Henry Ford’s Navy

henry-ford-ii-1962As we’ve seen at Mac’s Motor City Garage, Henry Ford liked to own things. A few of the notable acquisitions included a railroad, a hotel, and an aircraft factory. Here we take a quick look at Ford’s extensive shipping fleet. 



Henry Ford’s far-flung business enterprises over his career, from dance orchestras to rubber plantations, can be explained in part by his philosophy toward money. In Ford’s view, letting money sit idle in a bank account was wasteful, nearly immoral. For him, money only had value when it was put to work to keep people employed and happily occupied. Locked in a bank vault, it was mere paper.  Many of Ford’s businesses outside the Ford Motor Company lost huge sums of money, while others broke even at best. Ford died a fabulously wealthy man, but not nearly as wealthy as he could have been, and that was fine with him. The money had been kept in motion.

Ford’s holdings included vast numbers of marine vessels, both for the Ford Motor Co. and for his personal and business purposes—a veritable navy of ships and boats that were sailed over the Great Lakes and around the world. Here we feature barely a sample.


ms-benson-fordThe best-known vessels in Ford’s fleet, at least around the Great Lakes, were the huge bulk carriers that carried coal from Toledo and iron ore from the North to the Ford steel mills at the Rouge in Dearborn. The Benson Ford, shown here, and the Henry Ford II, in the lead photo above, named after Henry Ford’s grandsons, were commissioned in 1924. At over 600 feet long, these vessels (called boats rather than ships in Great Lakes sailing tradition) were among the largest on the lakes, powered by highly advanced Sun-Doxford diesel engines.

Although Ford owned several yachts, he had the big lake freighters fitted with comfortable staterooms, and he and wife Clara traveled along, often to their vacation home in Northern Michigan. In the late 1980s, the Motor Company extracted itself from the shipping business, and the big boats, a familiar sight around the Great Lakes for half a century, were eventually scrapped.


lake-ormocConstructed in 1918, the MS Lake Ormoc was one of 199 decommissioned merchant marine ships the Ford Motor Co. purchased from the U.S. government in 1925 for recycling. However, they weren’t all scrapped. Ford had the Lake Ormoc (also known as simply the Ormoc) refitted as an ocean-going transport and exploration vessel. The Ormoc’s captain, Einar Oxholm, a character seemingly straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel, also served as the general manager of Fordlandia, Ford’s ill-fated rubber plantation in Brazil.


henry-ford-sialiaThough he didn’t care much for the lifestyle, Henry Ford owned a succession of yachts, which he used both for family vacations and to scout for timber and mining properties. Shown here is the Sialia docked at the Ford River Rouge plant in 1927. Dissatisfied with the speed of the Sialia with steam power, Ford had the vessel converted to diesel engines of the same type used in his big lake freighters. The yacht was then slightly slower than before, as the story goes, and it was sold in 1929. Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford.


onondaga-sunk-cuba-1942The 251-ft. merchant ship SS Onondaga (shown here) and its near-twin, the Onedia, were built in Wyandotte, Michigan on the Detroit River in 1920 and sold to the Ford Motor Co. in 1924. Both ships were chartered to the U.S. government in World War II, and both met the same fate within a few weeks of each other in the summer of 1942. On July 13, the Oneida was sunk by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Cuba, with six of the crew of 23 lost. Ten days later the Onondaga, carrying a load of magnesium ore, was sunk by another U-boat in the Bahamas, with 19 killed and 14 survivors. Photo courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University. 


benson-ford-pilot-house-put-in-bayThe Benson Ford was decommissioned in 1984, but it remains a familiar landmark at Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. When the boat was scrapped, the pilot house and forward superstructure were salvaged and converted into a luxurious lakefront home, which is owned today by car dealers Jerry and Bryan Kasper of nearby Sandusky, Ohio. For more info on the vessel’s history and the home, visit shiponthebay.com. 


pilot-house-william-clay-ford-belle-isleIn a similar manner, when the bulk carrier William Clay Ford was scrapped in 1987, its pilot house was installed at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit, where it serves as an observation room. Built in 1953 and lengthened from 647 to 767 feet in 1979, the William Clay Ford, named after the youngest Ford grandson, was the last of the Ford Motor Company’s big lake freighters.

The massive boat’s most famous moment came on November 10, 1975, when it left safe harbor in a violent storm to lead the search for the Edmund Fitzgerald, another giant bulk carrier that tragically went down with all hands on Lake Superior. Captain Don Erickson and the crew of the William Clay Ford were cited by maritime authorities for courage and valor.


5 thoughts on “Henry Ford’s Navy

  1. Henry Ford was a lot of things,and not all were good,even tho he was tremendously welthy and left a hugh fortune to his family,I commend him for using some of his money to put people to work.

  2. Henry wanted to have control of every raw material used in his cars, from iron ore to rubber to the wood used back then. He figured he could control his costs better that way. Must have been a pretty good plan, it seems to have worked for the most part. Now it seems as though everybody wants to outsource everything to the lowest bidder and only do the assembly. Can’t say which plan works better, just differing ways to go about it.

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