Autos Across Mackinac: The Straits of Mackinac Added to Ferry Service
November 1 marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Mackinac Bridge, and the end of Michigan State Ferry service across the Straits of Mackinac. In his book, "Autos Across Mackinac," Les Bagley recounts the history of America's first state-owned and operated automobile ferry service. Last week he related that a new ferry was ordered for the service in 1927. But the changes were just beginning.
Many things changed during 1928. On April 7, the state's original ferry captain, John H. Ivers, passed away in Detroit. The 82-year-old former master of the Ariel had been at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Evah O'Mara, at the time. With him was another daughter, Mrs. J. Edward Quinn of St. Ignace, who had gone to Detroit when she learned her father was ill. The captain's funeral was held on April 9 and he was buried near his birthplace in Port Huron. He was survived by two other children as well, another daughter, Mrs. Russell H. Legge, and a son, John G. Ivers.
On the same day as Capt. Ivers' funeral, the long-running administration of St. Ignace Mayor Albert R. Highstone came to an end. That night, newly elected Mayor James F. Jamieson took the gavel and called his first meeting of the city council to order. He said he looked forward to an exciting future. But in the past six years, outgoing Mayor Highstone had witnessed the largest growth and development in his community's history. Asked about his proudest accomplishment, Highstone said it was the community's "wonderful pull-together spirit." He also cited helping start the state ferries. And he said he was proud that in six years, there had never been a single intimation of graft in his administration.
The State Ferry's Commodore, Captain May, was also proud of his accomplishments, but lately he hadn't been feeling well. In fact, over the past two summers he had felt worse and worse. Finally, as the season ended in the fall of 1927, he'd excused himself from the Straits to seek treatment in Ann Arbor for what turned out to be stomach cancer. As the disease progressed, he found he could attend to his duties as Commodore of the State Ferry Fleet less and less. When it came time for the ferries to start service that spring, Barney Sloan brought out the Sainte Ignace from her winter layup in Cheboygan, and May stayed home in Detroit.
The ferry was scheduled to arrive in St. Ignace on her first trip Saturday, April 21, but heavy ice in her Cheboygan River lay-up slip held her fast. The steamer Marigold was used to break out the ferry and help her reach open water beyond the harbor. After the delay, crossstraits service began at noon, Monday, April 23, with a schedule of round trips every three hours. Sloan and the ferry both received an ovation once the year's service began. The Mackinaw City was held in reserve, until needed by increasing traffic.
Meanwhile in Detroit, builders at Great Lakes Engineering Works were putting the final touches on the hull of the new ferry they'd been building over the winter. The new boat was scheduled for launch Saturday, April 28, when the highway commissioner's daughter, Miss Mabel C. Rogers of Lansing, would christen it. The only question was what she would name the boat when she christened the it.
Businessmen from Sault Ste. Marie had lobbied to have the new ferry named for their community. "City of Sault Ste. Marie is the most appropriate name for the new highway ferry," the Soo News reported. "In the past, local businessmen through the Chippewa County Automobile Club have done much in convincing the highway department that the existing ferry service was the ideal and necessary arrangement. In the light of developments and the enormous traffic handled each season, the efforts expended by the Chippewa County Club and other clubs in the Upper Peninsula appears more than justified." The paper observed that, so far, no other city in the Upper Peninsula had asked for the honor, so, if nothing else, the city had put in its bid first.
First or not, when Miss Rogers broke the traditional bottle (it may have been water from the Straits, as prohibition was still in effect) over the ferry's bow, she christened the boat,The Straits of Mackinac, a name selected by the Administrative Board. But there was some confusion in the press. Some papers spelled the name, "Straits of Mackinaw." Most left off the article at the beginning of the name. The confusion would last the lifetime of the vessel.*
Completed only to the floor of the passenger deck, the ferry was side launched, and slid down the ways late that afternoon with, in the words of the Highway Department's press release, "the grace of a swan." It would take another month of work for the shipyard in River Rouge to complete her for service.
