Edwin F. Holmes as builtEdwin F. Holmes as built. Photo by Louis Pesha from the William S. Carmen collection courtesy of Paul C. LaMarre III

The J. B. Ford was launched by the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio, on December 12, 1903. She was originally named the Edwin F. Holmes, and was built as an iron ore carrier for the Commonwealth Steamship Company, one of the fleets managed by W.A. Hawgood. Although she was not a record-breaker, she was a big boat for her day, 440 feet long by 50 feet across her beam, with a depth of 28 feet. She was powered by a 1,500-horsepower triple-expansion steam engine, fed by two coal-fired Scotch marine boilers.

Work on fitting out the new steamer was delayed by flooding on the Black River in Lorain on January 22, 1904. The Holmes broke free from her moorings and swung her bow into the opposite bank. She was finally freed on Febuary 5th, and fit-out work continued. She entered service in the spring of 1904 under the command of Captain James Owen.