Mark W. Barker Mark W. Barker
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On a clear Tuesday morning, the Motor Vessel Mark W. Barker slides away from the Cleveland Bulk Terminal near Whiskey Island and works toward the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. 

We are stationed in the spacious captain’s deck, positioned near the ship’s stern and four flights of stairs above the main, 639-foot-long deck. Surrounded by charts and logs, captain Alex Weber and wheelsman Zachry Filipiak have their eyes glued to the glistening path in front of the lengthy ship.

Here, the smell of fresh coffee drifts from a pot brewing in the corner, next to a bowl of candy and above a mini-fridge containing a tub of homemade pickled eggs that Filipiak and a friend made a few weeks ago. (He lets us know they’re there for the taking, in case we’re hungry.) Calming soft-rock tunes play lightly in the background; Toto and James Taylor and Uncle Kracker’s “Drift Away” — and, here, the song goes, “I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n’ roll and drift away ... ” 

Dipping under bridges and passing the Flats’ flashy riverside bars and apartments, the boat creeps steadily, no more than 2 mph, toward an imposing bend.

“Columbus Road can be tricky,” Weber says. “The current can catch you there.”

Weber is self-assured, standing at the main front-facing window of the room, wearing a ball cap and a quarter-zip, sleeves rolled up. Looking outside, the 31-year-old Northeast Ohio native speaks plainly about the day’s route. 

“It’s challenging. It’s 6 miles,” Weber says. “Very crooked. Very windy.”

You wouldn’t know it, but he has navigated these 6 miles of the river’s serpentine curves just a handful of times.

“A lot of bridges, a lot of recreational traffic, a lot of commercial traffic,” Weber continues, as a voice from the Coast Guard station crackles over the radio, asking for an estimated time of arrival. “No two days are the same.”

Stepping onto the metal platform outside of the captain’s deck, a breeze drifts over me and the rest of the Mark W. Barker — this newest ship of bulk-carrying business Interlake Steamship Co. fleet of 11 freighters, and just one of three that’s short enough to make it down this tricky river. 

The trickiest parts of the route are made a little less thorny by the specifications of the Mark W. Barker, or the “W,” as some of the crew calls it. The boat was designed just a few years ago to navigate the Cuyahoga River with ease. Christened in Cleveland in 2022, it’s the first ship the locally owned steamship company has debuted in more than four decades, and it’s outfitted with new technology and a new layout — and Cleveland’s twisted river, top of mind.

“This boat, I say, is digital. All the other ones are analog,” says Weber, who became the captain of this ship last year. “It’s not like the old boats, where they’re 50 or 70 years old or something like that. This is brand new.”

Weber’s able to control the vessel’s direction and movement from the pilothouse on the boat’s automated system, with electronic screens that show all the data he needs to effectively navigate.

The new ship is participating in an old industry — one that’s nearly as old as Cleveland itself.

Earlier, before boarding, the sunrise spits an orange glow onto the ship’s towering side as a load of iron ore from the Bulk Terminal’s conveyor belt spills into a metallic waterfall of reddish-brown pellets. They crash with a noisy “shhh” into the underbelly of the ship.

We’re warned of the pellets, like marbles under your feet. We pay attention to where we step.

The Mark W. Barker, named after Interlake’s current president, comes from the cargo-carrying company that traces its history to the 1880s. Today, it’s transporting 17,250 tons of iron ore to Cleveland-Cliffs, a company with roots in the 1840s. It’s doing this in a port and river that drew surveyor Moses Cleaveland’s eye in the late 1700s, establishing the city’s waterfront identity.

Between Interlake’s and other freighter companies’ fleets, this relatively short jaunt in and out of the Port of Cleveland is responsible for about $4.7 billion annually in economic activity. It transports tens of millions of tons of cargo: primarily, iron ore, steel, salt, limestone, machinery, grain — these essential, defining industries of the Rust Belt.

“It’s, I think, culturally and historically very much a part of Cleveland’s story and going all the way back to the original sighting and founding of Cleveland,” says William Friedman, president and CEO of the Port of Cleveland. “Lots of changes to the harbor to make it navigable and suitable for the shipping industry have taken place over the years, and still sort of evolving land uses, of course, are changing. But it’s still very much a part of the fabric around here and part of a larger system.”

Before the ore is fully loaded, the boat sports a thin coat of off-white powder — the dusty remnants of a shipment of commercial stone and gravel from Marblehead. On one walkway, a hand-drawn grid of tic-tac-toe is swiped into the dust.

It’s hard work. Long days and nights. Work until the job is done. Sweat and dust and dirt. But in some ways, the Mark W. Barker — the first steamship in the Great Lakes to meet the latest EPA emissions standards — has become the fresh, environmentally friendly face of a gritty, essential industry.

