2007-05-24 / Columns

Autos Across Mackinac: Resilient Ann Arbor No. 4 Survived Many Tragedies

Part 20: THE VOODOO BOAT
By Les Bagley

Probably the worst accident to befall Ann Arbor No. 4 was in February 1923, when she was caught in mid-lake by an unexpected storm. Her cargo of rail cars broke loose, many crashing over the stern. Only the heroic efforts of her crew got her back to the harbor entrance at her homeport of Elberta, Michigan. But at the last minute, the ferry struck the rock jetty, filled with water, and sank on the side of the channel. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) Probably the worst accident to befall Ann Arbor No. 4 was in February 1923, when she was caught in mid-lake by an unexpected storm. Her cargo of rail cars broke loose, many crashing over the stern. Only the heroic efforts of her crew got her back to the harbor entrance at her homeport of Elberta, Michigan. But at the last minute, the ferry struck the rock jetty, filled with water, and sank on the side of the channel. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Mackinac Bridge, the St. Ignace News is serializing Les Bagley's previously unpublished history of Michigan State Ferries, "Autos Across Mackinac." Last week he recalled how, in 1937, to supplement the "Great White Fleet," the state purchased a used Lake Michigan carferry, the Ann Arbor No. 4, that sailed out of Frankfort (Elberta) starting December 13, 1906. Perhaps the 13th was an unlucky date to begin service.

The Ann Arbor #4 was pumped out the next spring and was unceremoniously towed off to the shipyard for a complete rebuilding and reconditioning. She emerged with new cabins, new pilot house, and completely rebuilt mechanical equipment below deck. But her luck with the railroad didn't change, and her rail crews were glad to see he sold to the State of Michigan. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) The Ann Arbor #4 was pumped out the next spring and was unceremoniously towed off to the shipyard for a complete rebuilding and reconditioning. She emerged with new cabins, new pilot house, and completely rebuilt mechanical equipment below deck. But her luck with the railroad didn't change, and her rail crews were glad to see he sold to the State of Michigan. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) Of all Lake Michigan carferries, Ann Arbor No. 4 has to hold the record for most accidents by a single ship in ferry service. Most incredibly, while lesser incidents caused the loss of entire ships and many lives, the No. 4 always managed to get her crew home, although sometimes just barely.

A complete telling of the Ann Arbor No. 4's brushes with disaster would take much more room than available here, but several incidents are worthy of recounting, if only to show the luck that befell the hapless ferry.

Her first accident was on January 24, 1909, when she went onto the rocky shore in a snowstorm at Pt. Aux Barques en route to Manistique. Two men were sent ashore in a longboat to call a tug for assistance. After rowing ashore, they headed down the icecovered beach for the nearest town, about eight miles away. There, they placed the call, and figuring they had some time, warmed up with some refreshments at the local bar. Finally, they started back, only to find the ship was gone when they reached their boat. The ferry had been able to release herself when the wind changed.

While all the early Lake Michigan carferries had scrapes, groundings, and other accidents, the Ann Arbor #4 held the reputation of having the worst luck of them all. In 1909, a switching crew accidentally loaded a full outboard track with iron ore hopper cars, causing her to capsize in he slip at Manistique. (The same thing happened to the original Straits of Mackinac rail ferry the Saint Ignace many years earlier.) The wrecking tug Favorite fished her out and she was soon repaired. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) While all the early Lake Michigan carferries had scrapes, groundings, and other accidents, the Ann Arbor #4 held the reputation of having the worst luck of them all. In 1909, a switching crew accidentally loaded a full outboard track with iron ore hopper cars, causing her to capsize in he slip at Manistique. (The same thing happened to the original Straits of Mackinac rail ferry the Saint Ignace many years earlier.) The wrecking tug Favorite fished her out and she was soon repaired. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) The men built a fire to keep warm and slept that night in a wrecked schooner on the beach, before catching the ferry in Manistique on her next trip.

The Highway Department gravel-filled the site of the old Birchwood Arbor and the vacant lot next door, and surrounded it with sheet steel pilings like the rest of the St. Ignace State Dock. It was used as an additional parking area for traffic overflows. (Michigan Department of Transportation.) The Highway Department gravel-filled the site of the old Birchwood Arbor and the vacant lot next door, and surrounded it with sheet steel pilings like the rest of the St. Ignace State Dock. It was used as an additional parking area for traffic overflows. (Michigan Department of Transportation.) Four months later, the No 4's first major claim to infamy also happened in Manistique. On May 29, 1909, she was at the slip loading cars of iron ore. Normal practice was for switching crews to spot one or two cars on one side of the ship and then alternate several cars to the other side to keep the boat on an even keel. This day, the switching crew forgot to use idler cars (empty flatcars to push in the loaded cargo), and, instead, shoved a full cut of heavy iron ore hoppers all the way up an outboard track to the bow. They realized their error too late. The heavy list that developed prevented them from pulling the cars back off. It also allowed water to enter the hull through open portholes below the car deck. To their horror, the boat slowly filled until it capsized.

