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Our Story


In these days of simple desktop publishing, digital imagery and the Internet, it's hard to imagine someone launching a brand-new publication with little more than a drafting table, a darkroom, an old camera and a dream. Yet in 1959, Thomas Manse compiled the first issue of Know Your Ships, the now-familiar guidebook to boats on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, in his Sault Ste. Marie basement with just those four basic tools.


He set a goal for himself of capturing at least one photograph of all the ships sailing the lakes. In 1992 he estimated his collection at more than 25,000 negatives and slides. He could often be found at Mission Point, downstream from the locks, sometimes in the company of other vessel enthusiasts including the late Rev. Edward J. Dowling S.J., considered the Great Lakes' foremost marine historian; and the late Edwin Wilson, a long-time marine photographer from Milwaukee whose massive photo collection now resides with the Milwaukee Public Library.

There is no record of when or even why Tom decided to publish a book about boats. But publish he did, with his wife, Mabel, and his daughters Judy and Cindy, helping out as well. That first issue of Know Your Ships was just 44 pages. Staple-bound, it sold for 50 cents. Yet it contained listings for more than 600 American and Canadian lakers, with information gathered mostly from the vessel reporting room at the Soo Locks. It was conceived not as a publication aimed at those working in the shipping industry, but for tourists, ship fans and people who lived along the water and wanted basic information about the ships that passed their shores.

In the beginning, Tom had a hard time convincing shopkeepers along Sault Ste. Marie's Portage Avenue, adjacent to the locks, to carry the book, so he assembled a crew of junior high and high school students to stand just outside locks' property and sell the books to tourists. The kids - some of whom used deep-pocketed carpenter's aprons to hold books and change - made money off commissions. Eventually store owners saw the demand for the little booklet and began stocking it on their shelves.

Putting together early Know Your Ships was a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Any four-color work, such as the smokestack monograms found on each issue's center spread, Tom did by hand, using the drafting skills honed in his job as a machinist at Sault Ste. Marie's Michigan Northern (now Cloverland Electric Cooperative) hydroelectric power plant. He would often look out the window while at work and, spotting an unfamiliar stack marking, would sketch or photograph the herald, making a more accurate rendition later as he worked at night in his damp basement at home. That basement also contained a photographic darkroom, barely big enough to turn around in, from which he turned out postcard-sized prints with a vintage contact printer. Loose-leaf notebooks, each entry printed in neatly in block letters, provided a reference to the thousands of negatives filed in mismatched metal drawers and old wooden cabinets stacked in the basement.


Among the pictures included in that 1959 Know Your Ships was a cover shot of Canada Steamship Lines' steamer Lemoyne, downbound at Mission Point in early winter. Inside photos, all black and white, included the Edmund Fitzgerald (a new entry that year) and the passenger liner South American. In that issue, 25 U.S.-flag vessel operators were referenced, and a footnote indicated that approximately 70 freighters passed through the Soo Locks each day. According to the book, Pittsburgh Steamship Co. (U.S. Steel) operated 57 boats in the lakes trade. Canada Steamship Lines operated 61. A few ads helped defray the cost of printing.

The 1960 Know Your Ships was a virtual twin of its predecessor, with a picture of the passenger ship South American on its cover. The black and white photo was dressed up with the addition of spot color on the vessel's smokestack. The first four-color photos appeared in 1967.

In 1968, Tom left his job at the hydro plant to direct the newly-formed Le Sault de Sainte Marie Historic Sites and was a key figure in obtaining the obsolete lake boat Valley Camp for use as a museum at Sault Ste. Marie and became the Valley Camp's first director.

The 1979 edition of Know Your Ships was the last to be staple bound. By that time, the book was just under 100 pages. In 1980, perfect binding was first employed. This allowed the name of the book to be printed on the spine. By 1990, another 25 pages had been added. Up until his death, Tom still readied corrections for the next edition the way he always had: with a loose-leaf binder and a pad of yellow legal paper. Publication of Know Your Ships was always pretty much a one-man show: The book would be produced over the winter, published in the spring and distributed by Tom during the summer.


Those who knew Tom Manse knew he was a born salesman. He loved to talk about steamboats and he loved to load his car up with Know Your Ships and head to Port Huron or Duluth or the Welland Canal on sales trips. In the process he made friends from one end of the lakes to the other. On Feb. 11, 1986, declared by the City of Sault Ste. Marie as "Tom Manse Day," the local paper editorialized "He's talked ships and shipping every day of his life and what he's forgotten is more than what most people could know in a lifetime.”


Born in Sault Ste. Marie in 1915, he grew up just blocks from the locks. Fiercely proud of his Italian-American heritage, he was active for years in the city's Christopher Columbus Society. But despite his love for Great Lakes ships, Tom never worked aboard one. He often related an ill-fated attempt to ship out when he was a boy. "My father came right up the deck after me," he recalled. Although he was kiddingly referred to as a "dry-land sailor," Tom was thrilled to ride aboard the Valley Camp in 1968 as it was being towed across Lake Superior to its new home in Sault Ste. Marie.

Tom Manse died on April 27, 1994, just as the 35th anniversary edition of Know Your Ships was rolling off the press. Thanks to his vision, Know Your Ships has been able to continue on for new generations of lake boats and the fans who follow them.

By Roger LeLievre

The first edition of Know Your Ships was released in 1959. It featured the Canadian-flagged bulker Lemoyne on the cover. We have uploaded the full 1959 book for our fans to view here.


We would like to thank John Belliveau for his amazing rendering of the SS Thomas J. Manse.

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