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Duluth fire crews battle blaze on 118-year-old lake freighter

The J.B. Ford, which is the oldest intact lake freighter still floating, has been housed at a scrapyard since 2015.

The oldest intact lake freighter still floating caught fire in Duluth on Monday. 

The Duluth Fire Department says crews responded at 3:21 p.m. to a call involving the J.B. Ford, a lake freighter that was in the process of being scrapped. 

According to FOX 21, the freighter was being dismantled at Azon Scrapyard on Rice's Point near the Blatnik Bridge. 

The fire department says a spark hit 118-year-old wood in the captain's area of the freighter, causing the fire.

Fire crews contained the fire and knocked down the flames within an hour. No injuries were reported. 

But fighting a fire on a freighter is much different than a structure fire on land. 

“When we’re going into a residential home or apartment building, a boat is not very different,” City Public Information Officer Kate Van Daele told FOX 21. “In terms of the questions that come into play of where to step, and they certainly have to do quite a bit of analyzing to make sure that they’re safe and they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way.”

Fire crews had to use a crane to lift up a portion of the freighter that was on fire so they could spray water all over the area so it didn't become more engulfed. 

The freighter's history

The J.B. Ford, which was launched in 1903 in Ohio with the name Edwin F. Holmes, is known for surviving two massive storms on the Great Lakes – the Mataafa Storm of 1905 and the Great White Hurricane of 1913, M Live reported in 2015 when the freighter was making its last voyage before being decommissioned. 

According to Professional Mariner, both storms "wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes region and took several ships and lives with them."

The J.B. Ford hauled iron ore, coal and grain at the start of its life, and then in the 1950s started hauling cement before being turned to a storage vessel, the publication reported in 2016. 

The freighter made its last voyage on Oct. 9, 2015, when a pair of tugboats towed the J.B. Ford two miles across the Duluth harbor to Azcon Metals, M Live said. 

There was an effort to save the turn-of-the-century freighter that predated both World Wars. Steve Haverty in 2012 launched the nonprofit Great Lakes Steamship Society in hopes to preserving the ship and turning it into a floating museum, M Live said.

But the society was unable to raise the $2-3 million needed to restore the J.B. Ford, the Professional Mariner said, noting the freighter was filled with asbestos and lead paint.

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