It was no wonder people scoffed at the crusty Scottish seaman's idea, back in 1887. His first whaleback did look a bit like a pig, with low, rounded hulls and a snout-like bow. But there was a method to his apparent madness.
Back near the turn of the century, the steamers that hauled ore and grain on the Great Lakes had to be narrow, to pass through locks and rivers. In order to haul more cargo, a powered boat often towed other laden barges into the desired port. But conventional boats sat high on the water, and often had difficulty towing and being towed, especially in high winds. The canny McDougall recognized that a new kind of boat was needed, one that sat lower in the water, was easy to tow, and cut through the wildest winds and waves with ease.
So McDougall designed a boat unlike anything the world had ever seen. It came to be known as the Whaleback, even though many scoffed and called it a "pig boat." When it was fully loaded with cargo, only the curved part of the hull rode above the water, giving it an unusual "whaleback" appearance. Waves washed easily over the deck, instead of crashing into the sides, and the whaleback steamed through stormy seas faster than any freighter ever had.
All told, 43 whalebacks were built from 1887 to 1898, mostly in Duluth, MN and Superior, WI. Many of them served for decades, including the SS City of Everett, the first American steamship to circumnavigate the globe. Maybe the most famous was the dazzling white Christopher Columbus, which ferried passengers from downtown Chicago to the Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Today only one whaleback remains: the S.S. Meteor, launched in 1896 and now sitting in the harbor at Superior, Wisconsin, right next door to Duluth. You can pay it a visit from mid-May to mid-October, hear the ship's whistle and see the original 1896 steam engine as you tour from pilot house to cargo holds. If you do, be sure and tip your ball cap to Alexander McDougall and all the other unconventional thinkers who make the world go round.