Detour's Freighter Cottage

Sep 4, 2009

In the quaint tourist town of Detour, in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, a couple is slowly chipping away at decades of rust. They're creating a summer cottage out of the front-end of a 1920s freighter. So far this is just a big hunk of steel, filled with all the junk no one else wanted when the ship was retired in 1980.

A crowd gathered when the freighter-home first arrived in Detour on a barge, back in 2005. Four years later, and house movers are just finishing up the process of solidifying the freighter's cement foundation.

But owner Marc VanderMeulen is not deterred by the slow process. He stands, neck craned up toward the hull, surveying the four-deck, 5,000 square foot forward cabins now beached on his property.

"So you can see the original name of the ship, the John W. Boardman, painted on the side," he says, pointing up. "We'll repaint the hull, and it'll be in the dark green color, which is called Huron Green, for the Huron Cement Company of Alpena."

The hull will match the company's logo, a green "H" still flying high atop the mast. 

Half her life, this ship sailed as the John W. Boardman. She retired as the Louis G. Harriman. Her whole life at sea spent delivering cement from Alpena throughout the Great Lakes.

The boat is far from handicapped accessible, with narrow stairways and vertical metal-wrung ladders. But the reward for reaching the bow three decks up is a view any boat nerd would love.  In her new life onshore, she overlooks the St. Mary's River and Potagannising Bay, nestled between Lakes Superior, and Huron, and the Canadian North Channel.

"All of the down-bound shipping, coming down from Lake Superior passes between us and Pipe Island, close enough that you can read the names on the boats without binoculars," Marc VanderMeulen says.

This view of the shipping lanes is the reason Marc and his wife Jill first bought land and a home here in Detour. Self-described "boat nerds," they know the freighters that sail the Great Lakes, and the companies that run them. Now, from their own bow, Marc can almost forget he's on dry ground.

"When the waves are coming from the right direction, if you stand in the right place, I get the impression that the boat actually moves, that you feel it rocking back and forth," he says.

But there's little time for standing around on the front porch to enjoy the view. The VanderMeulens don't plan to retire from their jobs down below the Mackinac Bridge, in Holland, for at least another decade. And they're doing much of the work themselves. That means vacations and weekends are spent out on deck, pounding and scraping chipped paint off the hull.

And the work won't end once the boat is water-and-bug proofed. Then it'll be time for the couple to focus their attention inside.

Maneuvering a tricky rock pile and a pretty big step up, Marc and Jill VanderMeulen enter the basement floor through a square-shaped hole in the hull. And, Marc says it best: inside is a bit of a mess.

Beyond the need to tidy, much of the ship looks little like a nice beachfront residence. Much of the lower decks are steel from toe-to-ceiling, painted in the hideous green you might remember from an old elementary school bathroom. It's dark, and cold, with lots of tight spaces. One crew cabin, designed for four, is so small you can't stretch out your arms between the bunks.

But if you keep climbing to the deck just below the pilot house, Marc and Jill's vision starts to make more sense. This is the deck they've had their eyes on all along. The walls here are no longer steel, but covered in a cozy maple.

Jill VanderMeulen says nothing is set in stone. But part of this deck may one day be a Bed & Breakfast.

"These are the captain's quarters," she says. "This would have been his office up in the front, and his bedroom, and the bathroom with a full tub and shower."

Marc says the goal is to restore this deck, and the pilot house above it, to its former glory.

"We don't have any period furniture for this," he says. "The plans called for a leather couch in this room, which would have been appropriate in the 20s probably. So we'll try to find something that will look right."

This has been done before. The forward cabins of another freighter, the Benson Ford, lie at the water's edge in Ohio.

The Ford family used the finer woods for the Captain's quarters, including mahogany. So, the VanderMeulen's Maple walls are working class, by comparison - which they say fits them pretty well.

Wearing jeans and work pants, Marc and Jill like to break from their work as freighters pass. That's less frequent this year. Shipping traffic is down by about half because of the economy. But when a ship passes, they try to get the attention of the crew - hoping for a salute.

Down the beach from the ship, Cathy Kohring says she hears the couple get their reward.

"The last week from where I live, up the bay from them, I could hear a boat go by and I ran out to look and I realized they were saluting Marc and Jill," she says. "They're saluting the fact that that boat is there. It's kind of like a sign of respect from the other shipping lines."

Kohring says hearing a salute like that really gets her "boat nerd juices going," and she says among freighter-watchers all over, there's all sorts of buzz about the freighter cottage. And the interest is nice for the small freighter-watching town, where tourism is the bread-and-butter.