Monday, June 1, 2015

Medusa-Challenger Strikes Again -- June 1, 1969

Medusa-Challenger headed west (Google Image)
On this date, June 1, back in 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.

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 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 (Google Image)
 She gained her reputation in Chicago as the Medusa-Challenger because, through 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.”  [May 31, 1968]

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.  [Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1969]

The Medusa headed toward the lake (Google Image)
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.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1969]

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!”  [Chicago Tribune, September 23, 1970]

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.”  [Chicago Tribune, October 18, 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.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1972]

The Medusa steams past 330 North Wabash, heeded upriver (Google Image)
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 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.”  [Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1976].

By the end of the 1970’s 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. 

Renamed the St. Mary's Challenger, toward the end (Google Image)
And . . . the ship is still working.  In November of 2013 the 107-year-old ship, renamed the St. Mary’s Challenger, sailed out of Calumet Harbor, bound for Sturgeon Bay where she would lose her stern, pilot house and engine room in a conversion that would render her a barge with no power.   Appropriately, 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.

1 comment:

adgorn said...

The movie, for your viewing pleasure: