Michigan Transportation History

Frank E. Kirby

Public Michigan Business Person Engineer

Frank E. Kirby (1849-1929) was a naval architect and part owner of the Detroit Dry Dock Company. He developed the Landsdowne, a Detroit River railroad car ferry that was for a while the largest ship on the Great Lakes.

Early life and education

Kirby was born born at Cleveland, Ohio, on July 1, 1849, to Martha A. (Johnson) and Stephen R. Kirby. He was the younger child of two boys—his brother was Fritz Albert. The Kirby family moved to Saginaw, Michigan, in 1853 where Frank and Fritz received their primary education. In 1864, Jesse Hoyt?, the financier of many of Stephen Kirby's Saginaw businesses, suggested that Frank go to New York to attend Cooper Union. With the Civil War building-boom going on, Frank Kirby easily found work as a draftsman making engine drawings at the Allaire Iron Works while he attended night classes at Cooper Union. After the war, he then found work at the Morgan Iron Works and the Delamater Iron Works of New York City.

Naval Architect in Michigan

Kirby returned to Michigan in 1870, and it was on that trip that a chance meeting with Detroit industrialist Eber B. Ward change his life. Ward and Kirby must have met on the train and conversed because by the end of the trip, the two had arranged for Kirby to begin work at Ward's Wyandotte Iron Works?Shipbuilder. Shortly after beginning this job, Kirby was able to hire on his older brother Fritz Albert. In 1872, the Kirby Brothers designed and built the E. B. Ward Jr., an iron-hulled tugboat that exceeded specifications for efficiency, power, and speed, and propelled Kirby's reputation as a naval architect. Later the brothers designed and built the Queen of the Lakes, a side-wheel passenger steamer that also became a hallmark of Kirby design.[3]

Eber Ward died in 1877 and the Detroit Dry Dock (of which Kirby's father, Stephen R. Kirby, was a founder and part owner) then purchased Ward's company and the Wyandotte yards. The Kirby brothers then decided to go out on their own as independent consulting engineers. This experiment in independence lasted until 1882, when Kirby joined the Detroit Dry Dock Company and was thereafter responsible for the construction of the largest and most elegant ships of plying the lakes.1

While with Detroit Dry Dock, Kirby became famous for designing and building passenger steamers, the opulence of which led to the ships often being called "floating palaces." He built passenger steamers for Detroit & Cleveland Navigation? Company, C&B, White Star, Ashley and Dustin, Detroit and Windsor, and Hudson River Day Lines.[3] In 1888, he pioneered a design for a Great Lakes ice-breaking railroad-car ferry. The ferry, named the St. Ignace, incorporated many ice-breaking techniques and technologies that Kirby developed in cooperation with ice-breaking captain L. R. Boynton?. For instance, the carferry was equipped with a bow propeller to draw water from underneath the ice, or to force a stream water at thick ice, to weaken and break it. The hull was designed so as to rise out of the water when ice was closing in. And last the carferry had inter-connected trim tanks and pumps which would allow the captain to shift ballast from one side of the the boat to the other, allowing him to rock the boat and break ice by the rocking action.2

On the basis of the success of the St. Ignace design, James M. Ashley? of the Toledo, Ann Arbor, & North Michigan Railroad Company contracted with Kirby to design and build its first cross-lake railroad car ferries. Kirby delivered the Ann Arbor No. 1 and Ann Arbor No. 2 in 1892.3 Kirby also designed ore boats and packet freighters, and continued to build railroad car ferries.

During the creation of the American Shipbuilding Company in 1898, Kirby was instrumental in bringing together through merger many shipyards, including Detroit Dry Dock and Detroit Shipbuilding.[3]

It is probable that after the merger, Kirby was residing in New York City.

Public Service

During the Spanish-American War, the Navy Department (or maybe the War Department, the source is not clear on this point) requested Kirby to refit fourteen ships as troop transports. He completed the job in record time.[3] Following the General Slocum disaster in New York City in 1904, Kirby was asked to revise the Steamboat Inspection Code. During World War I, he designed Eagle Boats.[3]

Kirby was a member of the American Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Naval Institute of Naval Architects of London, and Institution of Naval Architects and Engineers of Scotland. Kirby was appointed to serve on the Water-Works Commission from 1892-1896. He was a member of the Republican Party and the Michigan Club.[1] He was also a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Naval Institute.[2]

Personal Life

On October 9, 1876, he married Mary F. Thorpe. They had one son: Russell T. Kirby.

Frank Kirby died August 26, 1929, in New York City.


1. Note that the Canadiana site reports that Kirby became the engineer of DDD when the Wyandotte works were purchased, which would make a lot of sense seeing that it was his father's company; but the Bersey source suggests this period of independence. John Bersey, Cyclopedia of Michigan: Historical and Biographical... (New York and Detroit: Western Publishing and Engraving Co., 1900), 128-129; "Canadiana Architect Frank E. Kirby," A Tribute to the SS Canadiana (Buffalo(?): Mr. Lee Online, n.d. but after 2004).

2. Grant Brown Jr., Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: A History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 19-20; George W. Hilton, The Great Lakes Car Ferries (Berkeley: Howell-North, 1962), 56-57.

3. Grant Brown Jr., Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: A History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 20.


By Kirby

Kirby, Frank E., and A. P. Rankin. "Shipping on the Great Lakes." Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 53, Part 2 (1911), 163.

About Kirby

Numbered sources as follows (except where footnoted):

1. Bersey, John. Cyclopedia of Michigan: Historical and Biographical.... New York and Detroit: Western Publishing and Engraving Co., 1900.

2. Livingstone, William. Livingstone's History of the Republican Party. Vol. 2. Detroit: W. Livingstone, 1900.

3. No author credit given, "Canadiana Architect Frank E. Kirby," A Tribute to the SS Canadiana (Buffalo(?): Mr. Lee Online, n.d. but after 2004.

Wright, Richard J. Freshwater Whales: A History of the American Ship Building Company and Its Predecessors. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970.

External Links

Wikipedia -- not very good: one line of biography, a lot testimony from a U.S. inquiry about what others thought of Kirby, and a list of boats.

Page last modified on March 31, 2020, at 11:18 AM EST