Despite a harrowing night on storm tossed Lake Michigan, Ann Arbor #4's entire crew lived to tell the tale. When their ship quickly sank along the jetty, they simply lowered a ladder and walked home through the treacherous icy spray and crashing waves along the rocky jetty top. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) Despite a harrowing night on storm tossed Lake Michigan, Ann Arbor #4's entire crew lived to tell the tale. When their ship quickly sank along the jetty, they simply lowered a ladder and walked home through the treacherous icy spray and crashing waves along the rocky jetty top. (Frederickson collection, courtesy of Daisy Butler) It took 10 minutes for the ship to go all the way over, time that allowed the crew to grab a few belongings and escape unharmed. But the cargo broke loose and cars of iron ore plunged across the deck, smashing stanchions and stacks. The ship rolled on her side, flooding to about half of her width as she settled to the bottom. It took the wrecking tug Favorite nearly a month to refloat her, and she was in the shipyard for another three months before returning to service. But the worst was yet to come.

In 1910, she and No. 1 were marooned in windrowed ice off Manistique for a week at the end of February. They made it back to Frankfort after finally working themselves free, but on the very next trip, the No. 1 caught fire in Manitowoc and burned to the waterline, a total loss. Fortunately, the railroad had already ordered another ferry, the Ann Arbor No. 5, which was delivered the following November.

At 360 feet, the No. 5 was the largest ferry on the lakes to date, and, with 3,000 horsepower, she proved to be an excellent icebreaker when she went into service in January 1911. The remaining wooden boat, Ann Arbor No. 2, was relegated to spare status and was sold in 1913. Towed to Manistee by No. 4, she was cut down to a barge called the Whale.

Meanwhile, the Ann Arbor No. 4 continued her bad luck ways, severely grounding in February 1912 just off the entrance to Manitowoc. A rock punctured her hull, but she was able to work herself off the beach. Had she not been so close to port, she probably would have sunk. By the time she reached the nearest slip, she was so low in the water it took two switch engines to unload her. A canvas tarp was passed under the hull as an emergency patch, she was pumped out, and she was able to make it to a shipyard for repairs. That same year the Titanic wasn't so lucky. Striking an iceberg on calm seas, the liner sank with heavy loss of life in the North Atlantic.

While No. 4 made it through the great storm of November 1913, unscathed, the ship grounded again on Green Isle near Sturgeon Bay five days later. This time, the No. 3 pulled her off without damage. And these were just a few of a long list of groundings and strandings the ferry experienced.

By 1915, traffic was so great that the railroad chartered another ferry, Maitland No. 1, for about three months. The Ann Arbor was so impressed that the railroad ultimately bought her sister ship while still on the ways. Originally to be Maitland No. 2, she was launched, instead, by Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse as Ann Arbor No. 6. She was smaller than No. 5 but could carry 26 freight cars on her cardeck.

The railroad also decided to lengthen the No. 3. But while that was being done, the line suffered the worst accident since the loss by fire of No. 1. Of course, it again happened to Ann Arbor No. 4.

The night of February 13, 1923, was deceptively calm. As the crew waited for the last of 19 rail cars, 17 hoppers of coal, one box car of new autos, and a load of salt to be switched onto the ferry, they noticed they could actually hear pins dropping in the bowling alley across Lake Betsie in Frankfort. With such calm conditions, there was little need to securely fasten the cars to the deck. What tie downs were made probably were done only as a minimal precaution. Other than a light dusting of snow, there was no hint of the horror the night would bring.

Finally, about 8:15 p.m., the loaded ferry cast off for Wisconsin, normally a five hour run. Around 9:30 p.m., as Captain Charles Frederickson talked with his son and wheelsman, Arthur, they noticed their voices seemed to echo in their heads, and there was a slight pressure on their eardrums. Still, the light snow fell and the air was calm. Then, at 10 minutes to 10, the unthinkable happened. A huge gust of wind slammed into the ship from dead ahead. It felt as if the ferry had sailed into a solid wall. At first the sea stayed calm, but as the wind increased to over 80 mph, waves soon whipped over 30 feet high. Within minutes, the temperature plunged to 22 degrees below zero.

