Thus the ship-building industry soon became an important feature of Conneaut's growing commercial importance. Ship carpentry was a trade followed by many men here for years, and a number of owners, captains and sailors on both sailing and steam craft hailed this as their home port. The first vessel constructed at this harbor was named in honor of the town, the "Salem Packet". Elias Keyes and Capt. Sam Ward were the builders. The boat was constructed on the flats above the Main Street bridge and at a point nearly under where now spans the new viaduct. It remained on the ways for some time after its completion, waiting for a sufficient depth of water in the river and, in the end, did not have to be formally launched, as an unheralded spring freshet carried it off the ways, but, fortunately, did it no damage. 'The-Salem Packet was a "fore-an'-after" with a capacity for carrying 27 tons. That was a good-sized boat. Capt. Ward sailed her that season. As compared with the great ships of today the boats of that early period might be classed as a "mosquito fleet".
The next boat constructed was the Farmer, built by Christopher Ford and sailed by Capt. Charles Brown. This vessel was wrecked on Long Point in the season of 1827 and later floated and taken to Cleveland, where she was rebuilt.
James Tubbs built the Independence, a 30-ton schooner, on the beach a mile west of Conneaut Harbor. John Brooks constructed and sailed the small vessel Humming Bird, from which he was lost off Sandusky, being washed overboard. Other craft built in and about Conneaut in those early days included the following:
The Conneaut Packett, by Applebee and Tubbs; the sloop Dart, built in Kingsville and taken overland to Conneaut to be launched and fitted out; The Oregon and the Commercial, built at Harmon's Landing, west of Conneaut; the Reindeer, North America, Wisconsin, Constitution, Troy, J. B. Skinner, Henry M. Kinney, J. W. Brown, the Belle, Lucy Walbridge, Lucy A. Blossom, Banner, Dan Marble, Traveler, Telegraph, Grayhound, Stambaugh, Seabird, Fairy Queen, Nightingale, Ogarita, Indianola, Thomas Swain, Loren Gould, L. May Guthrie, Times, Monitor, Ann Maria, Valentine, T. B. Rice, J. G. Palmer, Conneaut and M. Capron.
The North America was a steamer, the first steamboat built in Conneaut. She was launched in 1834, was of 300 tons burden. This ship was the property of a stock company. Capt. Gilmore Applebee brought her out.
In 1836 the 400-ton steamer Wisconsin was constructed at Harper's Landing. She was also the product of a stock company and, after being launched, was towed to Buffalo for her final fitting out.
The next steamer built was still larger than its predecessors, having a cargo capacity of 450 tons.
The Banner, a trim schooner, was the boat to claim the next increase in size. She was launched in 1847, had a capacity of 500 tons and was at that time the largest sailing vessel on the Great Lakes. Capt. Marshall Capron was her proud skipper.
In 1862-3 a ship of 450 tons burden was built at Conneaut, for service on salt water. She was constructed on contract for Buffalo owners.
Then came a still larger ship, the Ogarita, having a carrying capacity of 600 tons. This ship quite overshadowed any other afloat on the lakes. She also was built for Buffalo parties. Capt. Andrew Lent was her master.
The early marine business of Conneaut Harbor reached its height between 1845 and 1852 and the village of Conneaut grew and prospered until the advent of the railroad in the latter year, then it received a decided setback as the overland means of transportation took the lion's share of the east and west freightage as well as a goodly part of the matter to be transferred to the southern points and the general passenger traffic.
For some years after the railroad killed the passenger and light freight business on the lakes, sailing vessels continued to do a considerable business at Conneaut Harbor in lumber and some other commodities, but as the valuable timber in the territory tributary to the lake trade became depleted, the cargoes became fewer and farther between, until During the '60s they had almost entirely vanished and many of the vessels had been sold and withdrawn to the upper lakes.
Conneaut Harbor became very soon little more than a fishing port and so remained for many years, till one fine day great steel interests decided upon acquiring- possession of adjoining property and constructing a real harbor, to serve as a transfer point for the great quantities of iron ore that were being required at the mill sites in the Pittsburgh districts.
That was a happy day for Conneaut, and the outcome was that it was not long till the residents of that village began to boast of their wonderful harbor and the vast amount of tonnage going over their docks.
The period since the beginning of the new order of dispensation at Conneaut Harbor may be fittingly designated its "Iron Age", for, while millions of tons of coal and various manufactured products have in the meantime been received and dispatched, iron ore in vast quantities has constituted the greatly preponderating constituent and asset of all its activities.
