A maritime history collector is preserving the lore and legend of Downriver’s commercial shipping history, one replica at a time
Photographs by Michelle and Chris Gerard
On November 7, 1959, an era rich in local tradition was already drawing to a close when the freighter Arthur B. Homer was launched from the Great Lakes Engineering Works. It turned out to be the final splash for Downriver’s last remaining shipyard, best known by its acronym, GLEW.
“Two years later, GLEW was dissolved and sold,” says Keith M. Steffke. “That was it.” At one time Detroit and Downriver shipbuilders were responsible for half the tonnage on the Great Lakes, including such famous vessels as the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Bob-lo steamer Columbia. But they couldn’t compete with low-cost foreign firms.
After nearly 140 years of commercial shipbuilding along the Detroit River, the once-familiar sound of rattling riveting guns in River Rouge, Ecorse, and Wyandotte was stilled forever.
Steffke, whose Prussian ancestors came to the Wyandotte area (then known as Ford City) before 1870, has several generations of Great Lakes maritime lore in his blood. He also has it stuffed into nearly every available space of the 1920s Lincoln Park bungalow he shares with his wife and two college-age children. Boiler gauges, engineer plates, and life preservers hang on the walls. Boxes of blueprints, charts, records, and photographs overflow his second-floor study. More books are stacked on the steps of a narrow stairwell leading up to it. The handrail has been fashioned out of an oar from the passenger steamer Tashmoo.
“You see these?” he says, pointing out several cracks in the living room ceiling. “That’s from the weight of all the stuff I have upstairs.”
If the groaning floorboards overhead were to give way and bury Steffke in a pile of bookcases, filing cabinets, storage boxes, and vintage nautical equipment, the bow-tied eccentric could report to The Great Lighthouse Keeper in the Sky that he had done more than just about anybody to carry on Downriver’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry, albeit on a teensy scale. Not only is Steffke one of the country’s leading maritime experts, he’s also a master model-maker who can accurately recreate a 3-D miniaturized replica of just about any vessel that ever plied the Detroit River.
A fascination with the history of shipbuilding on the Detroit River led Keith M. Steffke to amass a comprehensive collection of documents, photographs, and other maritime-related artifacts.
“I thrive on the obscure,” he says. “I won’t do any World War II ships. I’ll tell someone who asks, ‘You can get a kit at the store. Why do you need me?’ I do the ships that were historically important, the ones that represent the technological transition from wood to iron and then steel.”
Steffke, 50, has branded himself “The Old Shipbuilder.” His models typically command between $1,500 and $6,500 each, the price tag determined upfront by the number of hours he figures he’ll need to research and build it. Each is pieced together with meticulous attention to detail.
His crowded basement workshop has a score of vessels in various stages of completion, including a work-in-progress, the Pretoria. The 338-foot schooner-barge was one of the largest wooden ships ever built when it was launched in what was then called West Bay City in 1900. He’s reproducing the ship in 1/8-inch scale, meaning its 22-foot lifeboat will measure a mere 2 3/4 inches. There are 147 pieces in the Lilliputian lifeboat. “That alone probably took me over a week,” he says.
Steffke is eager to share maritime minutiae. “I have the employee records of the Detroit Dry Dock Company,” he says. “Henry Ford worked for them. I can tell you the dates he worked and how much he was paid.” He fires off figures and anecdotes, names and dates, fueled by his admittedly abnormal intake of black coffee and Coke Zero. “If you’re an insomniac, a caffeine addict, and a type-AA personality, you can really get things done,” he says.
What he has done is remarkable. Over the course of three decades, starting with a shirt box of photographs he got from his grandfather, he has amassed a private collection that rivals the holdings of many institutions. In addition to boxes of blueprints, personal diaries, logbooks, seasonal timetables, advertising brochures, and other ephemera, he has more than 60,000 photographs, including a rare 1843 daguerreotype of the USS Michigan, the Navy’s first iron-hull warship, which has never been published.
He has about 3,000 reference books and journals, including a complete set of the Annual Report of the Lake Carriers’ Association, published between 1902 and 1999. He has some 2,000 subject files ranging from such utterly forgotten firms as the Davis Boat & Oar Works to such famous figures as Frank E. Kirby, whom he regards as the greatest naval architect.
Although Steffke is mostly interested in documents, he has acquired such prize items as the ship’s bell from the 1890 lighthouse tender Marigold and a silver tea set presented to the captain of the Columbia in 1902. He has rummaged through attics, basements, and dumpsters, snooped around yard sales, and sniped on eBay. He’s paid as much as $5,000 for a document.
“I’m most interested in ship builders and shipyards, but I collect anything related to the river and the Great Lakes,” he says. “People, animals, fisheries, shipwrecks, steamship companies, the lifesaving service.” He puts the material to use when researching his models, especially those early 19th-century ships for which little information may exist.
