Digest>Archives> June 2005

A Model Fleet

By M. Wrenn


There is a fleet moored in the officer’s wardroom of the Huron Lightship Museum. Included are 11 lightships, the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender Bramble and the icebreaker Mackinaw. Each one is an intricate replica of an actual vessel that sailed or sails the Great Lakes. All of them are the creation of a single model maker, Herman C. Chapman of St. Clair Shores, Michigan. The 77-year-old retired industrial electrician has been making models of one sort or another “since I was old enough to ‘barrow’ my Father’s tools.” For more than 30 years, he has been building boats from Great Lakes history. The legendary Edmund Fitzgerald is notably missing from the inventory of vessels built by Herman because there are already so many models of her in existence. He has focused on historically important vessels, especially the boats rarely built by others. “I’m focusing on these vessels because I want to see the history preserved. I attempt to build a vessel at a specific time in her working life. Each vessel is modified from the original blueprints, even during construction. The phrase ‘as built’ doesn’t apply. Each crew puts their little touches to it, makes it their boat.” Even the USCG buoy tender Hollyhock, launched in April 2004, has been modified in less than a year of service. He is also in the process of building a model of her. Herman chooses to work in the 1/8 inch = 1 foot scale to allow as much detail as possible. He doesn’t limit this to life rings, ships’ bells and anchors. He includes every detail

of hardware visible on the ship’s deck

down to air hoses, gas cans and fire extinguishers on the Hollyhock. There are enough details to make you cross your eyes when looking at one of his completed models. Detailed parts like these simply aren’t available ready made. Herman individually crafts the parts in his workshop from brass, wood, or whatever material gives the most realistic effect. Each model can take two years to complete.

The giants launched from this miniature shipyard include five modern freighters,

each of these models measuring roughly

six feet in length. This model maker has built a variety of other ships: excursion steamers Tashmoo and South American, John Kendall – the last diesel fire boat to grace the Detroit River, Centurion – a smaller freighter

his father sailed on, J.T. Wing – the last top

sail schooner to haul cargo on the Great Lakes, the icebreaker Mackinaw and a number of others.

The lightship collection on display on board the Huron is the largest series of vessels Herman has made. Lightships were small vessels, sometimes little more then well-equipped barges, stationed in places where it was difficult to build a lighthouse. They could be built or converted from existing vessels relatively quickly, often serving a location until a lighthouse could be designed and built. According to USCG records, there were 19 different lightship stations in the Great Lakes region, from Buffalo, New York to Wisconsin. Many were stationed in Michigan waters. From 1832 to 1970, more than two dozen boats served the Great Lakes as lightships. The working life of a lightship was rough. A 1913 storm called the white hurricane sunk Buffalo’s LV 82 with all hands. The vessel itself was later salvaged and refitted. Lightships were battered by storms and occasionally hit by passing vessels. The job of a lightship crewman was a hazardous one.

Great Lakes lightships have mostly been ignored by model builders and historians. Only one example of the actual vessels still exists, the LV 103 which served until 1970. It now houses the Huron Lightship Museum at Port Huron, not far from the last station it served. Herman has been working with the curator and volunteers at the Huron when selecting which examples of lightships to build. The collection includes a coal burning and diesel version of the LV 103 as well as some of the more unusually designed vessels to serve as lightships.

To complete the collection, Herman is researching the first lightship to serve on the Lakes. Between 1832 to 1851, she was stationed in the Mackinac Straits. It was later replaced by the Waugoshance Lighthouse. Information has proved elusive. The scant records indicate the vessel was originally named either Lous McLane or Louis McLane, after the secretary of the Treasury between 1831 to 1833. Several vessels were named after McLane, including one that became saltwater lightship. The Coast Guard, as we know it, hadn’t been formed by this date, but they have the most basic information of the early lightship. Long after the Mackinac Straits lightship was retired, it was given the designation “YY” to aid inventory.

Before Herman can begin a model, there is much research into the history and physical appearance of the vessel. Blueprints make the job much easier, despite the modifications that are made during construction of the original vessel. File folders of photos fill in the details that bring these models to life. Research generally takes 6 to 9 months and doesn’t really stop until the boat is completed. When asked how long he has been searching for information on the Mackinac Straits lightship, he responds “Ten years off and on. Even drawings from the period would be helpful.” No blueprints, drawings, or even detailed measurements of the boat have yet surfaced from official archives. “Maybe there are family records mentioning the boat and they don’t know the importance of what they have.”

When asked why this vessel would finish the collection, Herman says, “Well, a model of the last Great Lakes lightship in service is already on display at Port Huron. This would be the first lightship. Besides, there isn’t anymore room (in the Huron’s wardroom) for more models.”

This story appeared in the June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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