*(There has been confusion about many Straits ferry names: The original railroad ferry was the Saint Ignace. The later Michigan State Ferry was the Sainte Ignace with an "e" for the French spelling of the name. Both ships have at times been called the "City of St. Ignace," or "City of Saint Ignace." The ferry Mackinaw City (spelled with a "w") was sometimes called the "City of Mackinaw" or "City of Mackinac" by newspapers as well, though no record has been found that ever shows the boats were registered under those names. The variations appeared in print even before the later ferries arrived at the Straits, ferries that distinctly were named, "City of .")
It's not known if the ailing Captain May was able to travel from his Detroit home to the shipyard to witness the new ferry's launch. But he did not return to the Straits. In early May, citing the Commodore's worsening health, the State Highway Department informed Chief Purser Tower that May had been relieved of his command. In his place, the department appointed Capt. Gerald E. Stufflebeam, nephew of the Chief Wawatam's master. In the letter detailing Stufflebeam's appointment, the administration asked ferry employees to cooperate with him to their fullest extent "for the good and improvement of the service."
Less than three weeks later, word came that Captain May had died. He passed away at the age of 70 at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Thomas J. Seabeny, in Detroit, on Saturday night, May 27.
Gerald Edson Stufflebeam was 41 years old when he assumed command of the State Ferry fleet. A dashingly handsome native of South Haven, he was the son of William Edson and Rose McDonough Stufflebeam. A sailing career came naturally to "Jerry," as he preferred to be called. His father, his Uncle John (on the Chief,) and his brother Ward, as well as his grandfather on his mother's side, were all lake captains. Jerry himself had gone sailing at age 17 on the Pere Marquette Steamers out of Ludington. At 23, he had written for his master's license, becoming, at the time, what may have been the youngest skipper on the Great Lakes.
Before joining the ferry fleet, he'd commanded the City of Kalamazoo, several Pere Marquette car ferries, and for 11 years had been master of the Alabama, flagship of the Goodrich Line. The book, "Red Stacks over the Horizon," by James Elliott, relates an account of his experiences as skipper of the Iowa when she was caught in running ice and was lost off Chicago in 1915. Fortunately, all hands escaped to safety by walking to shore over the drifting floes.
With his wife, the former Margaret Helen Andrews, Stufflebeam moved from Muskegon to St. Ignace and rented an apartment in the Roy Murray home. He then began the job of leading the ferry fleet's new expansion. One of his first tasks was supervising completion of The Straits of Mackinac at the Great Lakes Engineering Works yard near Detroit.
Engineers under M. F. Madden finished installing the propulsion equipment, a pair of 11'10" x 11'2" Scotch-type boilers and a triple expansion engine with cylinders of 16"-25.5"-45"x33" built by the shipyard. Meanwhile, Stufflebeam busied himself with myriad details that must go into any new ship before it can be inspected and enter service. At last, The Straits was ready. After passing her builder's trials, she left the yard under Stufflebeam's command and set out for the Straits of Mackinac. Aboard were a host of dignitaries, including Secretary of State John Haggerty, State Surgeon Dr. Howard Haines, John Hammond, editor of "Michigan Roads," and Highway Commissioner Frank Rogers.
The Straits of Mackinac arrived at St. Ignace in the forenoon of Wednesday, June 20, and began service by offering rides to Mackinaw City and back for anyone who cared to come aboard. The next day, she took over the runs of the ferry Mackinaw City, which was sent to Cheboygan for minor repairs. By all accounts, the new state flagship was a huge success, generating additional ridership just from tourists who had driven to the Straits to see her.
The repairs to her sister ship took about a week, and on July 1, the three ferries inaugurated a new schedule of hourly service. The first trip left each side at 6 a.m., with the last sailing at 9 p.m. The three-boat schedule was expected to draw even more traffic. In prior years, discouraged by long lines of waiting cars, many motorists had turned back before making the crossing. With three boats, state officials hoped the lines would become just a distant memory.
Residents of the region also hoped poor roads could be forgotten. Commissioner Rogers attended a banquet at the Hotel Ojibway at the Soo in early September and was asked about the possibility of paving the road from St. Ignace.
"Sault Ste. Marie is at the northern end of the Main Street of Michigan," he replied, "and I see no reason why we shouldn't specialize on this important highway in 1929."
His comments were taken to mean a good portion of the road would be listed for concrete paving the next year.
