Wilson Marine Transit Company Records

Identifier: GLMS-0027

Collection Overview


Included are files of the Wilson Marine Transit Company and its predecessors, the Wilson Transit Line and the Wilson Transit Company for the years 1884-1970. Coverage is most extensive in the post-World War II era. Correspondence, subject files, meeting minutes, policy circulars, reports, financial documents, and legal files are all present. This collection is of particular interest to researchers examining the growth of the transportation network on the Great Lakes. Subsidiary companies are represented in the files of the Wilson Marine Transit Company recording the development of new traffic patterns for shipment of goods around the Great Lakes region.


  • 1884-1970


55.33 Cubic Feet (98 legal manuscript boxes and 8 record storage cartons)

15 Cubic Feet (38 volumes)


Scope and Contents

The Wilson Marine Transit Company files most heavily document activities of the Great Lakes shipping industry in the post-World War II era to 1970. A small amount of material, beginning with 1884, reflects the original company activities under the name Wilson Transit Line (1870-1890). Files from the nineteenth century are infrequently scattered in the collection. From 1890 to 1957 the name Wilson Transit Company was used and a larger number of files record activities for the successor to Thomas Wilson's original business.

Although in its various forms the Wilson Marine Transit Company was in existence for a century, only a small portion of the principal decision-making records are available in the collection. Only a fragment of the company's administrative proceedings appear in the form of annual meeting records for fleet officers (1948-1970) and stockholders (1946-1949, 1956). Scattered personnel-related files complete the proceedings files.

An area where the collection is extensive is in the subject file of the primary administrative office which extends from 1939 to 1970. A small file on company founder Thomas Wilson appears here and is dated 1890-1893. Significant files on such customers as Republic Steel Corporation, the Valley Camp Coal Company, and the Pittsburgh Coke and Chemical Company are present.

Some insights into company policies can be gleaned from circulars distributed to employees and from files kept by Alexander T. Wood, President of Wilson Transit Company from 1948-1957 and Wilson Marine Transit Company from 1957-1960. Added to the subject files, this correspondence brings together a wide variety of material for researchers.

Interests of the company in its various forms can be documented through reports ranging from scattered annual reports (ca. 1927-1964) to extensive numbers of traffic and trip reports for vessels (ca. 1925-1970).

Financial records also exist in large quantities. Present are boxed materials and numerous oversize ledgers. While the decision-making records are sparse, the financial condition of the Wilson Company is well documented. The accounts from 1890 into the 1960s can be examined. Regrettably, only one trial balance ledger from 1884-1888 records activities of the original Wilson's Transit Company.

Legal files appear in small amounts but do cover a large time span, 1893-1967. Contracts reflect relationships of the Wilson Company with customers and labor organizations.

A large number of records regarding subsidiary companies documents activities involving the interrelated types of businesses included in the Great Lakes commercial network. Copper Steamship Company, Republic Steel Company, Cleveland Conveyor Lines, Inc., and Westriver Ore Transports appear along with others to allow observations of the distribution system for raw materials to commercial processors in which the Wilson companies participated for 100 years.

Small quantities of publications, blueprints, and maps have been separated from the collection for cataloging in the general collections for such materials. Also, 82 photographs may be accessed through the photographic materials index at the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes.

Company History

Thomas Wilson, founder of the company that became the Wilson Marine Transit Company, was born in Fifeshire, Scotland in 1839. The Wilson family arrived in the United States in 1855. Thomas Wilson's maritime career began shortly thereafter, with three years of service on ocean vessels. Wilson chose to change to lake vessels and began his lake career as a wheelsman on the MANHATTAN in order to obtain navigational experience. Wilson's first command was the METEOR in 1864.

Wilson's interests developed from commanding a single ship to managing his own company. In partnership with Alexander McDougall, Wilson accumulated the capital to form the Wilson's Transit Line in 1870. This Cleveland, Ohio company retained Wilson as President through its life until 1890. The Wilson Transit Company was formed in 1890 with Wilson serving as President until his death in 1900.

The nineteenth-century edition of Thomas Wilson's company was noted for steady growth in its fleet as it became a prime shipper of ore from the new mining districts in Michigan and Minnesota to eastern industrial centers. Expansion was so successful that it became useful to create subsidiaries, such as the Volunteer Transit Co. In 1898, to shift tax liabilities away from the parent company. At his death, Wilson left a legacy of success.

The administration of Joseph S. Wood, a nephew of Wilson, as President from 1928 to 1948 marked an era of changing fortunes for the company. Wilson Transit Company retained a considerable share of ore and grain traffic on the Great Lakes as the Great Depression Era began. However, the economic crisis resulted in a severe drop in orders for iron ore, leaving grain as the primary cargo. Only four vessels were in operation in the mid 1930s. In 1936 new stock was issued in an effort to raise money to operate more vessels. This strategy succeeded, resulting in a gradual increase in profits to former earnings.

World War II industrial demands soon had the Wilson fleet back to earlier levels. By 1947 finances were such that it was possible to buy the competing Copper Steamship Company. Upon Joseph S. Wood's death in 1948, Wilson Marine Transit was rated ahead of its four chief rivals when costs and profits were compared.

The 1950s proved to be a productive decade for the Wilson Transit Company. In 1957 the company name was changed to the Wilson Marine Transit Company. The Great Lakes Steamship Company was also purchased that year.

The decade of the 1960s was marked by a series of problems that would lead to the demise of the company. A strike in the steel industry during 1959 helped set off a prolonged decline in Wilson fortunes. Competition, the use of inefficiently designed vessels that could not enter many customer dock channels, the loss of winter revenues when grain storage at Buffalo, New York ceased to provide fees during the lay-up periods, the resignations of headquarters personnel due to morale problems, and a host of minor setbacks helped to create a company ripe for purchase by another corporation and a loss of independent action needed to solve problems.

In 1967 Litton Industries purchased the Wilson Marine Transit Company. In 1972 Litton proposed to sell Wilson to the American Ship Building Company. The initial deal was not accepted but resulted in an enormous loss of customers for Wilson when doubts as to Litton's commitment to operate a lake fleet spread. Late in the year, the sale to American Ship Building did occur. With the fleet sold, administrative operations ended in early 1973.

For 100 years the company of Thomas Wilson and his successors was a prominent feature in the economy of the Great Lakes region. Study of the shipping business, mining industry or of steel manufacturing in the United States and Canada touches on the Wilson Marine Transit Company in numerous areas. Examinations of the files preserved for research will permit the reader to follow the history of one of the principal players in the growth of the Great Lakes shipping industry.

Conditions Governing Access

No known access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers using this collection assume full responsibility for conforming to the laws of libel, privacy, and copyright, and are responsible for securing permissions necessary for publication or reproduction.

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Related Materials

For Fleet Logs of the Wilson subsidiary Great Lakes Steamship Company, 1933-1950, and Wilson Marine Transit Company from 1951-1966, see GLMS 43 - Alberta M. Fraley Collection.

See MMS 675 - William C. McCorkle Correspondence for letters and notices written to him as a captain in the Great Lakes Steamship Company and Wilson Marine Transit Company fleets.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The records of the Wilson Marine Transit Company were donated to the Institute for Great Lakes Research (now the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes) on March 23, 1973.

Processing Information

Final processing was completed in 1991 by Mark J. Barnes, Monica Manny, and A. J. DuFresne, with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Guide to the Wilson Marine Transit Company Records
Mark Sprang
June 2019
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