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Capt. Frank W. Wheeler (1853-1921)
Biography: Shipbuilder and Congressman.
Bio. Courtesy of "Links to the Past" website.

History of the Great Lakes, Vol. 2 by J.B. Mansfield
Published Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co. 1899.



Captain Frank W. Wheeler is at the head of the most prolific shipbuilding plant on the lakes, and during the twenty-two years he have(sic) been engaged in the business there have been launched from his yard, or more definitely speaking, by the company of which he is president, one hundred and seventy-six vessels, many of them of the largest and most modern type, of both wood and steel. He has created a notable industry, which has not only prospered him but enhanced the prosperity of the locality in which his works are situated, through the employment of labor and stimulation of business, and added largely to the facilities of lake commerce. The work turned out under his direction stands the test of storms, living gales and dangers from ice, and he has a right to be proud of it.

Mr. Wheeler was born at Chaumont, near Clayton, N.Y., March 2, 1853, and is the son of Chesley and Eliza (Haselton) Wheeler. The father was a ship builder and carried on a shipyard in New York State, and in the fall of 1866 removed with his family to Saginaw, Mich., where he resumed business. It was in that city that F.W. Wheeler acquired his education, passing through the high school, after which he took an active working interest in the shipyard with his father, and gained much of the practical experience so necessary to his present business prosperity. He did not devote his entire time to the detail work of the shipyard, however, as he sailed some, and the knowledge of the proper handling of a steamboat thus acquired warranted him in applying for a license, which was granted, and he now holds his ninth issue of first-class master's papers, which recite that he is fully qualified to navigate steam vessels on all the lakes and their connecting waters. Although his ship-building industry prevents him from entertaining political aspirations, he is a public spirited citizen and represented his district, the Tenth Michigan, in the Fifty-first Congress, but declined renomination.

In 1875, about a year before he associated with his father in shipbuilding, F.W. Wheeler was united by marriage to Miss Eva, daughter of Joseph and Eliza Armstrong, of Saginaw, and to this union one daughter, May Frances, was born. The family homestead is situated at the corner of Van Buren and Center streets, Bay City, Michigan.

Captain Wheeler was about twenty-three years old when he entered the ship-building business on his own account. This was in 1876, and the site was near where the approach to the Third street bridge, spanning the Saginaw river, now stands. While his enterprise was quite modest at that time, consisting mostly in rebuilding and repair work, he built six small vessels the first three years, the first one launched being the passenger propeller Mary Martini, in 1877. In 1880 he commenced the construction of the larger class of vessels, which became so numerous as the years passed that they will be tabulated in this article.

In 1889 the firm of F.W. Wheeler & Co. was incorporated, with a capital stock of $500,000, the officers being F.W. Wheeler, president; H.T. Wickes, vice-president; John S. Porter, treasurer, and C.W. Stiver, secretary. Additional land was secured along the Saginaw river front to accommodate the enlarged enterprise, and a steel plant of the most modern machinery purchased and the keel laid for the steel passenger steamer City of Chicago, which was launched in June, 1890. The company then continued to build both wood and steel vessels until the summer of 1896, when the yard for the building of wooden ships was occupied by additional machinery and buildings to better facilitate the work on steel vessels, which gave the company a continuous front on the Saginaw river for the steel shipbuilding industry of 2,500 feet and running back to Washington street, thus enabling them to build seven 500 feet steel vessels simultaneously, and eight large ones have been on the stocks at one time, the register tonnage of which was 32,000. The yard is now equipped with two Brown hoists, each of 6,000 pounds capacity; one balanced cantilever Brown hoist, with a capacity of about 25,000 pounds; two Myler hoists, each of 20,000 pounds capacity; and one locomotive crane of the Brown type, with a capacity of 20,000 pounds, the speed of the track being 200 feet per minute, of the trolley 500 feet, and of the hoist 150 feet. In the fall of 1891 a fully equipped plant and tools were added to the works of the company for the construction of modern marine engines and machinery, since which time the company has built the engines for their steamers.

F.W. Wheeler & Co. was the first concern on the lakes to make an effort to secure work for the United States navy, and but for a certain clause in the treaty between the United States and Great Britain they would have been awarded the contract for the construction of the steamer Bancroft. The steamers built at this yard for ocean service comprise of the Mackinaw and Keweenaw, which were launched in sections and put together at Montreal; the Yula which went to Central American waters; four United States lightships; and the powerful tugs W.G. Wilmot, Robert W. Wilmot and the William H. Brown, all for service on the Gulf of Mexico. The fine steel steamer Centurion was thus named for the honor of being No. 100 on the builders' list, and the keel was laid on Captain Wheeler's fortieth birthday. She was a noble work for a birthday of less than half a century, being the largest vessel on the lakes at the time she was launched, in 1893. The table which follows will present to the reader evidence of the industry and enterprise of Captain Wheeler and the other members of the company.

List of Boats Constructed by F.W. Wheeler & Co.

1877 - stmr. Mary Martini; tug Luther Westover, 125 tons.

1878 - stmr. Christie Forbes, 51 tons.

1879 - bge. Hannah B.; Marian Teller, tug, 33 tons; C.W. Licken, tug, 36 tons.

