The 600-foot William G. Mather was once the biggest, grandest steamship in the Cleveland-Cliffs fleet, carrying 14,000 tons of iron ore from the shores of Lake Superior to the steel mills of Lake Erie.

Now, the so-called “ship that built Cleveland” is docked in Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor, part of the Great Lakes Science Center and open for tours through October.

You can climb the steep grated metal staircases, peer into bunk rooms, compare the officers’ dining room to the crew’s and marvel at the size of the boilers in the engine room.

(The Mather will also host a film in the hull, part of the FRONT International Cleveland Triennial this summer.)

You may even run into Bob Vance, who on a recent Wednesday was vacuuming the galley and polishing the brass rails. He worked on 38 similar freighters over 30 years, every April through December.

“It was terrible. The divorce rate was terrible,” joked Vance, 69, of Mayfield Heights. “Only truck drivers and circus performers had worse rates.”

In the mid-20th century, 300 freighters worked the lake. Now, there are fewer than 140. Four are restored and open for tours.

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The Mather was named after the president of Cleveland-Cliffs, a company founded as Cleveland Iron Mining Co. in 1847, which merged with Cliffs Iron Co. in 1890.

It had room for 40 crew members in the roaring 20s, including a female nurse and stenographer. By the time it retired in 1980, it had 27 crew on board. Each crew member had prescribed role.

Including the engineers, who ran the engine room in the belly of the ship, near the stern. The ship always ran on steam, first from coal and after 1954, oil.

“It’s this gigantic, archaic maze of pipes and gauges,” said Great Lakes museum spokesman Joe Yachinin, as we toured. “It’s awesome.”

The whole tour is pretty awesome, from the size of the deck to the extravagance of the guest dining room.

If you can’t go in person, check out the slideshow above, and the timeline below.

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May, September, October
Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
June – August
Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday noon to 5 p.m.


Adults $8.95
Seniors (65+) $6.95
Youth (2-12) $5.95

William G. Mather timeline, according to the Great Lakes Science Center

1925: Steamship William G. Mather launched on May 23, to serve as flagship for Cleveland-Cliffs. Built at the Great Lakes Ship Building in Ecorse, Michigan, the cost was $1 million.

1941: Mather led a convoy of 13 freighters through ice-choked waters to arrive in Duluth, Minnesota, April 8 to the break spring record. The boats picked up iron ore needed for the Battle of Britain in World War III.

1946: Radar installed on Mather, one of the first ships on the Great Lakes to get it.

 1952: EdwardB.Greene replaces the Mather as flagship for Cleveland-Cliffs. Mather continues as freighter.

1954: Mather is re-powered by oil, rather than coal, and remodeled.

1964:  Bailey Control boiler automation installed on Mather. She is the first U.S. vessel to operate without a fireman to tender the boiler. Boow thruster added to assist in navigation.

1980:  Mather retires.

1985:  Cleveland-Cliffs sells off its fleet, except for the Mather and the WillisBoyer, now a museum ship in Toledo.

1987:  Mather is donated to Great Lakes Historical Society on December 10 to begin career as a maritime museum.

1988:  Mather towed to Collision Bend in the Cuyahoga River where restoration begins.

1991:  Mather opens as a museum at East 9th Street Pier on the 66th anniversary of her May 23 christening.

 1995:  Harbor Heritage Society takes over operations of Mather.

2005: On Sept. 24, Mather towed by two tugs to its present Dock 32 location behind the Great Lakes Science Center.

2006: On Oct. 1, Mather donated to the Great Lakes Science Center.