Looking out from the pilothouse, that’s reflected on the Cuyahoga — the same river which, in 1969, was so polluted it famously caught fire.

As we begin to twist around the big bend of Columbus Road, excavators scoop and level the dusty brown soil on Irishtown Bend, transforming and stabilizing the once-blighted landslide risk into (eventually, hopefully) a park. 

We inch around the curve. The breeze changes. The full city skyline comes into view. His hat now flipped backward, Weber wears a pair of reflective sunglasses as bright afternoon rays peek out of a cloudy blue sky. The captain is cautious but authoritative, and he predicts the cross-current before we encounter it. We slowly pivot.

Riverside trails, created a few years ago, line these shores. Plus: a kayak launch, a couple of tennis courts and a few fishermen, sitting in camping chairs on the water near the Coast Guard Station. Then, a community of building frames, apartment construction sites — no doubt luxury, riverside spaces, built on once-undesirable land — turning into (eventually, hopefully) Cleveland’s next hot neighborhood, on Scranton Peninsula.

But we’re not there yet.

The ship keeps turning.



Descend the metal staircases, below the galley, living spaces and deck of the Mark W. Barker, and you reach the heart of the machine: the engine room. Here, computer screens and a wall of meters and buttons register the ship’s numerous moving parts. Next door, a hefty, diesel-powered 16-cylinder engine powers the ship.

The engine churns so loudly that a white noise envelopes the space, a steady fuzz behind engineers Erik Wlazlo and Jason Tramte’s voices. The two sit and chat at desk chairs next to a pot of bubbling coffee.

Workers like Wlazlo and Tramte have kept up as Interlake’s engines and machinery evolved. The two started with the Middleburg Heights-based company about 30 years ago. Now, Wlazlo serves as the Mark W. Barker’s chief engineer with Tramte as his right-hand man, the lead QMED engineer.

But first came Wlazlo’s decade of work in the hot rooms of true steamship engines. He even spent time on Interlake’s oldest boat, 1942’s Lee A. Tregurtha — a ship with two battle stars for World War II service in its prior life. (Wlazlo says the steam engines were fun to work on. “It’s a little warm, but it was great, I used to really enjoy it. The steamers were very laid back.”)

Then, in the 2000s, he saw Interlake’s fleet of cargo ships get repowered, one by one, from steam engines to their current, more efficient and cleaner diesel systems. 

In 2021, Wlazlo faced one of his biggest career challenges yet, when he arrived at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. There, the future Mark W. Barker was, at the time, just a couple of metal modules. The bits and pieces of the ship marked Interlake’s first new build in a few decades — and one of the first, of this scale, at Fincatieri.

“It was a huge puzzle. This is the first whole, entire ship built on the lakes here in almost 40 years. The shipyard has repaired ships; they build barges and some tugs, but nothing like this,” says Wlazlo. “I’ve never seen this stuff before.”

He helped put things together over the next year, armed with stacks of manuals and installation guides for components that were crafted all over the world. An engine built in La Grange, Illinois; gearboxes from Texas; a propeller, propulsion control and thrusters from Sweden; an unloading system from Canada.

Like a buoyant, complicated Lego set, piece by piece, the ship came together.

In the end, something specific was born in Wisconsin. Something new, destined for its Northeast Ohio home.

The Mark W. Barker’s layout flips around a few key elements from designs of other Interlake vessels. Its unloading boom is mounted to the bow of the ship, instead of its stern. Its cargo hold is square-shaped instead of sloped — meaning it can hold more product, even though the dimensions of the ship are technically smaller. 

After all, every inch counts on a freighter, especially one that squeezes into the Cuyahoga. The river’s tight bends necessitate that ships be shorter than 700 feet to get through.

And they have to be maneuverable. The Mark W. Barker is outfitted with two 1,000-horsepower thrusters at the ship’s bow and stern, allowing it to move both forward and backward. After all, there’s no turning around in a river this tight. Meanwhile, the ship’s flap rudder gives it extra steering ability, turning at about 70 degrees (a big difference from most ships’ 40-43 degrees).

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing on the Mark W. Barker. The new build brought new challenges, including malfunctions.

The ship made headlines last May when it lost power and ran aground on the Detroit River. After a few hours, the ship managed to break free and continue on its journey without any damage or injuries.

Wlazlo leads us to the door of the engine room, where we roll up foam earplugs and plug them, one after the other, into our ears. When Wlazlo opens the door, a mechanical noise blasts out. He has to raise his voice over the cacophonous equipment to tell us about how the engine works.

