|The barge Medusa-Challenger headed west on the Chicago River.|
|William P. Snyder at Ecorse, Michigan in 1906.|
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|
|The Medusa headed east toward Lake Michigan.|
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|
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, heeding upriver.|
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 head count 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 long ship 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|
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 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 boatwatchers, 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 boatwatchers 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.