Early in the year 1887 the first faint symptoms of an approaching restoration of this long dormant harbor became apparent. A survey of the Erie, Shenango & Pittsburgh Railroad was begun, and several local citizens' meetings were held in furtherance of securing the proposed railroad's terminal here. In February, 1888, a company reorganization was effected and the name changed to Pittsburgh, Shenango & Lake Erie Railroad. Grading for the railroad began that month near Greenville, Pa. Conneaut citizens subscribed a bonus of $25,000 on condition that a terminal of the road be built to this harbor, and a provisional purchase of 20 acres of land along the west side of the harbor was made by trustees of the fund. In March surveyors ran a line between Conneaut Harbor and Albion, Pa., and the work of driving piles to repair the breaks in the piers, was begun and slowly prosecuted during the ensuing summer. Throughout the year 1889 the entire project was in a state of doldrums. Harbor improvement work was entirely suspended, and railroad building was prosecuted in a desultory manner. There was internal indecision and public uncertainty as to whether Erie or Conneaut would become the road’s harbor terminal, until finally the company went under a receivership and all construction work was suspended. Refinancing and reorganization were accomplished by September, 1890, and thenceforth construction work was prosecuted with a vigor.
The years 1891-2 were historically eventful in determining the question and actually accomplished the reopening of Conneaut Harbor to navigation and marine commerce. To Col. S. B. Dick, president, and A. C. Huidekoper, vice-president, of the reorganized railroad company the credit is due for the decision arrived at and the activity displayed in carrying it into actual effect. During the year 1891 the railroad was completed to a junction with the Nickel Plate near Girard, Pa., from whence trains were run over the Nickel Plate road to that company's passenger and freight terminal in Erie.
In October grading for the harbor branch of the road was begun and the work pushed as rapidly as possible throughout the following winter. Much of the land abutting the west bank of the river between the Lake Shore Railway fill and the harbor entrance was purchased, to control which and to construct and operate the docks, the Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock Company was incorporated as an auxiliary to the railroad company. Work of pile-driving and building part of a 600-foot dock (later a part of Dock No. 1) was prosecuted, upon which was erected six legs of Brown hoists, with one-ton buckets. A dredge was brought here which had first to cut the channel ahead of itself through the great sandbar at the harbor mouth, to gain an entrance and begin dredging and clearing out the many years' accumulation of sunken logs, trees and snags, which the bar had held in the river bed. The summer of 1892 witnessed the driving of the last spike connecting Conneaut Harbor by rail with the southern coal and furnace districts. Unable to wait the slow action of the National Government in utilizing for harbor improvement the $40,000 appropriated by Congress in that year, the dock company officials obtained permission from the War Department to repair the piers and dredge out the channel between them at the company's expense. This work resulted in opening a narrow channel 16 feet deep alongside the west pier. The ore dock was completed and two "whirlies" built thereon to supplement the Brown hoists in unloading vessels, and Conneaut Harbor was ready to enter into iron ore traffic. Dredging continued uninterruptedly throughout the season, and the dock company expended about $250,000. The first loaded vessel to enter this harbor in nearly a quarter of a century was the barge Marine City, on September 30, 1892, with a deckload of pine lumber for the Record Manufacturing Company, of this city. But the great event occured on Sunday, Nov. 6, when the steamship Charles J. Kershaw, drawing 16 feet forward, entered with the first cargo of iron ore (1130 tons) ever unloaded at this harbor.
When it became known that the first cargo of ore was arriving nearly the entire population of Conneaut hurried to the harbor to welcome it. Deep silence and some anxiety prevailed as the tug O'Brien towed the barge slowly and carefully through the narrow channel between the piers but after it had safely arrived alongside the dock every steam whistle at the harbor opened wide in shrill salute of welcome and the massed crowd of people sent up a great shout of exultation. The two cargoes above mentioned were all that arrived that season, but it was a beginning.
The year 1893 witnessed greatly increased activity at the harbor both in improvement work and the shipping business, despite the fact that the great panic of that year had occurred and business depression had the entire financial interests of the country in its grip. In February a contract had been entered into for the shipment of 250,000 tons of Marquette ore to the Conneaut docks during the season. In preparation to unload the cargoes expeditiously three additional Brown hoists and two new King hoists were erected and additional "whirlies" constructed, the entire cost of the hoisting outfit then amounting to about $150,000. A long stretch of additional dock construction, extending it to 1,700 feet, was completed, and long lines of sidetracks for switching and storage purposes were laid. Early in the season a contract was let by the Government engineer for pier work and dredging at the harbor entrance under the appropriation made the previous year. The project adopted by the Government engineers contemplated construction of two parallel piers 200 feet apart, exteding out a sufficient distance into the lake to insure a channel depth of 17 feet of water. Early in the morning of May 15th the first disaster occurred at the harbor. A strong flood pouring down the river created a current which broke the mooring lines of the dredge Continental. In a few moments she was swept out into the lake on the swift current, where a high sea was running and sunk. All aboard of her, the captain, engineer, two deckhands and a female cook, were drowned.