He reaches down and lugs up a hefty tube of metal sitting in the corner of the room. The piston is as big as his forearm, which sports a fiery Detroit Tigers tattoo in honor of his hometown. Then we stand over a metal grated walkway and peer down at the many pistons below us, furiously pumping and powering the ship’s movement along another curve of the Cuyahoga.

This isn’t some dark, Titanic-esque inferno. A gust of cool air blasts from a vent, pushing strands of loose hair back in the artificial wind. Bright fluorescents light a workstation with everyday tools labeled and arranged on a peg board.

This is where Wlazlo, Tramte and other engineers onboard fix everything that breaks on the ship. The surrounding engines might be the most important part of their jobs, but if a toilet or a washing machine is on the fritz, they’ll fix that, too.

Though many city dwellers have seen this ship crawl slowly by the city’s scenery, it’s rare to catch a glimpse of its inner workings, its beating heart — this tucked-away life on board.


Around 11 a.m., we smell lunch being prepared on the deck. The scent of grilled meats mixes with the lake breeze. Chief steward Julie Kowalski is busy preparing meals for the 22-person crew. Today’s menu, written on a dry-erase board outside the kitchen serving window, features gyros, hamburgers, loaded baked potatoes, Buffalo chicken wraps, Coney dogs, sandwiches, soups and salads. A freezer is filled to the brim with ice cream, and today’s dessert special is an Oreo cheesecake.

“Nobody goes hungry here,” Kowalski says, methodically flipping a row of burger patties on the flat-top grill.

Behind her, second cook Cristonna Lisby pulls a tray of warm, freshly baked cookies out of an oven. “This is a younger crew,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “They’re always hungry, so I have to keep up with it.”

Lisby knows how to keep up with hungry young people. With two teenage boys — a 15- and a 17-year-old — at home in Georgia, she first started cooking for her family and for parties, before she worked for Harris Teeter, a grocery chain, and then Interlake. “I made things,” she says. “I wasn’t a microwave mom.”

Now, Lisby spends months away from her sons, living on the boat, providing for her family from afar. While she’s worked for Interlake for two years, the lifestyle is not for everyone.

Kowalski, as a relief chef, works on Interlake vessels for weeks at a time.

“When I go home, I have no husband or pets or anything. I live alone. It’s good,” says Kowalski, a Marine City, Michigan resident. She reaches for a container of spices above the stovetop. “I go home and just enjoy life.”

Then again, the Mark W. Barker is “home,” too. Crew members live onboard, retreating to their cabins after long work days, for months. Lisby’s door, just down the hall from the galley, is easy to spot, with anime stickers and butterflies taped to its outside — reminiscent of a college dormitory, decked out to show off her personality.

Kowalski and Lisby started their shifts this morning at 6 a.m., whipping up breakfast for the crew — made-to-order omelets, sausage and egg sandwiches and more. They’ll end their day of work at around 6 p.m. after dinner service is finished. No days off.

The cooks rely on a rotation of recipes. Some are plated meals, others are grab and go, wrapped in layers of cellophane, for a quick bite ahead of an oddly timed shift.

“I have about, maybe, 50 dinner entrees, and it helps me keep everything fresh,” Kowalski says. “They’ve never had your lasagna, you know? I don’t want to get stale, so if you go to another boat, even if you just make lasagna or meatloaf, it’s all different people.”

In the morning, a few members of the crew sit quietly at the galley’s round tables and eat plates of eggs and toast. An old Star Trek movie plays on the TV, near a La-Z-Boy reclining chair and a shelf of books, decks of cards and other games provided to pass the time.

“Everyone’s very nice about everything. Everyone’s very laid back, very easygoing,” Kowalski says. She hands a  plated burger and fries to a worker through the kitchen’s serving window. “To take this job, you have to be.”

You almost forget you’re moving on a ship, in a room like this.

It’s a living room, dining room and den, all in one — a key part of daily life for the crew. And life here also means everyday things like gyros, home-baked cookies, the cornhole set that workers often bring out on a nice day on the top of Hatch 5, and Starlink video calls that Lisby makes on a daily basis with her two sons.

And it also means the lobster and crab leg dinners Kowalski cooks on Christmas — or ham and turkey on Easter and Thanksgiving — or the annual Fourth of July cookout. All right here on this ship. No days off, after all.

There’s life on board, and it’s in constant motion, this little world on a freighter that’s currently on top of the Cuyahoga River — and at lunch, it smells like grilled meats.

“Really, it’s a self-sustained city,” Weber says, “so anything that you can think of, we have.”

And there’s another city, right behind it. Kowalski props open the kitchen door to let in some cool air. On the deck beyond, we see a crew member light a cigarette, leaning against the rail. Behind him, Tower City slowly swipes out of view.


