2007-01-18 / Columns

Autos Across Mackinac:

State Would Be First Ferry Operator in Nation
By Les Bagley

Horatio Sawyer "Good Roads" Earle was Michigan's first State Highway Commissioner. He developed standards for road construction which could be used to improve the farmer's lanes and byways that haphazardly connected communities across the state, leading to a "State Trunkline System" of highways which greatly improved automobile access to Northern Michigan and the Straits region. (Michigan Department of Transportation photo) Horatio Sawyer "Good Roads" Earle was Michigan's first State Highway Commissioner. He developed standards for road construction which could be used to improve the farmer's lanes and byways that haphazardly connected communities across the state, leading to a "State Trunkline System" of highways which greatly improved automobile access to Northern Michigan and the Straits region. (Michigan Department of Transportation photo) 2007 marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Mackinac Bridge, but it also marked the end of auto ferry service across the Straits of Mackinac. In his new book, Autos Across Mackinac, author Les Bagley recounts the history of Michigan State Ferries. Last week in Part One, he outlined the history of the Mackinac Transportation Company, the first formal ferry service to carry automobiles between Michigan's peninsulas. But the MTC was slow to realize the benefits auto service could realize, and provided less than adequate service to motorists.

Built in 1911, the Chief Wawatam ferried railroad cars across the Straits into the 1980s. With a bow propeller and two at the stern, she was an excellent ice crusher, providing service in nearly all weather, including the coldest of winters. Built in 1911, the Chief Wawatam ferried railroad cars across the Straits into the 1980s. With a bow propeller and two at the stern, she was an excellent ice crusher, providing service in nearly all weather, including the coldest of winters. Part 2:

The Move To Change

The perception of poor service and high automobile fares charged by the Mackinac Transportation Company at first caused a murmur among the motoring public. In 1921, hundreds of motorists heeded earlier publicity about the wonders of highway travel to Northern Michigan. Arriving at the Straits, they were surprised by the fares charged to take their cars across. Many refused to pay, leaving hundreds of cars parked around town in Mackinaw City while their drivers and passengers walked aboard the boats to cross.

As motorists' complaints about the railroad ferries grew louder, developments began on a different front. In late 1921, John A. Doelle, the head of Michigan's Department of Agriculture, spearheaded the formation of the Mackinac Development Company. Its purpose, it reported, was to "make a thorough investigation and report on the project of a bridge or tunnel to connect Michigan's two peninsulas." The company retained a consulting engineer, Charles Evans Fowler, with offices in Detroit and New York, to report on the feasibility and costs of developing a Straits crossing between various points. Fowler had most recently been associated with plans for a Detroit River suspension bridge and construction approval for it was expected from the Utilities Commission.

The second steamer named Sainte Marie was used mostly as a spare boat. Although similar in appearance to the larger Chief, she could be most easily differentiated by the large, single ventilation intake near her stern. She only had one screw ahead and one astern, but she was an excellent icebreaker. The second steamer named Sainte Marie was used mostly as a spare boat. Although similar in appearance to the larger Chief, she could be most easily differentiated by the large, single ventilation intake near her stern. She only had one screw ahead and one astern, but she was an excellent icebreaker. Also involved, as advisors, were H. E. Riggs of the Department of Civil Engineering and Dean M. E. Cooley of the University of Michigan Engine-ering Department in Ann Arbor, George H. Pegram, Chief Engineer of New York City's Interborough Transit Company, and Professor William H. Burr, a New York consulting engineer. Their conclusion was that the most feasible route would leave Cheboygan, using the Straits islands as stepping-stones, enroute to St. Ignace.

In 1922, roads were mostly still unimproved gravel, sand, or dirt ruts, but the state trunkline system brought better order to the chaos. There were no direct routes from Southern Michigan to the north. Travelers could expect a one way trip to last from several days to a week or more, with overnight stops in communities along the way. (Detail of Rand McNally 1922 "Official Auto Trails Map" as distributed by the Detroit News. Author's collection.) In 1922, roads were mostly still unimproved gravel, sand, or dirt ruts, but the state trunkline system brought better order to the chaos. There were no direct routes from Southern Michigan to the north. Travelers could expect a one way trip to last from several days to a week or more, with overnight stops in communities along the way. (Detail of Rand McNally 1922 "Official Auto Trails Map" as distributed by the Detroit News. Author's collection.) People had suggested bridging the Straits since the Brooklyn Bridge opened in the previous century, but they had only been suggestions. Even Commodore Vanderbilt's comments at the first board meeting of the Grand Hotel in 1888 had been but empty talk. Doubters scoffed at this suggestion, too, saying a bridge might as well start at Petoskey or Detroit, but nevertheless, the first serious move to at least investigate bridging the Straits had begun.