1880 - stmr. Lycoming, 1609 tons; Conemaugh, stmr., 1609 tons; Charles Cuyler, tug.

1881 - tug Maud S., 45 tons; Saginaw Valley, stmr., 112 tons; Fred McBryer, stmr.

1882 - ferry Handy Boy, 25 tons; Galatea, schooner, 825 tons; Osceola, stmr., 980 tons.

1883 - stmr. Kittie M. Forbes, 958 tons; tug Sarah M. Smith, 45 tons.

1884 - schr. Frank W. Wheeler; schr. Alta, 936 tons; Tempens, tug, 14 tons; stmr. Waldo A. Avery, 1294 tons.

1885 - stmr. Thomas S. Christie, 769 tons; stmr. A. Folsom, 841 tons; B.W. Arnold, stmr., 944 tons.

1886 - schr. H.A. Hawgood, 1276 tons; Ossifrage, stmr., 432 tons; stmr. Wm. H. Stevens, 1332 tons; W.R. Stafford, stmr., 744 tons; schr. Mabel Wilson, 1224 tons.

1887 - stmr. Wm. H. Gratwick, 1688 tons; stmr. Frank W. Wheeler, 1688; Sitka, stmr., 1790; Gogebic, stmr., 1620.

1888 - stmr. Mecosta, 1776; stmr. Elfin Mere, 1054; Thomas Adams, stmr., 1810; Geo. W. Morley, stmr., 1054; schr. Moravia, 1067 tons; stmr. Robert L. Freyer, 1810 tons; stmr. Soo City, 670 tons; Servia, stmr., 1425 tons; schr. Frank D. Ewen, 882 tons; stmr. Eber Ward, 1843 tons; stmr. John V. Moran, 1350 tons.

1889 - stmr. Geo. W. Roby, 1843 tons; stmr. John M. Nicol, 2126 tons; John Mitchell, stmr., 1865 tons; Fedora, stmr., 1848 tons; News Boy, stmr., 199 tons; stmr. Romeo, 61 tons; tug Monarch, 95 tons; Juliet, stmr., 61 tons; John Plankington, stmr., 1821 tons; Plow Boy, stmr., 114 tons; Post Boy, stmr., 123 tons; tug Lulu Eddy, 19 tons; Fred B., tug, 16 tons; stmr. Geo. F. Williams, 1888 tons; stmr. Geo. Houghton, 332 tons; schr. C.J. Fillmore, 410 tons; schr. John A. Francombe, 658 tons; dredge, Dredge No. 2.

1890 - stmr. Nyanza, 1888 tons; schr. C.A. Tuxbury, 680 tons; schr. C.E. Redfern, 680 tons; stmr. W.H. Sawyer, 747 tons; stmr. Edward Smith, 748 tons; stmr. City of Chicago, (steel) 1164 tons; stmr. Emily P. Weed, (steel) 2362 tons; stmr. Mackinaw, (steel) 2578 tons; schr. Newell A. Eddy, (steel) 1271 tons; schr. Olive Jeanette, 1272 tons.

1891 - stmr. Keweenaw, (steel) 2511 tons; stmr. Tampa, 1972 tons; stmr. C.H. Bradley, 804 tons; car ferry Michigan, (steel); stmr, F. & P. M. No. 5, 1722 tons; stmr. W.F. Sauber, 2053 tons; stmr. Sailor Boy, 162 tons; Tosco, stmr. 2051 tons; scows, Two scows; tug Yula, (steel) 340 tons.

1892 - U.S. lightship (iron) No. 51; U.S. lightship, (iron) No. 52; U.S. Lightship, (iron) NO. 53; U.S. lightship, (iron) No. 54; stmr. Uganda, 2054 tons; stmr. W.H. Gilbert, (steel) 2856 tons; tug W.S. Wilmot, (steel) 150 tons; schr. J.C. Fitzpatrick, 1270 tons, stmr. C.F. Bielman, 2056 tons.

1893 - stmr. Wm. H. Gratwick, (steel) 2878 tons; stmr. S.S. Curry, (steel) 3260 tons; stmr. Merida, (steel) 3261 tons; schr. Mary McLachten, 1394 tons; stmr. S.R. Doty, 2056 tons; stmr. George Stone, 1841 tons; schr. Edward McWilliams, 744 tons; stmr. Centurion, (steel) 3401 tons; schr. Yukon, 1602 tons.

1893 - tug Fashion, 29 tons.

1894 - stmr. Minnie E. Helton, 632 tons; ferry Pleasure, 489 tons.

1895 - stmr. John J. McWilliams, (steel) 3400 tons; yacht Wapiti, (steel) 83 tons; stmr. J. Watson Stephenson, 639 tons; stmr. Penobscot, 3402 tons; tug Silver Spray, 38 tons; stmr. Simon J. Murphy, (steel) 1381 tons; stmr. Katahdin, (steel) 1381 tons.