Matthew Bassett starts his shift in early-morning darkness, wearing a high-visibility neon yellow jacket and hard hat at Cleveland Bulk Terminal. The rising sun’s light glimmers off of Bassett’s gold wedding band. He and ordinary seaman Jesse Allen kill time before the ship finishes loading up, watching a duck waddle nearby.

Later in the day, Bassett is working his second shift — a split shift. Easy to remember, at least. “My watch is 12 to four, twice a day,” Bassett says.

Two split shifts and often plenty of overtime when the schedule calls for it: Bassett’s schedule as an Interlake mate, for the past four years, can be scattered. When he’s not on the clock, he enjoys reading books — recently, a history about the Crusades, a biography about Henry Ford, a Western and — fittingly, for a sailor — Gulliver’s Travels

Ideally, Bassett says, he’s only on the Mark W. Barker for, at most, 180 days out of the year. It’s taxing to both work and live in a workplace, and he misses home in Traverse City, Michigan, and his wife, Karen, “every second of every day,” he says.

“But I like my job,” he adds. “I mean, if you talk to an attorney, he’d rather be home, too, but he’s got a job he’s good at — it’s a means to providing for your family. If you talk to a doctor, you know she’s gonna want to be home with the kids, too. I think everyone misses home and family when they’re working, but you’re working for that family and it’s a tradeoff we all make.”

By the time his second shift rolls around, the early morning chill has subsided into a sweaty, sunny afternoon. Bassett has ditched his jacket and wears a pair of stained overalls and a T-shirt. He stands on the deck at the bow of the ship.

We have moved past any distinguishable markers of the city skyline. Now we float in a less-developed stretch of river, one of abandoned rusty docks and occasional small swathes of litter: plastic water bottles, chip bags, twigs and muck, lapping at the banks.

We watch work trucks and excavators organize Cleveland-Cliffs’ mounds of iron ore. In the distance, massive claw-machine grabbers lift and move the essential ingredients to the plant.

Bassett’s eyeing the shore as the ship slows, occasionally radioing in distances and angles to Weber in the captain’s office, helping him maneuver around those last few pesky bends of the Cuyahoga.

You get better at it the longer you practice, Bassett says. Though he’s only worked for Interlake for four years, he’s navigated the Great Lakes for more than 25 years, and the Cuyahoga for more than 12, as a former captain and first-mate for American Steamship Co. 

“When I was driving as a captain up and down the river, it’s three hours of nearly complete focus the whole time,” Bassett says.

In those years of focus, Bassett has seen the river change — the Flats developments ebb and flow, fall apart, revitalize, repeat. (“The only constant there seems to be Shooters,” he says.) He’s seen new apartments built up near the shores, while other properties were torn down, like Tower City Amphitheater and Eagle Street.

And he’s seen recreation increase. Rowing teams now share the river, and boaters consistently line up near Shooters, where they, at one time, occasionally bopped into one another when the freighters used their thrusters to navigate around them, Bassett says.

He’s been caught in snow squalls, hit by seagull poop and caught behind the Norfolk-Southern rail bridge, where he maintained control of the ship in windy conditions behind achingly long trains.

He recounts one ship’s docking at Cleveland-Cliffs, which accidentally knocked down a power line, caused a blackout at the mills and nearly electrocuted a freighter crew member.

“It can be dangerous,” he says, eyes trained on the shore. “You’ve got to pay attention.” 

Down on the main deck, Allen, Juan Palacios and a few other seamen busily prepare a pulley system attached to a long metal arm on the ship. Allen steps up on a stool and swings his legs over a wooden seat attached to the rope.

A crewmate pulls, hoisting Allen into the air. The team swings the metal arm out over the edge of the boat, and Allen, clinging to the line, with it. They lower him down, 20 feet, to the ground.  In a few seconds, Palacios follows, in the same manner, and they start the process of tying down lines, docking the ship safely next to Cleveland-Cliffs — the first step to unloading the shipment of ore inside.

The crew gets to work under the hot rays, as a plume of white steam rises out of one of the steel mill’s smokestacks. The work rarely pauses here, in the heart of Cleveland manufacturing — and not on the Mark W. Barker, either. 

We are six miles from where we started, in nearly as many hours. The sun furiously beats down onto the ship, onto the surrounding iron ore, onto this main industry of Cleveland — and, also, onto the ship’s crew that keep things running smoothly all the while.

“The boats never stop,” Bassett says. “You think of a factory, somebody’s gotta work second shift, somebody’s gotta work third shift. If it’s going to run 24 hours, you’ve got to be. Police on the street 24 hours a day — there’s doctors in the emergency room — and there’s sailors on the boats, working.” 

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