Enroute to that banquet, Rogers had stopped briefly in St. Ignace, but he had little to say during the stop. What wasn't said was also important, however. One of the engineers with Rogers let someone see drawings he carried which illustrated an upper deck on The Straits of Mackinac. The deck apparently had been designed to carry an additional 25 cars, in lieu of building a fourth boat for the service. Local wags noted the upper deck idea might not work. They felt the time spent loading and unloading an upper deck with an elevator might delay rather than speed cross-straits travel.
Meanwhile, out in the Straits, G. A. Hendricks, chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, also wanted to see a change in cross-straits travel. The park he controlled was the only one in the state operated by its own commission, as all other state parks fell under Department of Conservation control. With three boats available, Hendricks envisioned having a state ferry call on Mackinac Island, thus breaking the "monopoly" of the Arnold Line interests. He wrote the governor, saying a ferry stop would be a way to open up 1640 acres of stateowned island land as a public recreation ground. The state controlled much of the island, but, the letter stated, it was only accessible by private ferry, and so remained nearly isolated. By providing service with the state ferry, thousands more visitors could enjoy the "fairy isle's beauty and historic setting."
There was a problem. Since 1898, the City of Mackinac Island had barred the use of motor vehicles, so horse-drawn conveyances and bicycles were the only vehicles permitted on Mackinac Island roads. While the use of an auto ferry to serve an island where autos were prohibited might seem strange, the governor agreed to a test. He ordered Commissioner Rogers and the Highway Department to add a stop at Mackinac Island's British Landing on several ferry trips. The schedule began on September 6, following the Labor Day traffic rush.
Because of the vehicle ban, only foot passengers were boarded and discharged during the Island stop. Motorists, who drove their cars onboard in either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, could check their machines with the ships' pursers, and then reclaim them when they finished crossing after their Mackinac Island visit. Apparently, the cars were unloaded by crewmembers and stored on the ferry docks. It was left to the pursers to determine when the autos would be reclaimed. If the motorists stayed on the island overnight, or for several days, there was the potential for much confusion, not to mention added congestion on the ferry docks. There was also apparently no thought to the added liability of having crewmembers driving passenger's cars, or storing them for any period of time.
Fortunately, with Labor Day out of the way, traffic had dwindled enough that parking cars on the docks proved to be no problem. Within a week, The Straits, being the largest vessel, was pulled out of service, and her older sisters began an every- hour-and-a-half schedule. Three trips each way landed at the Island, with the schedule set so as not to interfere with the Algomah's four daily trips from Mackinaw City. The state boats began to follow this schedule, as outlined by the St. Ignace Enterprise:
State Ferry Schedule
Mackinaw City/ St. Ignace
6:00 a.m./6:50 a.m. 7:30 a.m.
6:00 p.m./6:30 p.m. 7:30 p.m.
9:00 p.m./9:50 p.m. 10:30 p.m.
St. Ignace British Landing/
6:00 a.m. 6:30 a.m./7:30 a.m.
6:30 p.m. 6:30 p.m./7:30 p.m.
9:00 p.m. 9:30 p.m./10:30 p.m.
There was no mention of whether both boats could land at British Landing simultaneously, and there was no reason, other than perhaps the Algomah's sailings, given for the discrepancy as to why some trips from the island were at 50 minutes past the hour, and others were at 30 minutes past.
According to Park Commission Chairman Hendricks, the state planned to extensively advertise travel to the Island and surrounding attractions. He announced plans to use part of the hour passengers spent aboard the ferries to promote an island visit, pointing out historic sights and attractions, to call attention to the locks at the Soo, and stimulate interest in travel to other portions of the Upper Peninsula.
"If only 10 percent of those crossing the Straits would stop at the Island," he said, "it would mean 300 or more visitors daily during the peak season."
Despite the announcements and onboard island history lessons, the test of making trips to Mackinac Island lasted only for about two months.
With hunting season fast approaching, Capt. Stufflebeam set the return of the three-boat schedule for November 10. At the same time, he announced service to Mackinac Island would be temporarily suspended so the ferries' full efforts could be made to haul cross-straits hunters. Reaction to both the start of island service and its suspension was mixed. Spokesmen for the Arnold Line and other island boat operators decried the "unfair" competition. Many motorists objected to the island detour. After just the first week, the Cheboygan Observer characterized the test as a "fiasco." In early passenger counts, only eight people had ridden the boats, the paper said, five from St. Ignace and three from Mackinaw City, "Thus enriching the state to a magnificent amount of $2 for all the planning, advertising, and disruption of well established and smooth running schedules…. The pet scheme of one man on the Mackinac Island park board. There was never the least possible excuse for undertaking such a venture. It was entirely out of the province of the state auto ferry business, and it's reception proves it's impractical."
