The Union Steamboat Company, organized in 1869 by Jay Gould, was the formal beginning of the Erie Railroad Company's connection with the steamer business on the Great Lakes (although the road had operated steamers under charter arrangements as far back as 1851, and later had even built and operated its own vessels). Union Steamboat's initial schedule, using owned and leased steamships, had lines between Buffalo, Chicago and Milwaukee (seven steamers assigned); between Buffalo, Cleveland and Toledo, (six steamers assigned); between Buffalo and Detroit, (six steamers); and between Buffalo and Lake Superior, (two steamers).
In 1872, Union Steamboat along with the Atlantic, Duluth & Pacific Lake Company, the latter organized by the Erie & Western Transportation Company, made a coalition to run a joint line between Buffalo and Lake Superior. This line consisted of 11 steamers mainly contributed by the two interested parties. This foray into Lake Superior was not entirely successful, as the service was discontinued in 1873 and returned in greatly diminished fashion (three boats) in 1874. Later, in 1878, the Union Steamboat became a partner in The Lake Superior Transit Company, contributing ships in an arrangement that lasted until 1890.By 1878, Union Steamboat boasted a fleet of 16 steamers and two schooners, with a carrying capacity of 19,478 tons.
On June 30, 1896, however, the Union Steamboat Company became extinct as a corporation upon its formal merger with the Erie Railroad Company, from which time it was called the "Union Steamboat Line," until Jan. 29, 1913, when the name was again changed to Erie Railroad Lake Line, to more clearly identify it with its owner, the Erie Railroad Company.
In 1912, the Erie Railroad boasted a modern fleet of eight steel steamers, plying the waters between Buffalo, Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as handling the Baltimore & Ohio Lake Line's traffic between Fairport and Milwaukee and Chicago. Service averaged about one boat departing from Buffalo and Chicago every second day. It took an average of twelve days for a round trip, including the time of loading and unloading. The schedule time of boats permitted third morning delivery at Milwaukee and fourth morning at Chicago, and the same in the reverse direction, as to time on eastbound freight.
The principal commodities moving westbound were dry goods, shoes, hardware, paper, thread, canned goods, coffee and iron and steel articles. Eastbound, grain and grain products was the predominating tonnage. A considerable tonnage of copper, agricultural implements and rags also moved eastbound, together with cotton and wool. On account of the growing increased expense of rehandling at lake ports such commodities as cement and asphalt (which formerly moved in large quantities), these were deemed undesirable articles of freight, the reason being the low through rates, which did not give the Lake Line sufficient net earnings to cover the cost of handling.
The Lake Line was operated by the railroad in Buffalo, and the Erie's Buffalo Division Superintendent was in charge. This was changed in July, 1912, when Div. Supt. A.C. Elston resigned from his shipping duties to focus on the Buffalo Division exclusively. At that time, Charles S. Goldborough was appointed Manager, Erie Railroad Transit Line, with office at 50 Church Street, New York, while John C. Maclay, previously assistant manager and cashier of the Union Steamboat Line in Buffalo, assumed duties as Superintendent in charge of operation, with office located at Buffalo, NY. Superintending Engineer for the Line was H. Penton of the firm Babcock & Penton of Buffalo, his assistant being Charles W. Wall.
The end of Erie's control of Erie Lake Line began with ratification of the Panama Canal Act on August 24, 1912. The act prohibited after July 1, 1914 railroad ownership in any common carrier by water when the railroad might compete for traffic with the water carrier. The Erie filed in 1914, unsuccessfully, with the Interstate Commerce Commission to continue operation of the Lake Line, citing the lack of competition (the decision to change the name to Erie Railroad Lake Line, as well as discontinuance of boat service to Cleveland, a major Erie city and future corporate headquarters city, in April, 1913, may have been driven by the need to avoid any hint of the railroad and boat line appearing to be competing entities). In November, 1915, requests for reconsideration filed by the Milwaukee and Chicago Boards of Trade were denied. On December 12, 1915, the Steamer F.D. UNDERWOOD was the last ship to tie up, at Buffalo. By March of the following year, the Great Lakes Transit Corporation had been formed to assume operation of the fleets of the Erie, Erie & Western (Pennsylvania Railroad), and other carriers. Thus ended the Erie's Great Lakes story.
In 1913 and 1914, the Erie Railroad Magazine devoted its attention to the shipping line in a series of articles, most of which appeared to state the Erie's case that the Lake Line was a complementary part of the Erie System. Portions of those articles can be accessed through the hotlinks on this page.
The Ships and Ships' Officers Included:
Steamer F.D. UNDERWOOD: Charles D. Ross, Master; August Nagelvoort, Chief Engineer. (1912)
Steamer DELOS W. COOKE: John C. Clarke, Master; John S. Parketon, Chief Engineer. (1912)
Steamer OWEGO: George W. Moore, Master; Lee A. Bradshaw, Chief Engineer (1912);
I.A. Francombe, Chief Engineer (1914)
Steamer TIOGA: C.W. Watson, Master; F.E. Beetley, Chief Engineer. (1912)
Steamer GRANVILLE A. RICHARDSON: W.M. Cottrell, Master; Charles R. Ogg, Chief Engineer. (1912)
Steamer JOHN J. McCULLOUGH: H.S. Shacklett, Master; Peter Jamieson, Chief Engineer. (1912)
Steamer GEORGE F. BROWNELL: C.W. Watson, Master; Lee A. Bradshaw, Chief Engineer (1914).
Steamer BINGHAMTON: Robert B. Wilkinson, Master; Charles E. Robinson, Chief Engineer (1914)
Source: 1912-1914 issues of Erie Railroad Magazine