Shaken from their bunks, the crew madly scrambled to secure the lightly fastened railcars. As light chains broke and car jacks shattered, the heavy cars began rolling up and down the length of the ship while she tossed and fell on the increasing waves. Time and time again the crew tried to arrest the rolling cars. Time after time they failed.

The battle raged through the night. Around 2:30 a.m., the momentum of heavy coal hoppers pushed the boxcar of new autos against the crude wooden seagate. It shattered like matchsticks and the autos plunged over the stern, taking the remains of the gate along. Next, two heavy hoppers of coal went halfway over, caught, and hung there precariously. To keep more cargo from falling overboard, the crew opened chutes on several more hoppers, spilling coal onto the tracks to keep the cars from rolling. Had more of the cargo been lost from one side, the ship could have taken an unmanageable list and might have foundered when she rolled.

The coal helped keep the cars from moving, but it also caused some of them to derail. One car tipped over just above the port engine. A wheel crashed down, narrowly missing the low-pressure cylinder's steam escape valve. The wheel rocked closer each time the ship heaved. Had the valve been shattered, the engine would have been useless, and under those conditions, every ounce of power was needed to keep the boat headed into the howling storm. Valiant engineers used chains and turnbuckles to heave the car to one side and keep the valve clear.

With every wave, loose rail cars careened up and down the port center track, smashing against the forward bumping post on one end and the derailed cars at the stern. Coal and broken gear flew everywhere, yet the crew worked on against hopeless odds to stabilize the situation. Two men tried to catch the cars with an end jack as they reached the bumping post. One only broke his thumb. The other awoke under a pile of spilled coal dumped as the car tilted before the jack broke apart. His whole hand was broken. While their injuries were being tended, the Old Man was seen carrying a pair of rail clamps, each weighing 75 pounds, trying to secure the flailing cars.

Meanwhile, several crewmembers gathered up in the galley to watch the porter administer first aid. The captain stopped by just long enough to spur them back to action.

"Boys," he said, "I have taken you to sea for a good many years, always bringing you safely home, and will do it this time if only you will give us a badly needed hand."

Broken bones, banged heads, and all, the cold, tired men returned to action to try to save their endangered ship.

By 1 a.m., as they approached the Wisconsin shore, the seas had grown so huge and the wind so heavy it was apparent the Ann Arbor No. 4 could no longer keep her bow into the storm. She rolled heavily as blue water cascaded aboard her entire length and swept away railings from the boat deck. Sickeningly, she turned broadside to the seas. For 20 minutes the boat rolled there, loosening everything aboard, including the smoke stack, which the crew refastened with car deck gear. The men could only hang on as rail cars smashed about, tearing all her center side stanchions loose. With no support left, the upper deck rose and fell with the waves.

The pipe to her whistle was torn loose at the deck level. Only the brave action of her chief engineer, Morris Dahlgren, who crawled across the top of a dangerously hot boiler to close the valve, kept her steam pressure up and flowing to her engines.

Finally, after wallowing for what seemed an eternity, she came around. While the rolling and pitching motion was less, without a seagate, every wave brought tons of water crashing into the hull. It was apparent the pumps would never keep pace, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the boat would be swamped. They prayed they could reach the Michigan shore before that critical moment came.

Then again, there was the matter of how far from Michigan they were. Trying to come about in the storm, they'd lost their bearings and were steering a course they only hoped would be toward safety. At 5 a.m., the purser radioed an SOS and by 6:30 reported they must be close, as the return signal was very strong. Now it was only a matter of if they would go aground before they sank. In the pilothouse, there was a discussion of just where they might make landfall. As daybreak came, the ship was enveloped in thick fog of sea smoke rising into the frigid air from the warmer water below. Still they plowed ahead, the water gaining in the hold, even as the crew fought valiantly to keep the fires burning and the propellers turning full speed ahead toward land.

As it turned out, the course they steered was almost perfect. Over the noise of the ship, wind and waves, faintly at first, they now noticed another sound. To the trained ear, the deep rumble of the foghorn at the Lake Betsie harbor entrance was like the voice of God directing them toward safety. The tired men at last began to relax

Like an angel through the mist, at 7 a.m., the top of the lighthouse on the south channel jetty suddenly appeared over the sea smoke. Spotted at less than a boat length ahead, there was scarcely time to react. Captain Frederickson ordered the helm hard to port so the ship could swing into the channel entrance. A few souls even breathed a sigh of relief, as they were now only yards from respite, well within sight of shore.

