A portrait of: William “Billy” Fagan (b. 1933, South Holland, IL – d. 1980, Erie, PA)
William “Billy” Fagan was the younger brother of Michael “Mickey” Fagan. But unlike his brother and so many others in his family, Billy never married, never had children, and never worked in the steel mills. Still, he spent nearly his entire life tied to the steel industry. A veteran of the Korean War, Billy began working as a deckhand on the tugs in the Calumet Shipyard when he returned to the US in 1953, towing and nudging the large ore boats into and out of the slips for off-loading taconite ore at the many steel mills along Chicago’s “other river” the Calumet River.
In 1972 he sailed for Bethlehem Steel as a deckhand on the steamer ARTHUR B. HOMER, the sister ship to the EDMOND FITZGERALD. The HOMER was a foot longer than the FITZGERALD and the first of the “730s” (730 foot long “Lakers”), launched at River Rouge at Detroit thirteen years earlier. Her hull was lengthened in 1975 to 826 ft., making her the largest ore boat ever to sail the Great Lakes. (A record that still stands today). Some say the lengthening of her hull resulted in structural deficiencies and she was continuously plagued by mishaps and constant structural maintenance. She was a straight-decker, meaning she had no self-offloading equipment. This type of vessel was the backbone of the steel industry along the lower Great Lakes. But when the bottom fell out of the Great Lakes shipping industry in the late 1970s (simultaneous to the steel mill industry decline), she became excess tonnage for Bethlehem Steel who laid her up in Erie, PA in 1980. During a brief rebound in the early ‘80s Bethlehem couldn’t afford to retrofit the HOMER with automated off-loading equipment or maintain her upkeep and the once graceful “Queen of the Lakes” was doomed for the scrapheap; another casualty of the deindustrialization of America. She was towed to Port Colborne, Ontario, in 1986 where ship-breakers unceremoniously dismantled her over the winter.
During his eight-year fair-weather run, Billy had come to love and respect the HOMER. He spent his down time in the winter months alone in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and was a regular fixture at the many out-of-the-way taverns along the Portage in Houghton, awaiting the ice to break come March when he could rejoin the crew on his beloved freighter. Fagan was heartbroken and angry when the HOMER was taken out of service, refusing to crew any other vessel. Bethlehem Steel eventually fired him. Billy remained in Erie, Pennsylvania, that winter. His days and nights were filled with sorrow and drink and he would often walk down to the dock to see the helpless “Queen” battened down and laden with snow, ice, and rust. In February 1981, at the age of 47, Billy died, much as he had lived – alone, in a boarding house on West Front Street in Erie, PA. Mickey went to Erie to bring his brother’s body home. All of Billy’s worldly possessions were contained in a duffle bag leaning in the corner of his room. In it was a faded photograph of Billy standing on the foredeck of the ARTHUR B. HOMER in Superior, Wisconsin in 1972. Mickey put the photo in a place of honor on a shelf of his mother’s curio cabinet at his home on Avenue ‘O’ back in the old Chicago neighborhood.
SS ARTHUR B. HOMER