June 3rd witnessed the arrival of 34 carloads of the first coal for shipment. Whirlies loaded it into the barge Wayne, for Duluth. On June 7th the steamer Queen of the West arrived with 1,300 tons of ore, the first, cargo of the season and the second at this harbor. A week later, the steamer Servia arrived with 1,700 tons of Ashland ore, and thereafter this harbor was fairly launched upon its career as a great iron ore receiving port. July 30th a fleet of six steamers, "whalebacks" and barges, moored in the then small harbor, and the novel spectacle attracted hundreds of visitors. Later on so many of the "whaleback" type of vessels, dubbed "pigs", came in here that rival ports named this harbor the "pig-pen". The first season's business at this redeveloped harbor included 100 cargoes of ore, totaling 203,207 tons. Eleven cargoes of coal that conveyed a total of 23,185 tons of coal were shipped to the upper lakes.
In the month of April, 1894, 400 additional feet of dockage was under construction. In May the dock company purchased 17 acres of land contained in the "Big Bend". This was for dockage and slip excavation. In July of this year the dock laborers went on a strike and became so demonstrative that the mayor called for a company of state militia and the Geneva Rifles were sent here and order was restored. In September the steamer S. S. Curry, 4,750 tons of coal, which was the record coal cargo on the Great Lakes up to that time.
The United States & Ontario Steam Navigation Company was incorporated in September, 1894, and a contract was let that winter for the building of two ferry-boats for service in connection with a contract that had been made with the Grand Trunk, in Canada, to export coal from Conneaut Harbor to Port Dover and Port Stanley. These car-ferries were built to carry 30 cars, which, at that time, constituted a good-sized trainload. These ships were put into service the following season. They were named the Shenango No. 1 and the Shenango No. 2 and the No. 1 made the first trip on August 17, taking a large party of officials and invited guests on board. These ships started out on their mission most auspiciously and without intimation of the tragic manner in which both were to be put out of commission later on.
During the following winter the Shenango No. 1 was caught in the ice in midlake and drifted about with the floe for three months before she was released.
In 1896 Andrew Carnegie and his associates purchased a controlling interest in the Pittsburgh, Shenango & Lake Erie Railroad and in the Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock Company. Immediately thereafter the railroad was extended from Butler, Pa., to the Carnegie mills near Pittsburgh. The railroad and dock companies contracted to deliver 2,000,000 tons of iron ore to the furnaces of the Carnegie Steel Company annually. To accomplish this it was necessary to make extensions to their harbor facilities, for which purpose $500,000 was appropriated, and the Rockefeller "Bessemer" fleet of steel steamers was given a contract to bring down the ore. To an appropriation of $40,000 made the previous year another like sum was added by the Government. In January, 1897, the Pittsburgh, Shenango & Lake Erie Railroad was reorganized and renamed the Pittsburgh, Bessemer & Lake Erie, and the line was extended that year to North Bessemer, giving a direct route from Conneaut, 148 miles long. That winter a new slip 1,300 feet long and 165 feet wide was excavated southward in line with the main channel, on which new docks was installed a battery of fast twelve McMyler hoists. The steamer Andrew Carnegie this season brought in the record cargo of iron ore, 5,160 tons. And this summer also saw the innovation of the first steel hopper-cars, of 50-ton capacity. The "Bessemer" company placed an order for 600 of these cars.
In 1898 the dock company acquired the entire Andrews estate, lying east of the river, which was used for dock and storage purposes, and made accessibly by a railroad bridge from the west side. In 1859 the Pittsburgh Steamship Company was organized and contracts were awarded for construction of several ships larger than any then on the lakes. The new company also purchased the 16 steamers and 20 "whaleback" barges comprising the fleet of the American Steel Barge Company. Eventually the new fleet numbered over a hundred big ships. The importance of Conneaut Harbor as a lake shipping point commanded attention of the United States Government, and liberal appropriations were made from time to time. The plans for harbor protection at this port were finally approved by the War Department, providing for a west pier 1,075 feet long, an east pier 1,467 feet long, east and west break-waters 1,000 feet and 1,200 feet long, respectively. This plan was carried out and subsequent additions made, till Conneaut has nearly 8,000 feet of breakwater wall and is one of the best protected and most approachable harbors on the chain of lakes.