Harsens Island Historical Society

Welcome to Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Historical Society

Steam Whistle Project

Harsens Island Museum with Annex

Thanks to the generous donation of the steam whistle from members John and Ann Cameron, the Historical Society will be installing a steam whistle from the retired freighter, the J.B. Ford.

In order to install the whistle and other items required for its operation, a small addition will be made to the museum. The addition will house a compressor and air storage tanks large enough to operate the whistle. The construction, materials, and installation will cost approximately $11,000.

Update 2/4/19 -  We would like to thank John Eidt, Tom Hellstrom, and Bobbie Bryson for their continued work on our Steam Whistle Project.  Bobby obtained a donation of an additional air storage tank and has modified it to meet our needs.  Tom has put on a couple of coats of paint to protect it, and John is working on making the structural brackets to support the tank and whistle on the roof of our new compressor room.  The project should be completed by Memorial Day 2019.

Read about Captain John Baptiste Ford

Did You Know?

Boundary between Canada and Harsens Island


The international boundary between the Dominion of Canada and the United States was re-established in 1915 between Great Britain and the United States.

Report of the International Waterways Commission

Captain John Baptiste Ford


Who was he?

The steam whistle we are installing at the Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Historical Society Museum is from the retired freighter, J.B. Ford.  With the Ford name being so prominent in the history of Michigan you might assume that J.B. was part of the Henry Ford family, but he was not. 

J.B. Ford was Captain John Baptiste Ford (November 17, 1811 – May 1, 1903), an American industrialist and founder of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, now known as PPG Industries, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born in a log cabin in Danville, Kentucky to Jonathan, a member of the Kentucky Volunteer Homespun regiment that fought the British forces at New Orleans in the War of 1812 and Margaret, the daughter of a French immigrant who fought in the American Revolutionary War. After his father did not return from the war, his mother apprenticed young John at the age of 12 to a Danville saddle maker. He ran away from the saddle maker at 14 and found his freedom in Greenville, Indiana, where he remained for the next 30 years.


Ford moved to New Albany in 1854 and opened a factory to manufacture feed-cutting boxes constructed of wood and iron. Needing a reliable source of iron for his box manufacturing business, Ford built his own rolling mill and foundry and eventually produced railroad and commercial iron products. By the late 1850's Ford realized he could not compete with the industrial iron giants located in the iron regions around Pittsburgh, and he converted his factory into a shipyard to produce steamboats, eventually producing his own steamboat line and was addressed as "Captain Ford" by many of New Albany's residents. During the Civil War, many of Ford's boats were utilized by the Union forces.

Ford had a son Emory who graduated in July 1864 from Duff's Mercantile College upriver in Pittsburgh. Emory marveled at the many glass works in the city, and soon father and son set up a small glass factory in New Albany known as the New Albany Glass Work, producing bottles and jars. By 1867 the Fords had greatly expanded the factory and began to study the technology to produce plate glass, which until now was imported from Europe. In 1870 they successfully mastered the technology and had the skilled workforce in place to produce the first plate glass in the United States.

In 1880 Ford left New Albany and opened a plant in Creighton, Pennsylvania called the New York City Plate Glass Company. In 1833 the business was reorganized as the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company ("PPG"), which became the leading plate glass manufacturing facility in the country. Tired of disagreements with their business partners, Ford sold his interest in the company in 1897. He formed a new venture near Toledo, Ohio, the Ford Glass Company. It later became Libbey Owens Ford Glass Company.

In 1893 Ford founded Michigan Alkali Company in Wyandotte, Michigan, a chemical company that supplied vital soda ash for glass production. Later, the company was renamed Wyandotte Chemical Company and became one of the nation's leading chemical firms, eventually becoming part of BASF and expanding into the BASF industrial complex.

John Ford died at his home in Tarentum, Pennsylvania in 1903 and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Next year when you hear the steam whistle blow and tell a friend that it is from the freighter J.B. Ford, you will know a little about J.B. to add to the story of our whistle.