'The Captain' they called him. He built eight shipyards, four dry docks and 200 ships. He designed ocean-going canal boats, an ore washing device, a hydraulic transporting system, designed and operated Mississippi river barges, created a torpedo-proof military vessel and held 49 patents for his inventions.

The Captain was Alexander McDougall and he was born in Port Ellen, a small village on the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, on 16 March 1845. His working life stretched from the American civil war to the first world war but he never forgot the village of his birth and the shop (now the old post office building) where his father operated a village store.

The Captain was a remarkable man whose achievements on the American Great Lakes are still spoken of with awe – even if he is unknown in his native land. As an inventor, designer, pioneer, major employer and in many ways a visionary in shipping, he was a polymath of substance and lasting success.

McDougall's father, Dugald, shopkeeper in Port Ellen and then a Glasgow policeman, left for Canada like so many of his countryman when Alexander was seven. They landed up in Nottawa, a village near Collingwood, Ontario, from where at the age of 16 the young Alexander ran away to sea on the mighty Great Lakes. By the age of 26 he was captaining a major cargo ship. An amazing career was about to take off.

His first ship in command was the SS Japan of the Anchor Line. It was a cargo ship which carried 1,200 tons of cargo with 150 passengers. He then built a home in Duluth (pronounced Dulooth) near Minesotta and got involved in the trade arising from the proposed Mississippi and Lake Superior railroad. Burgeoning iron ore mining and the transportation of grain were driving economic activity.

In 1875 he was sent to Russia at the request of Grand Duke Alexis to examine the feasibility of building a canal linking the Volga and Don rivers. He was told to examine the possibilities of trade and to get a franchise for a grain elevator. En route he visited his native Islay, then Paris and Berlin (celebrating the defeat of the French). In St Petersburg he saw the Tsar Alexander riding in the streets unremarked in a horse and sleigh. He left Russia with hidden maps stitched specially in the linings of his coat.

In 1886 he tried his hand at fishing in Lake Superior catching quantities of herring and trout. He and his compatriots froze fish in blocks of ice and sold them with the slogan: 'Frozen with a wiggle in their tails'. Abandoning that project he then returned to shipping, captaining the SS 'City of Duluth', sailing from Chicago to the ports on Lake Superior. That same year he married Emiline Ross, whose grandfather had come from Tain in Rossshire. They were to have five children with one daughter called Islay but only two were to survive to adulthood.

This was when his exceptional ship-building career started, as he helped to build the SS 'Hiawatha' and started a successful stevedoring business employing nearly 1,000 men. But it was in 1888, in the newly created American Steel Barge Company, he built his first 'whaleback', the signature ship which was to revolutionise shipping in the Lakes. An ugly ship shaped like a cigar with ends turned-up, it was decried as a 'pig' and 'McDougall's Nightmare'.

But McDougall had seen the necessity for a ship designed for the locks and stormy waters of the Great Lakes. He defied the critics. The initial whaleback barges were a success and the project was backed by John D Rockefeller, the Standard Oil mogul.

In 1890 and 1891 he built a dry dock and in 1893 he built 10 ships. He 'launched a ship every Saturday for eight Saturdays and on the ninth launched two ships and a tug'. He then built his most prestigious ship for the Chicago world's fair, the SS Christopher Columbus. It was started on 7 September 1892 and launched on 3 December the same year. On its trial run it carried 7,500 passengers, and in its lifetime (it was still sailing in 1930) carried more Lake passengers than any other ship. Small wonder this whaleback was nicknamed 'Queen of the Lakes'.

At the time the Chicago Tribune said, 'The Whaleback is an American invention and belongs particularly to the West and the Great Lakes district. It was planned by a Lake navigator out of the necessities of Lake transportation and was built in a Lake shipyard.'

A similar ship was built the next year in Everett, Washington State, where McDougall had constructed a shipyard and dry dock. The 'Spirit of Everett' was to be the first American steamship though the Suez Canal and the first American steamer to go round the world. Another McDougall whaleback, the 'Charles W Whitmore', captained by McDougall himself, was the first vessel to leave the Great Lakes, sailing to Liverpool in the course of which journey it extraordinarily ran the rapids on the St Lawrence River.

In 1889 McDougall was enticed to build ships for the Mississippi River trading traffic and his tugboat plied as far down the river as the Gulf of Mexico. In 1912 he returned to Collingwood where the family had landed 58 years before, and built there a shipyard and dry dock. He also helped his son Miller to found a cold storage company in Chicago.

Later that busy year the Captain came back to the UK to visit Liverpool where they were contemplating building whalebacks. He took the opportunity to visit Islay and see his cousins and the 'old farm where my father's people had lived'. It was only a ruin but he speaks in his autobiography of a ride in a buggy on the Big Strand, and the surprising lack of drunkenness among so much 'whiskey'.

The Captain then started to wind down, spending time in the basement of his home in Duluth, continuing his inventing and experimenting. The end of the first world war brought depression to the huge Duluth shipyard and it was reluctantly closed. At its height the yard had employed thousands of workers and dominated the whole town.

In May 1923, the Captain died reportedly just after a whaleback waiting in the bay outside his home blew two solemn blasts on its horn. It was 77 eventful years after his birth in the village of Port Ellen, Isle of Islay.

The reference book 'Who Was Who in America 1897-1942' described Alexander McDougall as 'Inventor of the only method devised for making merchantable the vast deposits of sand iron ores in Minnesota. Inventor of "whaleback" ships.'

Only one whaleback survives. After a working life of a remarkable 73 years the Meteor [pictured above] is now a maritime museum on Barker's Island, Superior. Every year in Duluth they still mark the life of this significant and trailblazing shipping pioneer. His achievements stand as a memorial to this unique son of Islay.

Lord (George) Robertson of Port Ellen was secretary general of NATO, UK secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for Scotland

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