1896 - stmr. S.C. Waldo, (steel), 4244 tons; stmr, City of Bangor, (steel) 3690 tons; stmr. E.W. Ogebay, (steel) 3666 tons; stmr. Lagonda, (steel) 3647 tons; stmr. George Stevenson, (steel) 4584 tons; schr. James Nasmyth, (steel) 3422 tons; Sir Isaac L. Bell, schr., (steel) 3419 tons; car ferry Pere Marquette, (steel) 5580 tons.

1897 - schr. W. Le Baron Jenny, (steel); stmr. Niagara, (steel); tug Robert W. Wilmot, (steel); tug Wm. H. Brown, (steel).

1898 -stmr. Samuel F.B. Morse, (steel; schr. John Fritz, (steel); schr. John Roebling, (steel).

The engine being constructed at F.W. Wheeler & Co.'s works for the new steamer Samuel F.B. Morse will be the largest on the lakes, and is quadruple compound, the cylinders being 26-1/2, 37, 54-1/2 and 80 by 42 inches stroke. The crank shafts are hollow, and the bed plate for this great machine has been cast in one piece - a notable departure from cast-iron.

1899 Political Bio. (Added Sept. 2004)

Biographical Directory of the Library of Congress.

Frank Willis WHEELER

WHEELER, Frank Willis, a Representative from Michigan;
born in Chaumont, Jefferson County, N.Y., March 2, 1853;
attended the common schools;
moved to Michigan in 1864 with his parents, who settled in East Saginaw;
attended the Saginaw High School and the Ypsilanti State Normal School;
engaged in boatbuilding;
moved to West Bay City, Mich., in 1876;
became master of the Saginaw River Tug Association;
engaged in shipbuilding at the Bay Cities for many years;
elected as a Republican to the Fifty-first Congress (March 4, 1889-March 3, 1891);
was not a candidate for renomination in 1890;
engaged in his former pursuits until 1899, when he moved to Detroit;
returned to Saginaw in 1917 and organized the Saginaw Shipbuilding Co., and was engaged in building boats for the United States Government;
died in Saginaw, Mich., August 9, 1921;
interment in Elm Lawn Cemetery, Bay City, Mich.

Additional Notes:

    1883 - Directory: Bay City, Mich.
    - Crane, Alert A. - (Wheeler & Crane), res cor Ohio and Walnut, 2d ward.
    - Wheeler & Crane - (Franklin W. Wheeler, Albert A. Crane) Ship Builders and Dry Dock, e s Washington nr J.L. & S.R.R
    - Wheeler, Franklin W. (Wheeler & Crane), res n w cor Ohio and River, 2d ward.

    1899 - Michigan Marriages: Bay City, Bay, Mich.
    Date: Oct. 4, 1899.
    Groom: Geo. F. Clark, b. 1868, Canada, son of Geo. F. Clark and Abigel A. Burtck.
    Bride: May F. Wheeler, b. 1876, Saginaw, Mich., daughter of Frank W. Wheeler and Eva T. Armstrong.

Related Pages/Notes

Frank W. Wheeler

1867 Great Lakes Map
(click to enlarge)

George F. Williams:
He joined the Wheeler shipyard as general superintendent in January, 1886, and remained in that capacity until the formation of the stock company of F. W. Wheeler & Co., of which he became vice-president and general superintendent. In January, 1892, he resigned due to health reasons, and later the following May he sold his stock and retired from active business life.
Related Pages:
Wheeler, Chesley, obit.
F.W. Wheeler & Co.
Company Document 1889
{Map, Great Lakes 1867}
{Pictorial FW Wheeler Co.}
People Referenced
Armstrong, Eliza Mrs.
Armstrong, Eva T. (wife)
Armstrong, Joseph (f-inlaw)
Burtck, Abigel A.
Clark, Geo. F.
Clark, Geo. F. Jr. (son-inlaw)
Crane, Alebert A.
Haselton, Eliza (mother)
Porter, John S.
Stiver, C.W.
Wheeler, Chesley (father)
Wheeler, Frank W. (subject)
Wheeler, May F, (dau)
Wickes, H.T.
Williams, Geo. F.
Subjects Referenced
Bay City, MI
Brownhoist cranes
Central America
Chaumont, NY
Clayton, NY
Congress, US
Detroit, MI
Elm Lawn Cem, Bay City
Jefferson Co., NY
F.W. Wheeler & Co.
Gulf of Mexico
Great Britain
Myler hoists
New York
Representative, MI
Saginaw, MI
Saginaw High School
Saginaw River
Saginaw River Tug Assoc.
Sagainw Shipbuilding Co.
Third st. bridge
U.S. Navy
Van Buren & Center, cor.
West Bay City, MI
Ypsilanti State Normal Sch.
Bancroft, steamer
Centurion, steamer
City of Chicago, steamer
Keweenaw, steamer
Mackinaw, steamer
Mary Martini, propeller
Robt. W. Wilmot, tug
W.G. Wilmot, tug
Wm. H. Brown, tug
Wheeler & Crane.
Yula, steamer
  • See text listing.
  • Internet References
    Links to the Past
    Online book, "History of the Great Lakes," Vols. 1 & 2, by J.B. Mansfield.
    Wisconsin Maritime Trails
    History of ship "City of Naples" built by James Davidson. Later named "Frank O'Conner."
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.