The Steamer “Eastern States”

Mershell C. Graham

Both of my grandfathers worked on the Great Lakes steam ships. My maternal grandfather, Mershell Graham, worked as a steward for the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company when he first came to Detroit in 1917.  He had previously worked in the dining cars of passenger trains. After several years he got a job at Ford Motor Co. where he remained until his retirement 30 years later.

My paternal grandfather, Albert B. Cleage, Sr, worked for the same company in 1909. He was a medical student in Indiana and earned money during the summer by working on the Eastern States cruise ship as a waiter.  The excerpts in this post are from his letters.

Most of the photos and clippings about the Eastern States were found in the Great Lakes Maritime Database.


June 19 1909
I left Indianapolis last night at 7:25. Stayed all night in Hamilton Ohio. Am now in Toledo at 10 AM. Will leave for Detroit 2: 15.

June 20, 1909
Arrived in Detroit yesterday at 4:00 PM, and left for Buffalo via “Eastern States” Star. on which I am at work. Was lucky.  Am well,  found two old school friends on same boat!

June 20, 1909
I am sitting in an old ware-house door on the wharf at Buffalo, – tell me there isn’t an element of romance in my location to say the least. I will be in Detroit again tomorrow and will see many of the boys whom I know there. You can imagine how worn out I am – just stopped traveling this morning, and if the boat ever comes into dock again I shall go immediately to bed. I went uptown to get some things and it went up the Lake and left me, but it will return soon. 

Albert B. Cleage

June 24, 1909
Lawrence has come and we are working together.


June 27, 1909 (On board the Steamer “Eastern States” – Lake Erie)
This is Sabbath night about 10:00 o’clock and we are about six hours ride out of Detroit and about twelve miles from land in the shortest direction. Surroundings are such as to impress one with his insignificance and emphasize the fact that he is indeed kept by Jehovah’s care. I shall first endeavor to acquaint you with the boat on which I am working. It’s name is “The Eastern States” and runs from Detroit to Buffalo. We leave Detroit one day at 5 PM and arrive in Buffalo the next morning at 8 o’clock, staying in


Buffalo all day we leave again for Detroit in the Evening at 5 PM you see we spend one day in Detroit and one in Buffalo. Today we were in Detroit and would it interest you to know how I spent it? Well, if it will interest you; after breakfast was over about 9 am, I went down to our “quarters” (I suppose you have only a faint conception of what that word means – I describe it later.) and slept until 11:30 – served lunch, after which Aldridge and I walked up town for about 2 hours – smoked some cigars, came back to the boat and took a couple of hours more of sleep. So you see I am putting in plenty of time sleeping. This stuff I’m sure does not interest you and I will not bore you longer but as I promised to say something about our “quarters”

It is one large room about 35 x 40 ft. in which are 32 beds – just think of it!! Those beds or better bunks are arranged in tiers of three and I at the present time am sitting on my bed (the top one) and there are two other fellows below me. What ventilation we get comes through six small port holes the diameters of which are about 6 in.

The fellows are a cosmopolitan aggregation, men from everywhere and at any time you can hear arguments and discussions on all subjects – Sensible and nonsensible. There are several students on board – boys from Howard University, Wilberforce University, Oberlin University, Michigan, and Indiana and out of them there are some very fine fellows to know…  I could talk all night about the desirable and the non-desirable features of my Steamboat experience.

This isn't the dining room of the Eastern States but the City of Detroit was a sister ship so it was probably similar.
This isn’t the dining room of the Eastern States but the City of Detroit was a sister ship so it was probably similar.

July 3, 1909 (Enroute to Buffalo, Steamer Eastern States)
Yesterday while Lewis and I were walking up the street in Buffalo, whom did we see standing on the corner (as if lost) but Miss Berry of Indianapolis, her brother and his wife and a Miss Stuart an Indianapolis teacher. Well to be sure we were surprised and they too seemed agreeably so. We spent the day with them taking in the zoo and other points of interest. They visited our boat and we showed them through it. That was experience number one.