As more motorists tried to cross the Straits, the murmur of complaints grew into a roar. The Detroit Automobile Club, the Chippewa Automobile Club, and other motoring organizations asked the Attorney General's office to intercede. So in January 1922, Michigan Attorney General Merlin Wiley confronted the ferry firm at a meeting in Lansing. Perhaps in light of the new Development Commission's work, company directors agreed to submit a new tariff to the State Public Utilities Commission. The company would charge $3 for cars with less than a 114" wheelbase and $4 for those that were longer. The company also added a 50¢ "dockage charge" at each end of the route, in effect making the fares $4 and $5.

In an editorial in the St. Ignace Enterprise, Editor Clyde W. Hecox expressed the public sentiment that the fares were better, but still might not be low enough to draw motorists across the water. He equated $8 or $10 as too much for locals to pay for a round trip to Petoskey or Traverse City, and he thought the people in those towns might think the fares were too high for a trip to St. Ignace and back, as well. Further, he complained that the dockage charge was unwarranted, as the motorist drove his own car on and off the boat, with but a few planks between the rails on the dock to help him. First appearing in early 1922, the paper's editorials continued to bristle at the railroad ferry service throughout the year.

Hecox apparently was one of the first to observe the dent automotive transportation was putting into transport by other modes. He noted that anyone with a little capital could buy a truck to haul goods in competition with rail freight. The railroads themselves, he commented, were employing trucks and buses to haul goods and people on lightly traveled lines.

In preparation for the 1922 tourist season, the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau prepared maps with lists of campgrounds located near "auto trails." The maps also designated springs, reserves, and summer resorts in the hope of attracting more travelers to "Cloverland," as the St. Ignace region was called. More tourists meant more complaints against the Mackinac Transportation Company.

The more motorists complained, the more politicians took notice. Many of the comments were forwarded to 64-year-old Michigan State Highway Commis-sioner Frank F. Rogers. A veteran engineer, Rogers had first served as deputy commissioner under "Good Roads" Earle in 1906. He was appointed commissioner himself at the State Republican Convention in 1913. On March 25, 1922, in response to a letter from Soo resident and local tourism and highway advocate Fred S. Case, Rogers stepped boldly into the fray. Case suggested the state buy a ferry currently on the market for "just $60,000" and put it in service at the Straits. Observing the talk of bridging or tunneling the gap, Rogers admitted he would be more supportive of a state-operated ferry as part of the highway system. "I am very much interested in this project," Rogers is quoted as saying. "It is the only logical solution of the traffic situation at the Straits for several years at least." Rogers felt the cost of a bridge or tunnel would exclude construction by private enterprise, and that the state could not afford the price either.

Rogers' support was critically important. At that time, there were no state-operated ferry lines in the country. While some counties and towns operated local ferries across rivers and streams, usually under contract with a private operator, if the suggestion for a ferry across the straits were to be adopted, Michigan would become the first state to operate a highway ferry in U.S. history. As part of the state highway system, it almost certainly would fall to Rogers' department for oversight, or even direct operation.

Rogers urged that the stateoperated ferry suggestion be brought before the next session of the legislature. In response, the Mackinac Transportation Company countered that such a proposition would lose money for the state. The directors wondered if Rogers had actually done any planning for such an enterprise, and questioned if the state would charge less than their $4 and $5 fees based on wheelbase, or carry traffic free. The company also pointed out the ferry would probably only run eight months of the year, require at least $2,000 for docks on each side, and have expenses of 20 percent to 25 percent of their own annually.

According to the MTC, in 1921, some 4,638 autos had crossed the Straits. Even if twice that many cars crossed on the state's boat, the fares they paid would still not begin to cover the operating costs. Amortizing the cost of the boat and the docks would amount to even more. The MTC concluded that if the state really wanted to help "automobilists," it would subsidize their crossing on the Chief Wawatam or Sainte Marie. To justify their contention, the company showed an average price paid of $4.40 for each car carried. They neglected to mention they also charged each driver and passenger 50¢ for the one-way trip.

