“Dad! Stop!” David screamed as we neared the dead end of a lonely road. It was a wet Saturday afternoon, and we were spending the day exploring the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Huron Coast. “I saw something! Turn around,” he screamed again in excitement as I stopped the car. We were in the quiet lakeshore town of Detour, a fitting name for our journey. Exhausted and ready to return home, we had spent a wonderful day touring the towns of Hessel and Cedarville. I thought the road would lead us back to the state highway, but instead it simply ended at the edge of a forest. Disappointed by our detour and ready to head home, I pulled the car forward quickly as David hung his head over my chest staring up the long driveways. I was curious what he saw, but to be honest I was expecting nothing more than a pretty house or a demolished barn so I sped back towards the main highway.
“There! Stop,” he screamed again. “It’s perfect for your magazine!”
It took me a long moment to realize what I was looking at. It was a ship. Well, part of a ship. A woman on the deck noticed us gawking and gave us a friendly wave. “Is that what I think that is?” I called out. She laughed and invited us to have a look. By the time we reached the end of the driveway, her husband was on the deck greeting us with a big smile behind his greying beard.
Marc and Jill VanderMeulen are a charming couple from Holland that spend their summers at their beach house in Detour, right next door to their ship. The couple long dreamed of owning a pilothouse that would provide a view of the passing freighters and preserve a piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Eventually, their idea grew to be a functional cottage built from the bow of a real ship. They purchased the front portion of the John W. Boardman (Lewis G. Harriman) in 2002 when the boat was in a scrapyard in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. In 2005, they contracted with the Clement Brothers, Inc. to move the four-deck section of the ship to their property. It took several years for the boat to be secured in place, rust cleaned up, and the exterior painted.
The John W. Boardman was built by the Toledo Ship Building Company in 1923 to carry bulk cement for the Huron Cement Company of Alpena, Michigan. It was 350 feet long, 55 feet wide and carried nearly 5,500 tons of cement cargo from Alpena to various elevators on the Great Lakes. In 1965 National Gypsum purchased Huron Cement and renamed the ship Lewis G. Harriman to honor their banker in Buffalo, NY. The ship was in use on the Great Lakes until 1980, when it was retired to Milwaukee and then later Green Bay to be used as a storage barge.
Marc and Jill were working on the ship when we arrived, but Marc appeared proud to give us a tour. Over the years, the couple has chipped, primed and painted the entire hull and portions of the deck and cabins. They reinstalled the steering pole and attached rigging. Marc was forced to become an expert welder to repair portions of the hull and ensure the structure was weather tight. “We have had some help from friends and relatives,” Marc said. “But two people are doing much of the work during long weekends and vacation time. This is a retirement project that we began early and we don’t have a schedule. Once we complete the exterior and site work, we will move on to the interior.”
From what I could see of the exterior work, the couple has done a spectacular job of restoring the hull. The showstopper is the Huron Portland Cement Company logo that Jill painted. “The logo and John W Boardman name were punched and chiseled into the steel hull plates probably in 1923,” Jill said. “So painting them was a ‘connect the dots’ project.” From our vantage point below the ship, it appeared as if the exterior work was nearly complete, save some work in the back.
Marc showed us inside through a hatch on the starboard side of the ship’s hull. It was apparent that the couple had been spending all of their time working on the exterior, as the interior was in rough shape. The potential, however, was clearly visible. Everywhere we turned, was the beauty of 1920s shipbuilding. Great metal doors and port holes. Tight cabins. Oak paneling in the captain’s quarters and pilot house. We started our tour in the lower decks, which Marc was using as work space. “There are 28 room, including the pilothouse, 3 heads, 11 cabins and various work and storage compartments. There is no galley or dining room, as those were located near the stern. We plan on converting one of the heads into a galley and one of the storage areas into a living space.” Once they begin work on the interior, new port windows will be added to the hull, allowing for more light and views of Lake Huron.
The showpiece of the ship is the captain’s quarters and pilothouse. “Ships built after World War II don’t have woodwork for fire safety reasons,” Marc told us as we examined the stunning oak paneling. “This is the original paneling from the 1920s.” Although most of the electronics were removed by the salvage yard, some pieces, like the radar and a gyro-compass, remain. It is the VanderMeulen’s plan to restore the pilothouse to near-operation condition. “With a couple of extra chairs,” Jill said.
As we were finishing the tour and it came time for us to enjoy the view from the deck, we were greeted outdoors by a blinding rainstorm. “When a freighter passes on the river (De Tour Passage) we will wave our brooms or tools. If we’re lucky, they will blow their horn in salute. We have an old ship horn down below that we are going to restore, so we can salute them back in return.”
Once we worked our way down, the rain ended. I cannot imagine a more ideal location for their ship cottage. In the distance you can see Pipe Island and the tiny Pipe Island Twins. To the left of their property sits an aged freighter in dock. All around them is the pine and cedar forests of the Upper Peninsula.
The VanderMeulens have plans to enjoy their ship first as a cottage and then, potentially, transform it into a bed & breakfast.
“Side roads,” I told David as we climbed into soaked seats (we left the windows and sunroof open). “You never know what you are going to find when you slow down and get off the main route.”
He laughed and reminded me that it was him that found the house because, “You were driving too fast and in a hurry to get home, Dad.”