Anchor to ‘forgotten story’ pulled from Detroit River

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit — After 60 years underwater, an anchor from a bygone era of the Great Lakes emerged from the Detroit River on Tuesday covered in muck and mire.

It took divers and crews working with a crane less than 20 minutes to pull the 6,000-pound steel anchor, which was once affixed to the luxury steamer known as the Greater Detroit, from the clay riverbed just west of Joe Louis Arena downtown.

For historians from the Great Lakes Maritime Institute it was an important day. The anchor is a valuable piece of Detroit’s history.

The anchor was attached to a ship once referred to as the “Leviathan of the Lakes,” which transported thousands over the water through what’s now known as the Rust Belt region. The ship was popular with honeymooning couples looking to vacation in Buffalo, New York, in the 20th century, according to John Polacsek, Great Lakes Maritime Institute trustee.

Polacsek worked for the Detroit Historical Museum when the anchor was located in 2005. He’s been part of every conversation to salvage the anchor since, he said.

“It’s one of the few artifacts of that era,” he said. “It’s part of the local heritage.”

The Greater Detroit is seen in 1933, leaving for a Detroit News-sponsored excursion to Chicago.

The 536-foot-long Greater Detroit was one of the two largest side-wheel steamer ships in the world. The ship, launched in 1923, could haul more than 2,100 passengers around the Great Lakes. It had more than 600 private rooms and was covered in plasterwork, woodwork and murals, according to maritime historians.

When it was built, it cost $3.5 million.

But by the early 1950s, airplane travel and highways pushed the Greater Detroit and an entire network of similar liners that traveled the Great Lakes region out of business. In 1956, after floating unused in port in downtown Detroit, the Greater Detroit’s anchor was cut and the ship was towed to Lake St. Clair and set on fire so the metal hull could be scrapped.

“This is a forgotten story,” Polacsek said. “You can’t travel like that nowadays.”

After a scrub, the 6,000-pound anchor that was once affixed to the Greater Detroit will be displayed in an exhibit at the Detroit and Wayne County Port Authority office up the river at 130 Atwater.

For divers and crews, Tuesday’s “rescue” was a bit of fun.

“You find a lot of neat stuff down there,” said Tom Parnin, one of three volunteer divers who worked to pull the anchor from the 48-degree water. “It’s a very cool thing to do.”

The Great Lakes Maritime Institute executed a similar project in 1992, when an anchor from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was found on the bottom of the river. That anchor can now be found at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

“Detroit enjoys an illustrious maritime history,” said John Loftus, executive director of the Port Authority, in a news release. “We are proud that we will be able to display a piece of this history.”

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau