Here Comes the Mather!

SOME PEOPLE lit up with recognition when the S. S. Samuel Mather’s bow cut the mouth of the Cuyahoga. The name is a Cuyahoga name.

Beginning with the Mather who was on the executive committee of the Connecticut Land Company, there has always been a sobersided, public-conscienced descendant of Cotton Mather silently and firmly at work for the well-being of the Western Reserve and the Cuyahoga valley.

They were thin-lipped men of towering conscience and ability, reclusive during gaiety, tough as iron during trouble. And iron was their business.

The name has always been on one of Pickands-Mather’s best boats: there have been four S. S. Samuel Mathers - one afloat ever since ’87 when the three-masted, sail-and-steam-powered Mather was launched.

I don’t mean the S. S. Samuel L. Mather, but the Samuel Mather, named for the Mather most widely known as “Mister Mather.”

Thousands who never knew him personally have seen his works, which fanned out like the stern waves off his ships. All along the iron ore route from the Cuyahoga to Port Arthur on Superior you see the name cut into marble on colleges and hospitals; engraved on the letterheads of foundations, being polished in raised brass letters on the fronts of corporations, branches of corporations, and the ownership plaques on vessels running from the Cuyahoga north to the iron ranges.

On the Cuyahoga, the name’s part of the spoken language; the inflections range from a groan to a sigh. The sighs must wait for his biographer since this book hasn’t time to go inland. But the groans are apt to be from maritime competitors based along the Cuyahoga, which some feel might be just a fat fishing stream but for Mather.

Even his seniors called him Mister Mather, and in crowds a path appeared to let him through. Closing in after him, they’d recall the mine accident that pinned young Sam Mather under timbers and iron dust, smashing ribs and an arm which he carried bent through the rest of his life, and through several chapters of this book because of his multi-chaptered life. The dignity and lonely ethics of this slight, wiry vessel operator did not quite conceal his awesome dreams of empire.

He made the Cuyahoga boss over a 2,000-mile steelmaking network, stretching over water and rail arteries all the way from the West Virginia coal country hauling coal to the Cuyahoga furnaces on up through the Great Lakes shipping lanes to the iron ranges of the Marquette, Menominee, Gogebic, and Mesabi in Minnesota.

This network involved scores of furnaces, coal mines, iron mines, limestone quarries; and connecting them all, the world’s most unusual merchant navy.

Sam Mather built it.

That brings back into the cast the man who made the Cuyahoga shores the nation’s oil refinery.

John D. Rockefeller did not set out to get into the iron business big. But Mather’s firm, Pickands-Mather, was deep in the iron business, mining it, smelting it, hauling it.

When the financial panic of 1873 struck like a Lake Superior blow, iron companies were hurt badly. Rockefeller was persuaded to come to the aid of the Merritt brothers, the seven wild iron men of Minnesota who owned and opened the great Mesabi Iron Range.

From that instant, he had to throw so much good money after bad that he felt he had to get into the Mesabi and manage it. To manage it, he had to own it.

While the iron world laughed, Rockefeller acquired, piece by piece, control of the little-regarded Mesabi, where the ore was said to be too lean, too powdery, and too distant for lower Lakes mills.

Then a strange message crept over the steel world like the shadow of a cloud. It dawned slowly that he had control of the richest ore property known in the world.

The steel world was afraid Rockefeller would build a steel mill. They locked arms against him under the leadership of the then king of steel in America, Andrew Carnegie.

But if they meant to fight, Rockefeller had an advantage - the ore. “I was astonished,” he said, “that the steelmakers had not seen the necessity of controlling their ore supply.” They had left that in his hands, unwittingly at first, unwillingly later.

Now Rockefeller set out to control his transportation. He wanted the largest fleet of ore vessels afloat. He wanted construction supervised by an expert. To John D. that meant Mather.

Rockefeller, by then living in New York, invited Mather to take on the work. Mather declined; he was not interested in creating a competitor to his own company’s vessel fleet nor its iron ore. Rockefeller said he was only going to haul his own ore in these boats.

Still Mather declined. Having married Amelia Stone, he had heard harsh things about Rockefeller from his father-in-law, Amassa Stone.

But when Mather was in New York, a Rockefeller aide asked him if he would come to Rockefeller’s house for dinner.

“I’m sorry. I have a dinner appointment.”

“Mr. Mather, could you come for just a few minutes before your dinner?” Gates asked. Gates was Rockefeller’s number one man. “Mr. Rockefeller said even ten minutes would be enough.”

“It wouldn’t. You don’t purchase a great vessel in ten minutes.”

“I suppose not,” Gates grinned. “But it’s enough time for you to say ‘no’ again, isn’t it?”

Sam Mather was ushered through an ornate residence into the presence of the unjeweled, unostentatious, plain multi-millionaire.

“Mr. Mather, thank you for coming. I understand your time is very short. We certainly wish you would assume charge of vessel construction for us?”

“Thank you, sir. But I have explained that I have no desire to encourage you into the ore-carrying trade. I’m perhaps your strongest competitor.”

“Would I go for help to one of the weakest?”

Mather grinned. “Why go to a competitor at all?”

Rockefeller explained that he wanted Mather’s great knowledge and legendary integrity.

Mather explained that a vessel was a very expensive construction, costing more than an oil refinery.

“And it would cost me even more than it would you. But I feel you would spend my money more carefully than your own.”

Countering Mather’s objection to building a ship for a competitor, Rockefeller said, “If I’m going to build anyway, shouldn’t you as well have the commission as anyone else?”

“Well, although I’m honored, the commission for superintendence of constructing a vessel is not really interesting to me.”

“Of course, Mr. Mather. But I had in mind twenty-four.”


Mather walked the carpeted deck of Rockefeller’s study.

An unheard of fleet! Or was it an armada to conquer the iron world?

Construction of such a fleet would upset the entire economic balance of the Great Lakes. All the shipyards from Duluth to Buffalo could not produce it at once. If word of this order got out, the price of shipbuilding would go out of sight. No other ore company or vessel operator could afford so much as one vessel, and might have trouble even getting repairs. Competitiveness to this new fleet could vanish.

In this depression, with the mills already on slow bell, iron could remain locked in the rocks; miners and mills could idle. If such a fleet was to be built, better that it be built by someone who knew the currents and whirlpools of the Great Lakes marine iron world.

Further, they were to be the largest boats on the lakes - 475 feet.

Mather stopped pacing. “A free hand, Mr. Rockefeller?”


“I had better build them.”


“One thing. Until I let contracts, don’t discuss how many vessels I am building for you.”

Mr. Gates remembers smiling at such instructions to such a buyer. But Mr. Rockefeller gravely nodded and extended his hand, “Since you can’t stay, I hope you are not late for your dinner, Mr. Mather, and that we see you soon.”

Mr. Rockefeller dined alone; they never met again.

In under ten minutes, Mr. Mather took the largest single order for vessels ever placed on the Great Lakes. For the knowledge he carried home to the Cuyahoga, any shipbuilder would have paid his soul.

The Great Lakes had ten shipyards, all shut down, except for desultory winter repair work. These yards all together could build 12 vessels simultaneously, if the two largest each built two ships.

When the hull was designed, Mather sent a set of plans and specifications to selected shipbuilders saying he was “interested in building a ship” and asking for a competitive bid on construction. “If bids are low enough, possibly two ships may be built.”

Every yard on the lakes wanted that contract.

Shipyards which had been on hard times for five years sharpened their pencils, trimmed to the bone their production steps; they secured tight-belted competitive bids from their subcontractors on engine construction, cabin trim, steel plates, and rented money.

The bids came back to Mather lean and clean.

Mather was a thorough man. He asked each shipbuilder to come to his office in the Western Reserve Building on a Wednesday to go over their bids with him individually to see that they were in agreement on quality of materials and certain construction details and completion schedule.

On the appointed day, ten shipbuilders were seated nervously in Mather’s anteroom, each hoping to answer satisfactorily Mather’s questions on his bid. Several, seeing their competitors close up, suddenly wished they had bid even lower.

The first man had been in Mather’s inner office 20 minutes when he walked out. All studied him carefully. He had a swallowed-the-canary smile that took the heart out of the others.

Mr. Mather would no doubt come out now, thank them for bidding, and dismiss them.

But he called in another shipbuilder. He was in Mather’s inner office the quarter part of an hour. Those still waiting speculated that probably the two lowest bidders had been called in first.

When he came out, they all noted that he walked right out of the office as if embarrassed by his good fortune.

Mr. Mather had suggested there might be a second ship built. It looked as if both contracts had been assigned.

But Mr. Mather called for a third shipbuilder.

