Thursday, August 9, 2018

Medusa-Challenger; the Chicago River Bridge Killer.

On June 1, 1969, what was perhaps the most ill-fated ship ever to navigate the Chicago River struck one more time as the Medusa-Challenger tied up traffic between Wabash and Wells Streets for over three hours. The Wells Street bridge refused to open as the 562-foot steamship approached, leaving the powdered cement carrier’s stern beneath the LaSalle Street bridge. Minutes before the Wabash Street bridge had been put out of operation by a power failure after it was raised to allow the ship through. City electricians took close to three hours to get the bridges back in operation again.
The Medusa-Challenger headed west on the Chicago River.
At that point, the Medusa-Challenger had been carrying freight for 63 years after being launched on February 7, 1906, by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan. She was named the "William P. Snyder" back then, bound for work carrying iron ore from Minnesota to the steel mills that lined the Great Lakes.
William P. Snyder at Ecorse, Michigan in 1906.
The William P. Snyder was renamed "Elton Hoyt II" following her acquisition by Stewart Furnace Co., Cleveland, on June 26, 1926. Retaining her new name, the vessel was acquired by Youngstown Steamship Co., Cleveland, in 1929. Ownership passed to Interlake Steamship Co., Cleveland,  in 1930. The vessel was repowered in 1950. The Elton Hoyt II was involved in a head-on collision with the Enders M. Voorhees during a snowstorm in the Straits of Mackinac in the fall of 1950 causing major bow damage to both vessels. The vessel was renamed "Alex D. Chisholm" in 1952 following the launch into the Interlake fleet of a new hull christened Elton Hoyt II. Alex D. Chisholm continued sailing for the Interlake fleet into the 1960s before being laid up in Erie, Pa. as surplus tonnage. In 1966, she was purchased by Medusa Portland Cement for conversion to a cement carrier. 

She gained her reputation in Chicago as the "Medusa-Challenger" because, through no fault of her own, bridges ceased to function regularly whenever she entered or left the Chicago River. 

On May 31, 1968 traffic was halted on Clark, Dearborn and State streets as the Clark Street bridge refused to open and the other two bridges could not be closed because the ship was beneath them. The Chicago Tribune reported that one gentleman, exasperated by the wait of over an hour, shouted, “You know what they should do with this river?  They should have it paved.” 
Traffic on Lake Shore Drive backs up while freighter Medusa Challenger passes through the S-Turn bridge. Motorists sat for 40 minutes because the bridge jammed. 1969
On April 2, 1969, the big ship kept Chicagoans waiting for another hour as the LaSalle Street bridge tender was able to raise only one leaf of the bridge. That kept the Clark Street bridge open, too, since the ship’s stern was beneath it. “Electricians were summoned and went feverishly to work, while the ship’s crew and onlookers stared at one another and a traffic jam began to form on both sides of the bridge,” The Tribune reported.
The Medusa headed east toward Lake Michigan.
It happened again less than a week later when the ship, outbound, was halted at the mouth of the river when the massive Lake Shore Drive span refused to budge. After 45 minutes the bridge was raised, and the Medusa steamed into the lake. Then the fun began. A fuse blew, electricians worked frantically, and traffic was rerouted before the bridge was finally placed back in operation an hour after it had been raised.  The Tribune observed, “The ship’s crew members, who are getting used to staring at the Chicago River, took it all stoically. The city’s bridge tenders, however, are becoming convinced that the Medusa is a jinx.”

There was a relative period of calm until September 22, 1970, when the Lake Shore Drive bridge jammed six feet away from the closed position after the Medusa passed beneath it. Disgusted motorists made U-turns and drove against approaching traffic as police worked to bring some sense of order to the scene, rerouting traffic onto Ohio and Randolph Streets. Many impatient pedestrians walked to the middle of the bridge and jumped the gap between the two spans as the bridge tender shouted, “Get off my bridge!  It’s not safe!  Get off!
The freighter Medusa Challenger travels the Chicago River. The ship waited over six hours because the Michigan Avenue bridge wouldn't open. 1972
On October 19, 1972, a new bridge became rattled at the Medusa’s approach. A blown electrical fuse kept the Michigan Avenue bridge in the upraised position while workers struggled to discover the source of the problem. The Tribune reported that some motorists saw the Medusa and went out of their way to avoid the bridge even before it was raised. One taxi driver said, “There’s going to be trouble. The Medusa’s back.”

The LaSalle Street bridge jammed on December 3, 1972, after being raised for the ship and beyond that, the Lake Street bridge was closed to traffic for 40 minutes because the gates barring auto traffic from entering the bridge would not open. It took work crews five hours, working in near zero-degree weather, to free the Michigan Avenue bridge a little more than two weeks later as the Medusa waited. “The workers didn’t use any magic words as they went about their business,” wrote the Tribune. “just your common, every-day, four-letter variety.”
The Medusa steams past 330 North Wabash, heading upriver.
The ship’s ill-fated encounters with city bridges were so frequent that the Tribune actually ran a story on July 14, 1973, when the Medusa moved from the lake to Goose Island and nothing happened. The steamer had tempted fate the day before by entering the river on Friday the Thirteenth, but except for a brief problem with the traffic gates at Lake Shore Drive, the slow procession up the river was uneventful.

The good ship couldn’t catch a break. On August 11, 1976 the Medusa’s owners, “perhaps hoping to erase the... animosities harbored by many Chicago motorists”  had the vessel tied up at Twenty-Second Street in front of McCormick Place for a University of Chicago Foundation fundraiser. The event was poorly publicized, the night was unseasonably cold and gusty, and out of a thousand guests that were expected to attend, a generous estimate placed the actual headcount at about 250. One volunteer at the event said, “We’re going to have to drink a lot of martinis to keep warm tonight.”
The freighter Medusa Challenger travels the Chicago River. The 562-foot cement carrier sat dead in the ice water while trying to head downstream. At least three times, the longship hove because bridges wouldn't go up. One delay was four hours as the ship sat under the raised Well Street bridge while tenders tried to open the Franklin Street span. The problems were attributed in part to the weather. 1979
By the end of the 1970s, the Medusa-Challenger’s visits to Chicago were over, but before the reign of bad luck came to an end the ship became a movie star, giving its name to the first film in which Joe Mantegna appeared, a 25-minute short film that is in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.

In 1998, Medusa Portland Cement was acquired by Southdown Inc., resulting in the vessel being renamed Southdown Challenger. On April 28, 2005, the name and registration of the Southdown Challenger was changed to "St. Marys Challenger."
Renamed the St. Mary's Challenger, toward the end of her life.
The classic steamer completed a full season of sailing, laying up on December 11, 2006, at South Chicago, Illinois, after having spent most of her centennial year plying her trade on Lake Michigan.

The St. Marys Challenger’s final season saw her employed just as she had been the past few years, carrying cargo from the St. Marys Cement Co.’s elevator at Charlevoix, Mich., to ports such as South Chicago, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, and Grand Haven, all on Lake Michigan. Much to the delight of boat watchers, she also made two trips to Owen Sound, Ontario in 2013 and one to Detroit.

The vessel arrived at Bay Shipbuilding Co. in the afternoon of November 11, 2013, blowing salutes on her steam whistle and flying a white flag, indicating surrender – however reluctantly – to her fate. Crowds of boat watchers with cameras documented the event as she negotiated the gauntlet of bridges on the Calumet River after her last delivery to Chicago, on her way out to the lake she was laid up for more than two hours. A railroad bridge over the Calumet River refused to lift. She arrived in Sturgeon Bay for the last time.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. What a fascinating article. I am from Chicago and this is the first I have heard about St. Marys Challenger... aka: Medusa-Challenger; the Chicago River Bridge Killer. Thanks for sharing. I'm a Film Student, and I did a simple search for the short film when the ship became a movie star. I found the film on YouTube titled "Medusa Challenger"--- Well Done!

    1. I live in Manitowoc,Wi. and I have seen the Medusa navigate the Manitowoc river many times. The river is so snakey that I believe every gash and dent in the ship happened in Manitowoc. Many times I didn't think it would make -but it did

    2. That's a tight river inlet in Manitowac !

    3. I pulled cement from Medusa when I started to St. Mary's when I retired. The Challenger transferred Cement from it into a storage ship half it size which was still a large ship. I got to watch it moor and tie off to unload and when you're that close the size is just, WOW!

  2. When I worked at the Sun-Times, we got quite a show whenever the Medusa passed the newsroom on the 4th floor. Great views of the river, the bridges, and the ship. It was especially scenic in the winter, when the water was choked with large chunks of ice. Didn't know the ship's history went all the way back to 1906...107 years of service on the Lakes is a LONG lifetime!

    1. I worked at the Sun-Times as well and it was always an experience

  3. Today, our family continues to celebrate the birthday of our father, Carl Frank Shircel, who supported his wife and five sons while piloting ships on the Great Lakes and working hard to help to build the infrastructure of a nation that our Slovenian immigrants came to… the beautiful land of the Indigenous Tribes of this country. Their courage, knowledge ingenuity and hard-working strength continue to guide our future generations and we are so thankful for all of those who have sailed the Great Lakes and bravely plied the waters of its tributaries to give us such beautiful and prosperous lives. ❤️🙏🏽❤️


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