Harsens Island Historical Society

Welcome to Harsens Island St. Clair Flats Historical Society

Steam Whistle Project Complete



On June 29, 2019 we held the Steam Whistle Dedication ceremony at the museum. All went well with John Cameron, Jr., the donor of the whistle, and his brother Kenny gave us the first blast on our wonderful whistle.


The whistle is from the freighter, the J.B. Ford, and was donated to our historical society by John and his wife Ann almost two years ago. John works for Inland Lakes Management, successor to the Huron Cement Company, that owned and operated the J.B. Ford (see December 2017 Newsletter for information on J.B. Ford) on the Great Lakes until 1985.  Inland gave John the whistle as a gift when the ship was decommissioned. He installed it at his home in western Michigan and enjoyed it there for many years; when he moved from that home, he called the Society and asked if we would like it for the museum. He offered it with the compressor which he used to operate it at his home. 

About two years ago Chuck Miller and Bobby Bryson made the trip to Grand Rapids to uninstall the whistle and compressor for its move to the museum. It then took us about a year to plan the installation at the museum and to build the equipment room. It was then about another year to get the equipment installed, hooked up, and operating. This involved finding and renovating an additional air storage tank so that we would have enough air to blow the whistle more than just once an hour.

Our compressor room was constructed under a contract with Dan Persyn; the electrical hook up was donated by member Amy Strutz of AJ Leo Electric and Solar. The moving of equipment, finding the added tank, fabricating piping and controls, painting, and hook up   

was done by a crew of Society members consisting of John Eidt, Bobby Bryson, Tom Hellstrom, and Chuck Miller. 

Funding for the construction of the compressor room and additional equipment was provided by the general membership and friends of the Society with a matching grant from Drew and Karen Pesler. Thank you, everyone, for your support of, and dedication to this project. The whistle is a highlight of our collection and will be enjoyed by members, islanders, and passing ships for many years to come.

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.

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.