Secondly – our boat was in a storm last night I awoke last night amid great excitement in our quarters and found that it was only possible for me to lie in bed with quite a great deal of effort. The old boat was being mightily tossed and driven and the angry waves were rising a high as your house or higher. We were sometimes on top of them and again between them at all times with a feeling that we would every minute be swallowed up by them. Great excitement prevailed. Most of the waiters got up and put on life preservers thinking they would have need of them. I neither was afraid or sick. Nothing serious happened and we arrived in Detroit only a few hours late this morning.

We are tonight taking over to Buffal0 a 4th of July Excursion. A large crowd is aboard. A great number of extra waiters are aboard and an extra amount of noise is present and unfavorable to letter writing accept the effort…


After WW2, automobile travel replaced steamer travel and gradually the ships were retired, burned and scrapped. Here is a timeline for the Eastern States from the link above.

  •    Laid down as EMPIRE STATE.
  •     1902, Jan Launched Wyandotte, MI.
  •     1909 Owned Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co, Detroit, MI.
  •     1930 Owned Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co., Detroit.
  •     1950 Laid up, Detroit.
  •     1956, Jun 21 Owned Lake Shore Steel Co & Siegal Iron & Metal Co, Detroit.
  •     1956, Dec 12 Burned as spectacle, Lake St. Clair.
  •     1957, May 6 Scrapped.

20 thoughts on “The Steamer “Eastern States”

  1. ‘waves as huge as houses” I’ve always been scared of that. But ’tis true! Your Grandpa described his experiences well.

  2. I love your grandfather’s humor that always shines through in his letters. And I give him an A+ for knowing when to use “whom”! But I have to tell you — here in Virginia “Eastern State” was a mental hospital, so for me it was funny at times to see that name given to a ship.

    1. This is the first letter I’ve shared from my grandfather, the other’s were from my father, his son. Both named Albert B. Cleage. I’m pretty sure they weren’t aware of the mental hospital when they named it! There was a sister ship, Western States. The mental hospital near Detroit was named Eloise.

      1. Oh, then I did get them confused. But the 2 had the same sense of humor. (And doesn’t it figure — Western State was also a mental hospital! Nothing to do with the ships.)

  3. I think it is so wonderful to have letters written by an ancestor – it brings them so much closer to us to see and touch something they touched. A lovely story.

  4. Nothing quite compares with diary descriptions of events and places – such a wonderful mixture of personal and social history. What a thoroughly enjoyable post this is.

  5. A fascinating account of life aboard and at the two ports. Interesting to see the ship’s timeline – we visited Lake St Clair at Grossepoint on our recent trip to Michigan.

  6. I think it’s amazing that both of your grandfathers worked for the same ship company. What an interesting read. It’s sad that they just burned the ship as a spectacle. And then calling the little tugs pallbearers sounded so sad. I think I’m nearly always sorry when something grand is destroyed. Thanks for the post, Kristin.

  7. I found this most interesting as recently I was browsing a website or post devoted to the lighthouses around one of the great lakes. The name Bay of Islands comes to mind. Anyway the lighthouses were so varied in style and so different to the ones in Australia. I had never thought of lighthouses in a lake so perhaps your grandfather was kept safe by lighthouses similar to the ones I was looking at.

    1. He probably was. The Great Lakes are not just regular lakes. They are so big it’s almost like the sea when you are on the shore. The water isn’t salty though.

  8. This was a super presentation, Kristin. The Lake Erie shipping lanes must have been a important route for most people travelling between the big cities in the NE. The rail lines define so much of America and are still there, but the shipping lines are invisible now. I bet the Eastern States had a ship band. Maybe I’ll find a photo of one someday.

  9. What a fine read!!
    When he first mentioned the size of his room ,
    I was surprised as I expected something tiny.
    But then he said how many there were in there….
    I dare not imagine this!!!
    The burning of the boat annoyed me a bit.
    What a weird notion…
    Still, great post!!

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