Well, by four o’clock several of the ten shipbuilders went to the Weddell House bar.

By five o’clock, they had discovered that every yard had got a contract. Each had been bidding only against himself.

It’s said that at the Weddell House bar that night any seaman could get all he wanted to drink by just walking in.

By nine o’clock, the news had traveled all the way up to the head of navigation on the Cuyahoga.

When the first 12 vessels neared launching, the second 12 were built. Then Rockefeller wrote Mather asking him to run the fleet. Mather felt he could not, to be true to some of his complex partnerships. He thus declined the leadership in 1898 of what became shortly Rockefeller’s 28-vessel Bessemer Steamship Company, largest ore fleet in the world. By 1901, it was 59 vessels, including some 500-footers and above.

On the east shore of the Cuyahoga now began rising the towering, red brick Rockefeller Building of 17 stories to house the fleet offices; to house other iron and vessel companies as tenants; and to throw its morning shadows across the crumbling roof of the old Hewitt & Tuttle warehouse which now wore a patina of lichens and green moss.

It was the building where young Rockefeller landed his first job. On every anniversary of that date, Rockefeller raised the flag.

In the recovery of 1900, American mills produced 18-million tons of steel. Rockefeller’s fleet could carry ore enough for every furnace on the Great Lakes. He raised the rates to $1.25 a ton from Duluth to the Cuyahoga. Mr. Carnegie had to pay it.

But it scorched his Scotch soul. He immediately began construction and acquisition via Henry Oliver of a great fleet of his own, The Pittsburgh Steamship Company, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga.

The war was on.

Bow to bow, the vessels of these great fleets raced for survival. Their wash lapped the banks of the Cuyahoga night and day, and their unloading spillage reddened the current.

The mills raced each other just as violently. Small mills and small fleets and small mines were getting killed in the fight.

A Mr. Morgan in New York, initials J. P., thought the battle was getting too rough for the good of his holdings, his clients, and the American economy. He set out to bring peace and efficiency by a huge vertical consolidation, putting together a company called U. S. Steel Corporation.

Although J. P. was to pay a multimillion-dollar premium rather than admit it to John D., “vertical consolidation” was the lesson the young Cuyahoga commission clerk had just taught the world.

Rockefeller had seen a rainbow on the river. Following it upstream, it had led him to an industry in chaos, petroleum. He had straightened it out by establishing “vertical consolidation.” It meant control your raw stock, control your transportation, own your refinery, make your own barrels, ship it over your own carriers to your own stores.

Young John D. had played the lesson out in a fiery public chapter. But the students weren’t all listening. So old John D. ran a make-up semester for the steel business. The tuition would be high.

To make a “vertically coordinated” steel company with its own iron ore mines and vessels and limestone and furnaces and mills, Morgan raised funds to buy out Carnegie’s magnificent mills and Gates’ wire mills; and then he had to go to Rockefeller, the teacher, to buy his mines and boats.

J. P.’s arrogant pride wouldn’t let him walk down the street a few blocks to talk business with John D.

So they sparred through emissaries, haggling a half year, splitting hairs the size of trees. It was much like the auction John D. had been in with the three Clark brothers years before. But the ante was higher. The price went up weekly as the two delicate dinosaurs coyly dickered. Finally they settled on $88,500,000 for John’s ore mines and ore vessels.

Putting Rockefeller’s boats together with Carnegie’s boats, Pittsburgh Steamship Company became a colossus of shipping - 106 vessels!

John rented them some space for their shore captain’s office in the Rockefeller Building by the Cuyahoga.

It became the greatest fleet on the Lakes. When a ship from Pittsburgh Steam went by, it was called “a Corporation boat.”

Corporation boats of this first great Pittsburgh fleet, rebuilt many times and converted and repowered, beat the water. Some sailed under other ownerships and other flags.

Many were towed to Canada and converted to barges, some were tied up and converted to floating storage silos, some are anchored off Great Lakes cities as breakwalls, some were towed to Italy for scrap.

Corporation boats from that great fleet have changed names ten times, and still hauled cargo. Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Fleet, headed by Admiral Khoury, went to larger, newer vessels, 730-foot supercarriers!

The Mather, which opened this chapter, continued working until 1980. Today, she’s tied up as the Steamship William G. Mather Museum, east of the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at the foot of Ninth Street in Cleveland near the Coast Guard vessels.