Their relief was premature.

Cruel fate still had one more hand to deal in this game of chance, and the combination of cards was devastating. Weighted down with tons of water in her aft compartments, and with heavy derailed coal cars hanging precariously overboard at the rear, the No. 4 was slow to respond to her helm. At that moment, a large wave broke over her unprotected stern, forcing it down and ahead into the preceding trough. It was too much. The starboard propeller was hammered into the channel bottom, breaking off completely and shattering the rudderstock.

Shaken engineers scrambled to regain their footings and arrest the starboard engine, which, shorn of its load, threatened to run wild. But there was no time.

Stripped of headway, the ferry wallowed for a moment, then she lifted on the next wave. With her port propeller still biting hard, but no way to steer, she surged ahead and to starboard, aiming her bow directly into the rock wall the captain had tried to avoid. The glancing blow against jagged stone tore a six-foot gash in the hull plates well below the waterline. Now tons of water gushed into the forward hull, as well.

A sailor's worst nightmare of being trapped below decks in a sinking ship now became very real. In the boiler room, crews abandoned their fires to the rising water as monster waves swamped the vessel. At the Chief Engineer's urging, the after crew scrambled for emergency ladders and hatches without a moment to spare. Icy water mixed with chunks of coal and debris cascaded down from the shambles of the cardeck above, but there was no time to pause and survey the destruction at that level. Stumbling over and through broken equipment, bent pipes, and angry waves of icy chaos, they fought on to the relative safety of the passenger deck. The last man up was the Chief Engineer, undoubtedly taking two and three steps at a time, and still knee-deep in the rising water.

Yet, even the passenger deck was precarious. The weight of water rushing in the starboard bow caused a heavy list, and a few men began to rig a lifeline along the upper deck rail. Should the No. 4 capsize, they planned to hang onto the outside of the overturned hull. But already having grounded once, the captain knew there wasn't much further the ship could sink. As the driving seas forced her harder and harder against the rock jetty, they also filled her voids, and No. 4 settled to the sandy channel bottom, gradually righting herself to an almost even keel.

With no power or heat, the men were still in grave danger. The crashing waves tore at the creaking metal and the ship shuddered and groaned with each breaker. Ice covered every surface. Freezing spray permeated the air.

The sinking occurred only yards from the Coast Guard Station in Frankfort, on the north side of the harbor, and help was immediately dispatched to effect a rescue. But the ship was against the south side jetty. There was no way to maneuver a boat through the ice and waves, and a trip all the way around the lake in such a storm would be time consuming, at best. The would-be rescuers, therefore, worked their way on foot across the ice-strewn rock of the north jetty to a point where they could fire a line across the channel. There they attempted to set up a breeches buoy.

But the ship was tight against the south wall, so as she settled in about 22 feet of water, the crew found leaving was just a matter of climbing down a ladder dropped over the side from the passenger deck. From there they strung a lifeline and made a perilous walk through crashing waves and freez- ing spray over slippery ice blocks and ice covered jagged rocks to the shore. They landed just a short distance from the very terminal they'd left the night before.

Nearly everyone had frozen extremities, and at least two crewmembers had broken bones. Others had scalds, cuts, and contusions, but none of the injuries proved life threatening. Everyone who sailed that trip survived the experience, and that night many enjoyed an especially poignant Valentine's dinner safely at home with grateful loved ones.*

*As with many accidents like this, there were a few survivors who vowed never to sail again. The story is told of a Hindu cabin watchman who was seen the next day, wrapped in heavy blankets, and wandering the streets of town with a map, desperately searching for an all-land route back to India. But most of the crew went right back to work on other ships in the fleet. A few even went out with shovels the next day when the railroad dispatched a work train to help clear the snow from the storm clogged rail line.

Captain Charles Frederickson continued a long career as a ferry captain, and his son, Arthur, also achieved that status. In 1949, Arthur and his wife, Lucille Frederickson, began publishing a series of paperback books on the history of Lake Michigan Carferries, based on his personal experiences and interviews with former co-workers. A number of the photographs, anecdotes, and news clippings used to compile this work were loaned from the Frederickson's personal collection through the courtesy of their daughter, Daisy Frederickson Butler.