To support the island service, and rebut the Observer article, an unnamed island resident wrote to the St. Ignace Enterprise: To characterize the service as a fiasco "seems to be a premature remark as the final results of a business venture are not usually judged by the first week of the business. We understand that the number of passengers carried was 54, and not eight as stated by the Observer, although we may be mistaken. We understand, also, that up to October 14, the ferry had carried 590 passengers, not a bad record considering service had been established after the resort season had closed."
"It would be nice… if the Observer would congratulate the Island on acquiring the state ferry service instead of saying "we do confess to being very happy over the results of this fiasco." We believe the thinking people are friendly, knowing as they do, the value of co-operation between cities, knowing also that what helps one city, indirectly helps neighbor cities."
The writer recalled how Mackinac Island residents had worked to start the state ferry service across the Straits as part of the highway system, and how the trips to the island were in recognition of the state's need to extend the same service there. He noted that Islanders had worked hard to build county road systems on both sides of the Straits, yet none of the roads so much as touched Mackinac Island. "Now," he said, "with better roads, the tourists are coming north in great numbers, and they should also have the chance through the state highway ferries, to easily visit the resorts and businesses on Mackinac Island as well."
The writer noted that everyone needed to work together to build a greater resort business in "this beautiful section of Michigan."
"Let us give the people who make our great resort business possible all the service we can. Let us reserve judgment until the state has an entire resort season to prove whether or not it was justified in establishing this service.
"For bigger and better business, let us have the ferry service and, along with it, the good wishes and good will of our sister cities. We voice the opinion of one business house on the island, a business house that knows already many travelers have been accommodated by this new ferry service, confident that it will prove advantageous to all concerned."
Despite the writer's pleas, and the assurances from Capt. Stufflebeam that service to Mackinac Island would resume following hunting season on November 25, the year 1928 was the last time Michigan State Ferries served a regular schedule to British Landing. It would be quite some time before the state ferries returned there.
It had been an interesting November. In addition to the arguments for and against Mackinac Island service, newspapers across the state were quick to heap praise upon State Highway Commissioner Rogers. It wasn't that he'd done anything out of the ordinary, but that there were rumors he planned to retire after 30 years as a public official. The Lansing Capitol News published a small sample of the accolades: "It is with sadness we learn of the coming resignation of Highway Commissioner Rogers. If others have claim to being the father of Michigan good roads, Rogers earns the title of stepfather, or perhaps grandfather. It is a proud title to have so long and so eminently served the state.
"Then to look back and say, 'I have spent millions of peoples' hard-earned dollars, and not even the suggestion of scandal ever has attached to this,' is more than a proud title. Michigan may well say to Frank Rogers, 'well done, good and faithful servant."
The only catch was, a week later, Rogers announced he would not resign. He said he would remain in office until his term expired on July 1, 1929, although he would not be a candidate for re-election. He denied rumors he'd planned to resign so Deputy Commissioner Grover C. Dillman could take his place. Dillman had recently announced his plans to run for the office at the next Republican convention. Yet another possible candidate was A. L. Burridge of Crystal Falls, a division engineer in the Highway Department. It was apparently thought Rogers might resign early to give his deputy a greater advantage as an incumbent. When rumors of that plan surfaced, Rogers decided not to resign.
In November, Captain Stufflebeam was also given a greater advantage. Newspapers carried the account of his promotion to the rank of Commodore in the ferry fleet, which included a healthy pay raise. M. Hoban, who had been commissioned by the administrative board to give him the promotion, announced the news.
The newly appointed commodore wasted no time in provoking a controversy. In a letter to Lansing, Stufflebeam repeated the oft-told story that restaurateurs in Petoskey and Cheboygan had been spreading ill rumors about the ferry service at hunting season. He mentioned they were suggesting hunters stay in their towns rather than wait in ferry lines said to be as long as 500 cars. He said that most hunters complimented the ferries on their special service to get them to deer country.