Richard Jones, a St. Ignace resident who wrote to the Enterprise in rebuttal, quickly pointed out that omission. He also cited the poor service given to motorists by the railroad as the major complaint:

"The cost of crossing the Straits is not the most important point at issue," he wrote. "The matter of service means more to the average tourist. Therefore, I wish to call attention to a few of the many deficits in the service at the present time. The Mackinac Transportation Co. has no regular schedule for meeting passenger trains. The first boat leaves Mackinaw City for St. Ignace at 7:50 and returns at 11:30 AM. If at that time there are enough freight cars in the yard to load her, she leaves again for St. Ignace at 12:00 Noon, but if she is lacking a load of freight cars, she lays at Mackinaw City until 4:50 PM when she takes another passenger train over. The same conditions prevail going south, and the boat's capacity for carrying automobiles is limited to ten machines at any one trip. You can readily see that it is impossible for her to give the needed service.

"The tourist that is unfortunate enough to reach Mackinaw City after 7:50 AM is liable of a delay of nine hours, or until 4:50 PM, and then he takes his chances of being one of the ten who may get on the boat. If he misses his chance, he has to wait until 7:50 the next morning and take the same chances again, whereas a ferry operated by the state would make the round trip every two hours with a capacity for carrying 25 cars and their passengers. Cars could be driven on and off such a ferry without turning around and backing over rails and timbers as we are compelled to do at the present time, and in many cases tires are badly damaged or in some cases, torn off from machines."

Jones asked why the state could justify spending thousands of dollars to build eight miles of road in the southern part of the state, which required maintenance but generated no income, when the same eight miles of ferry crossing could be a very profitable enterprise. He equated the state's position to "a man swallowing a wagon, but then choking on the tongue," and called for either a state-operated ferry or improvements in the MTC's level of auto service.

Despite the January agreement, by late April 1922, the railroad boats were still charging the old fares for commercial vehicles. Attorney General Wiley asked the Public Utilities Commission to call a hearing to determine why the company still charged $30 to haul a single truck across the Straits. The price was "exhorbitant," Wiley maintained.

Meanwhile other politicians generated a great deal of rhetoric. State Representative Frank A. Aldrich, while running for Congress on the Republican ticket, suggested the federal government should run a ferry at the Straits, charging only a nominal fee, with service as the primary objective. Aldrich pointed out that the federal government already ran the Soo Locks, so a ferry at the Straits would be a logical extension so autos could reach them. Aldrich also claimed the waters of the Straits, which divided his territory, were owned nationally, urging Washington to step in. He said that excessive charges under private operators were "a barrier to proper intercourse between the upper and lower peninsulas and are restricting tourist traffic, an asset worth thousands of dollars to both sections." He said Wisconsin was profiting by the diversion of Upper Peninsula business and what should have been the "through Michigan tourist trade."

Sometimes Lower Michigan resort owners turned to questionable tactics to keep the tourist trade from going north. The Upper Peninsula Development Bureau received a letter from C. J. Clark of Stanbaugh, Michigan, who wrote that he'd heard from a resort operator that motorists were still being required to drain gasoline from their tanks to return across the Straits. He told of one motorist who had to push his car from the ferry in Mackinaw City by hand, and upon arriving at the nearest gas station, just at the end of the dock, he was charged 90-cents a gallon for a refill. (A gallon of gas cost just pennies at the time.)

In response, S. Doud, the purser on the Chief, responded: "Such a report is without foundation. It is a rule of the steamboat inspectors 1922 tourist season, the Enterprise published a front-page map of the Upper Peninsula's state trunk line highway system. The headline read, "Auto Tourists, See Cloverland First."

Promoters at Sault Ste. Marie were also interested in tourism from the south and so joined the chorus for a state owned ferry. Fred S. Case, who had written the governor about the available ferry, was the chairman of the Civic and Commercial Association's Good Roads Committee. He called a state ferry one of two chief objectives of his group.

"We believe such a ferry boat, large enough to carry 30 cars, with dockage on each side could be secured for less than it would cost to build eight miles of trunk line highway. We also believe that such a ferry, charging about $2 per car would not only take in the cost of operation, but return the money laid out by the state in less than five years. This ferry could be run on regular trips, say every two hours from each side of the Straits, and give tourists and residents a very complete and convenient service."

Case cited a statement from Mr. Hotchkiss, the cashier of the First National Bank of St. Ignace and former president of the Mackinac County Road Commission, who said he'd never taken his car to Mackinaw City because of the inconvenience and the cost. With a moderate charge, he said he'd go once a month. Case also projected that from the current 5,000 or less cars crossing in a year, at least 25,000 vehicles might be transported over and back on a state-run ferry, a significant benefit to Sault Ste. Marie and the rest of Chippewa County.

