A treasure comes home.


The Aha as it looks today in Shay Park.

Harbor Springs, a small town in northern Michigan, in June 2021 honored the memory and achievements of a celebrated citizen, Ephraim Shay, by displaying what is probably the first example of an all steel private yacht. It was built in Shay’s machine shop just a few hundred yards from its current location and launched in 1894.

Born in Huron County Ohio, Shay moved to Michigan in 1861 at age 22. After two years service in the Civil War under William Tecumseh Sherman he returned to Michigan where he was involved in several business ventures before settling in Harbor Springs Michigan in 1888.

The stately steel-clad Shay house built in 1892 has four wings and a tower.
[Photo courtesy of Vince Mihalik President of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society]

Established on the shores of Little Traverse Bay, Shay’s genius and energy as an entrepreneur and inventor flourished. He built a unique hexagon house with steel clad walls both outside and inside and continued work he had begun earlier on a gear drive locomotive. This design was especially suited for the burgeoning lumber industry of the area. Working with the Lima Ohio Locomotive Works, nearly 3,000 Shay locomotives, suitable for steep grades and heavy loads with lumber and mining, were built with more than 60 still operating.

The newly displayed pleasure boat, Aha, a modified version launched three years after the original in 1891, has no known offspring and appears to be a rare example of Shay’s involvement in a purely pleasure mode. The following appeared in the Petoskey News review as the restoration of the boat was underway:

In 1894, a local newspaper said the Shay boat “is a beauty, will carry 20 people outside and there is sufficient space inside to make up three or four berths when taking a long cruise. The egg-shaped bottom is something new in boat building, but Mr. Shay says this does away with ballast.” *

Before restoration, the hulk of Aha as she sat rusting out at Big Sucker Creek in Sturgeon Bay. She was used as a target for hunters and had over a thousand bullet holes.
[Photo courtesy of Vince Mihalik President of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society]

There is also the story of how Aha saved the big steamship, Manitou, which got lost in the fog coming down from Mackinac Island.  Ephraim’s son was the only one willing to go out in the fog in the Aha, search for the Manitou, and lead her safely into the Harbor.




* Later concrete was added for stability. This absorbed water that caused the bottom to rust out. This version was his third modification. Shay took the triple expansion steam engine out and was towing Aha to storage when she broke loose and was carried to shore on Big Sucker Creek in Sturgeon Bay where she sat rusting for many decades.

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1 thought on “A Small Town Honors a Pioneer

  1. After reading your article and having no knowledge of ship building, I spent a considerable amount of time reading (Googling) about using steel to clad ships. It seems illogical to me to use something that would rust. I have concluded that it is used because nothing better is available – taking into consideration the cost. Anyone out there who would care to weigh in on this?

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