Steffke admits it helps to have an understanding spouse. He met Angela Gorman, a schoolteacher whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, while both worked as historical interpreters at Greenfield Village. They were engaged on the Columbia, where Steffke once worked as a deckhand. Today, they share a ship captain’s bed Steffke built in the alcove of a room off his study. A harpsichord is incongruously parked in the middle of the cramped room, presumably because there’s no other place to put it.
A buttoned-down Lutheran active in Republican politics, Steffke always waltzed to his own music. He grew up in Wyandotte. A thin and sickly child, he “aspired to be a 98-pound weakling,” he jokes. He poured himself into natural science. As a teenager, he gave classroom lectures and operated “The Steffke Collection of Natural History” out of his attic. He startled neighbors by walking around with a convalescing great horned owl named Archimedes perched on his shoulder. “People started calling me ‘Birdman,’ ” he says.
He also developed a passion for the history of shipbuilding on the Detroit River. His great-great-great-grandfather was an ironworker at the Wyandotte Iron Shipbuilding Company, founded by Capt. Eber Brock Ward, Detroit’s first millionaire. Five of Steffke’s ancestors worked at the Detroit Dry Dock Company. Other branches of his family have been involved in maritime activities for the last 200 years. Some were marine engineers or commercial fishermen, others were lighthouse keepers.
Steffke wanted to be an ornithologist or a history teacher, but never completed his undergrad studies at Wayne State University. He held various positions in mortgage banking and real estate before turning to model making full time 10 years ago. “Up to then, it had been a hobby,” he says. He was 8 years old when he built his first vessel, the Union ironclad Monitor, out of a rat trap and a broom handle.
Steffke is also a master model-maker, creating miniaturized replicas of historic vessels that once plied the Detroit River.
The ships Steffke builds come in a variety of sizes. The most popular is where 1/8-inch on the model equals 1 foot on the actual ship. Thus a 375-foot vessel would measure just under 4 feet long when completed. Anything larger, such as an ore freighter, is typically built at 1/16-inch = 1 foot scale so that it can fit on a fireplace mantel or desktop.
Most models are made by using the builder’s original drawings and various photos or engravings. The real challenge is recreating a ship for which there is scant documentation. He usually combs his archives to find a description in a diary, newspaper, or journal to guide him. He’ll use the ship’s known length, beam, and depth of hull, and his own deep knowledge of shipbuilding technology to create a conjectural drawing. There’s room for interpretation. “I approach it as an artist, not an engineer,” he says.
Steffke habitually makes two of each ship he’s commissioned — one for the customer and the other for possible future “off-the-shelf” sale. Overall, he has built about 250 models.
His customers fall into one of three groups. “You have buyers who have an emotional connection to a certain boat, such as the passenger steamer Tashmoo, but really don’t care about every last detail. Then there are the interior decorators who appreciate it as a design element and don’t mind paying more. And then there’s the intense maritime history buff or a museum that wants a top-quality piece.”
Steffke has lived Downriver for his entire life. “I know some people don’t like Downriver, but I can’t imagine living anyplace else,” he says. But he regrets not having dropped anchor in his hometown, closer to the river. As a newlywed, he got a good deal on a starter home. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll stay here five years and then we’ll move.’ It’s been 25 years now. I’m going to die in this house.”
Resigned to staying in land-locked Lincoln Park, Steffke doubled down, buying the house next door as a kind of annex for his ever-expanding archives. He assumes that the “Steffke Memorial Maritime Collection” eventually will wind up in the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing, though he refuses to give up on his dream of one day opening a Downriver Maritime Museum in Wyandotte to house it.
Either way, Steffke’s private archives, which he only occasionally opens up to carefully vetted researchers, merits a public space, says Joel Stone, senior curator at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
“It’s an incredible collection,” Stone says. “He knows more about a wide range of subjects than anyone I know. Now, if you’re talking about a museum, you have the issue of financing, as well as competition, to consider.”
In addition to the Dossin, there’s the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo. Among its exhibits are two life rafts recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald. That’s impressive, but Steffke also has a few pieces of the vessel’s history, including steel test plates from the hull. “They were reference plates for each batch of steel as it was being built,” he explains. He also has GLEW’s corporate records.
“Do you want to know the exact cost of building the Edmund Fitzgerald?” he asks. “I don’t know if that’s ever been published before.”
He scrounges around for a ledger book from 1958 and flips through the pages. He runs his finger across a few columns of figures before settling on a number. “Here it is. The total cost was $3,966,086.”
The Old Shipbuilder flashes a satisfied smile. “Who else would have this stuff? When you understand what it is, it’s priceless.”