Calls for a bridge continued as well. Still the highway promoter from his commissioner days, "Good Roads Earle" projected that The Mackinaw Development Company's bridge would cross the Straits within the next 10 years. Most people seriously doubted it would happen in Earle's time frame, if ever. By way of response, J.W. Hannen, the editor of Michigan Good Roads and Forests magazine, came out in support of a State Ferry. In his editorial, Hannen said a bridge or tunnel would take years to engineer and would be cost prohibitive to construct. A ferry, on the other hand, could be put in service almost immediately.

About the only dissenting voices, other than those promoting a bridge or from the MTC, were those of the editors of several Western Upper Peninsula newspapers. In 1922 editorials, they derided the need for a state ferry. Their opposition was blamed on wanting to keep more of the Wisconsin tourist dollar for their part of the state.

The summer of 1922 saw more tourists arriving in Cloverland than ever. St. Ignace Mayor Bert Highstone reported to the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau that the MTC had carried an average of 85 automobiles a day across the Straits in July. Tourism was projected to reach 75,000 people that year.

A Private Matter

With all the talk about ferries, both railroad and state-run automobile, it was only natural that other contenders might enter the scene. Just after Labor Day 1921, George Arnold announced that he was reorganizing his businesses with the intention of building two new oilfired steamers. Arnold, under the banners "Arnold Transit" and "Island Transit," had run small passenger boats to Mackinac Island and on routes around the upper lakes for years. By reorganizing as the "Arnold Transportation Company," he intended to issue $200,000 in 20 year serial bonds to finance two new ships capable of at least 15 miles per hour.

Arnold's plans called for the railroads to turn over their passenger traffic to his new boats, using the carferries for freight-only moves. The new boats would honor the railroads interline tickets, at the same time carrying freight and automobiles to the Straits islands and between Cheboygan, St. Ignace, and Mackinaw City. An elaborate schedule was worked out to accommodate arriving trains, departing tourists, and the expected freight connections with other carriers.

Naval architect George L. Craig was to design the ships, estimating that when finished, the thoroughly modern vessels would be worth about $175,000 each. By combining these ships with those of the existing Arnold Transit Company, the new firm would have had a value of nearly half a million dollars. The citizens of St. Ignace and Mackinaw City looked forward to better ferry service, meaning, if nothing else, increased property values. But Arnold's plans went no further. Apparently the railroads didn't want to give up their passenger business. The bonds Arnold sought were never issued and Arnold, himself, was suddenly felled by a massive stroke. His wife, Susan B. Arnold, took over the firm. For day to day help, she turned to a young Chicago accountant, Otto W. Lang, and local attorney Prentiss M. Brown. These two men would operate Arnold Transit for the next three decades, but never for cross-straits auto ferries.

In January, 1923, Harry J. Taylor of the proposed "Interstate Auto Ferry Company" requested an appointment with Michigan Governor Alex J. Groesbeck to go over plans for the ferryboat and schedules his company sought to operate. The firm proposed to use a steel ferry, 180 feet by 36 feet, capable of handling about 30 cars. He planned a twin-screw vessel operated by crude oil, with a separate promenade deck exclusively for passengers. Proposing to operate the vessel on eight round trips a day, Taylor suggested fares of $3 and $4, depending on the size of automobile the ferry carried.

Behind the scenes, the state was moving quickly, but to the knowledge of the public, not much seemed to be happening. In reality it was, in fact, simply a matter of when the State of Michigan might enter the ferryboat business. The Governor replied to Taylor that while he'd be glad to either read or discuss his proposal further, the bill giving the Highway Department authority to operate a ferry was already being drafted and would soon be sent to the Legislature.

Even as late as March 1923, when the word was out that the bill would soon go in, others still wanted to be a part of the new ferry operation. Captain W. M. Robertson asked the governor for the opportunity to be a part of the new route.

"I have been figuring on the boat suitable for this trade for some time past as I wanted to go into the business myself," he wrote, "but at this date have not succeeded in doing so as I could not finance the proposition alone and failed to interest anyone with me."

Robertson, who was then employed by the Mackinac Transportation Company, asked for a chance to go into the deal with the State, as he was very familiar with the business, the conditions of the Straits, and "know just what kind of boat is needed for the work."

Meanwhile the State of Michigan announced plans to build 933 miles of new roads in 1923, valued at more than $314 million. The State also forced a 30 percent reduction in freight tariffs the railroads charged to move goods to and from the Lower Peninsula and the eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula.

Next Week: In Part 3, the State of Michigan enters the ferry business with legislation to create Michigan State Ferries.

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