emptied, it could not take on enough water ballast to assure stability in bad weather. Furthermore, there was no interior passageway from fore to aft, so if a crewman had to go forward, he crossed the open deck, a dangerous undertaking in storms and slippery even in fair weather.
The Rockefeller is 366.5 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet and a depth of 26 feet, and originally it had a cargo capacity of 2,759 gross tons. Deck-mounted turrets provide access to the hull; the after turret also houses the pilothouse, with the engine room located directly below. In 1925, the ship was modified to haul sand, and in later years it hauled other materials. It became an oil tanker in 1943, when it was renamed the Meteor. In 1972, the company donated the ship to the City of Superior. Now permanently beached on Barker’s Island, it is a marine museum managed by the Head of the Lakes Maritime Society.