The Cheboygan Tribune jumped to the local defense, saying many hunters preferred to stay in Cheboygan overnight before taking the boats the next morning. Thousands of hunters pass through town without stopping, the paper said, and apparently Commodore Stufflebeam had been misled by "irresponsible parties in an effort to do great injustice to Cheboygan hotel and restaurant men."
During the second week of November, Stufflebeam reported the ferries carried 2,915 vehicles, mostly full of hunters headed north, while 550 vehicles traveled south. Revenues that week were $10,356. He also said that at least two boats would remain in service until all hunters had returned south, and then one boat would run until the close of navigation.
The Mackinaw City was sent to Cheboygan for lay-up as soon as hunting season ended. The Sainte Ignace was taken to spend the winter in Detroit, leaving the Straits at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4. Meanwhile, The Straits of Mackinac continued until December 7, when she, too, was taken out of service. Despite rumors that The Straits would also return to Detroit and, while there, have a second auto deck installed, she made her last annual sailing at 6 p.m. from St. Ignace and went to Cheboygan to tie up near her older sister.
At the same time the Administrative Board promoted Stufflebeam, it also announced a new agreement had been reached with the Mackinac Transportation Company. The state wanted to provide winter ferry service on the railroad boats at the state ferries' summer rates. Governor Green and Commissioner Rogers had negotiated the agreement with representatives of the D.S.S.& S. Railroad. The plan was to have pursers ride the railroad ferries to collect the normal state auto fares. The pursers would then reimburse the railroad at the higher rate those boats normally charged, about $1.50 more per car. Both sides agreed.
Originally, the governor had also asked the railroad to grant a reduction in charges once auto traffic exceeded normal winter levels, but railroad representatives shied at that proposal. Instead, everyone agreed to a one-year test. After that, if enough roads were kept clear through the winter, and enough additional winter traffic appeared, either the railroads would reduce the rate, or, the governor threatened, the state would build its own icebreaker.
Upon concluding the negotiations, the governor retired to a twoweek hunting vacation of his own, based in his Upper Peninsula cabin.
"Man, that's the place to live, " he said. "There's nothing quite like tramping around through the woods all day and then coming back to a warm cabin and spending the evening around an open fire with good friends. You can't beat the smell of pines in the day time and the smell of dirty socks in a hot cabin at night."
While the last state ferry tied up in early December, the state's arrangement with the railroad boats didn't actually start until midmonth. By Christmas, the state's men were aboard the Chief Wawatam collecting auto fares. Passengers were surprised, however, when they discovered the subsidy agreement only covered the cost of automobiles on the boat. Auto passengers were still asked to pay the full, higher railroad fare, and they were still expected to buy tickets from agents in the depot ticket offices. Whether arriving by train or auto, the passenger tickets still cost 60¢ for adults and 30¢ for children under 12.
To carry more autos, a new deck had been installed on the Chief the previous summer while she was laid up for annual inspection. With the new 50-foot by 100-foot decking in place between her railroad rails, the ship could accommodate up to 60 autos on each crossing. It was a good thing. Because of mild fall weather, and the state's new fare subsidy, early winter auto traffic doubled over what it had been just the year before.
As 1928 ended, state record keepers noted it had been another banner year for the auto ferries. The new ferry The Straits of Mackinac was a huge success. The other ships had performed almost flawlessly, and once again more automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, and passengers had been carried across the Straits than ever before.
According to native Indian tradition, a change to deep red berries on the mountain ash signifies a light winter is coming. The berries predicted the winter of 1928-29 would be very light. What was not predicted was that Commissioner Rogers would resign after all, making the announcement to the Administrative Board in early January, 1929.
For several weeks, Rogers had been in ill health. He'd hoped to keep his job until July, but he was also anxious for his deputy, Grover Dillman, to succeed him. In January, with his health failing, and when tentative agreements for A. L. Burridge to win the nomination at the Republican Convention came to light, Rogers did step aside and the Governor immediately appointed Deputy Commissioner Dillman to the post. The cycle of change now seemed to be complete.
NEXT WEEK: A change in the wind.
Copyright 2007 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.