St. Mary`s Challenger may sail final voyage next month - Chicago News and Weather | FOX 32 News

St. Mary`s Challenger may sail final voyage next month

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

One of the last old-time steam ships still working on Lake Michigan may soon set sail for the final time. It's a story with a Halloween week twist about an alleged curse and its all-too-real impact on traffic in downtown Chicago.

When I was a reporter at The Sun-Times years ago, I had a desk with a great view of the Chicago River. There were more industrial freighters on the river in those days, making Downtown's draw bridges go up and down at all hours, a real pain for anyone who needed to cross. Commuters came to fear one boat in particular.

She navigated the Calumet River at 99th Street Monday as the St. Mary's Challenger, now named for the Toronto-based St. Mary's Cement company that owns her. For many years, though, another cement maker owned her. She was known as the Medusa Challenger, a name that struck fear in anyone who lived or worked downtown and needed to get quickly and predictably across the Chicago River.

"When it was the Medusa Challenger, the bridges stuck downtown all the time," says Mike Garza, a Tinley Park resident. "So, it got a lot of notoriety for the traffic problems."

Not just one bridge. Two or even three drawbridges would simultaneously get stuck in the up position as the Medusa Challenger passed by, snarling traffic for hours and forcing pedestrians and motorists alike into elaborate detours.

In that time before cell phones, when it wasn't as easy to warn that you were running late, the Medusa Challenger reputedly ruined romances and even big time business deals. Now, perhaps those romances and deals were doomed in any event, but the alleged Curse of the Medusa Challenger provided a colorful excuse.

The "curse" grew as it traveled. A Wisconsin newspaper reported in 1979 that parents in the port of Manitowoc would threaten rambunctious children with a trip to Medusa's dock unless they behaved. All part of the legend of a boat that still has the original keel it's used in crisscrossing Lake Michigan since 1906.

"This thing was sailing six years when the Titanic sunk. That really puts in perspective to the age," Garza says.

Whatever else may have happened, no one has ever confused the work-a-day cement-hauler with a glamorous cruise ship.

Now comes word the Challenger may set sail under its own power for the final time next month. It's hard to find replacement parts for the oldest commercial vessel on the Great Lakes. And in a Sturgeon Bay dry dock this winter, it may be converted to a barge, requiring a tugboat to move.

"She has approximately three trips left, before there's talk of they're gonna cut it down to a barge," Garza says.

The Medusa Challenger sailed down the Chicago River for the final time in 1979. After that, it would call on the Calumet River in Chicago.

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