As a result of the accident, more stringent tie-down rules were put into effect for railcars, no matter what the weather. More substantial steel sea gates were installed on all the Lake Michigan Carferries. But the best benefit for everyone was that, later, by analyzing information from the radio signals between the ferry and shore, a system of radio direction finders was developed, making marine navigation that much safer.

Incredibly, the Ann Arbor No. 4 also survived the events of Valentines Day 1923, though by this time she'd gained a reputation of being a jinx, or "The Voodoo Boat" in the fleet. It was not until April that Reid Wrecking of Port Huron built a cofferdam across her stern, and on May 21, using centrifugal pumps, they finally were able to raise the sunken ferry. After five days of temporary repairs in Frankfort, sister ferry Ann Arbor No. 5 and the tug Arctic towed her to dry-dock in Manitowoc for repairs.

It took until October 7, 1923, to get her back into service, and when she emerged from the shipyard, she had entirely new cabins above the cardeck. Her mechanical equipment had all been newly replaced, or completely overhauled. The Chief Engineer even recovered his pocket watch when he came back aboard. He found it hanging where he'd left it, on an engine room bulkhead. When wound, it even once gain kept perfect time.

The Ann Arbor No. 4 also returned in almost perfect condition, but with her reputation, few crewmen wanted to sail her. And her luck still didn't change. She grounded twice more the next winter, though not with nearly as spectacular results, and again spent most of the winter of 1925 in the shipyard for another complete overhaul and badly needed repairs.

Meanwhile, the railroad ordered Ann Arbor No. 7 and, two years later, the Wabash, because of constantly increasing traffic. The Wabash was actually owned by the parent company of the same name and only leased to the Ann Arbor. There were rumors the railroad would order two more similar ferries, but those orders were never placed. In fact, soon after the Wabash came on line, America was plunged into the Depression, and traffic didn't increase as expected. It decreased, instead.

As the smallest and least liked ship in the fleet, the Ann Arbor No. 4 was relegated to spare boat status. For the next decade she was used only occasionally to meet spikes in traffic demand.

With her unfortunate accident record, few people in Frankfort were sorry to see her go when the State of Michigan purchased her on May 4, 1937, to become their next highway ferry for the Straits. Paying only $25,000 for her, Michigan highway officials felt they'd gotten a very good deal. Because of her sinking in 1923, she had a nearly new superstructure. Because of her floodings and groundings in 1925, she had completely overhauled engines and boilers. While she had been originally built in 1906, in effect, most of her equipment was less than 15 years old and, because of the depression, for the last decade, she had hardly been used at all. With the deal finalized in early May, a crew under Captain Sigurd M. Frey and Chief Engineer Len Swiger was sent down from the Straits to claim her. She was sailed to the shipyard in Manitowoc, where reconditioning and modification work was to begin.

At the same time the ferry was purchased, the state also began to fill gravel into the former Birchwood Arbor site in St. Ignace, acquired from C. C. Eby. Jack Marshall took charge of the project to level the area to the same height as the existing State Dock and surround it with matching steel sheet piling. The State also purchased the adjacent Joseph Mentz property and the vacant lot next to it, owned by Saul Winkelman. The additions gave a much better approach to the ferry dock and provided more offstreet parking for vehicles waiting to board the ferries.

The dock improvements got little press that week, however. The headlines proclaimed the tragedy of the Hindenberg, which exploded and crashed with a high loss of life as she landed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, after her first transcontinental flight of 1937. The resultant publicity effectively ended the rigid airship era in aviation history.

After two weeks at Manitowoc, initial modifications to the railroad ferry were completed, so Captain Ed Doner brought the Ann Arbor No. 4 to St. Ignace. On the morning of May 24, Straits people got their first good look at her while she was tied at the state utility dock. In the afternoon, she was taken to Lund's Shipyard in Cheboygan to be put into final shape for the season. The finishing work was expected to last about a month.

Commissioner Murray Van Wagoner also announced the new purchase would be renamed City of Cheboygan, once approval was received from the U.S. Customs Service for the change. The name had been suggested by Representative Ernest T. Faircloth of that city and had been unanimously endorsed by capitol newspaper correspondents.

"We believe the name is appropriate," the commissioner said. "Cheboygan is vitally interested in the ferry service at the Straits. Cheboygan is so close to the Straits that it deserves the honor."

The name change cost the state $75, the fee to file the ship's registration with the federal government. The State also had to pay to advertise the name change in the legal notices in a newspaper.

Next week: The City of Cheboygan joins the ferry fleet.

Copyright 2007 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.

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