Autos Across Mackinac: Michigan Decides Against Building Turnpikes
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Mackinac Bridge, The St. Ignace News is serializing Les Bagley's unpublished book, "Autos Across Mackinac," the history of the Michigan State Ferry fleet that transported motorists across the straits before the bridge opened. This week's installment, among other thing, explains why, yet today, Michigan has no toll roads or turnpikes. January 1951, after counts and recounts, G. Mennen Williams was declared the winner of Michigan's gubernatorial race and immediately re-inaugurated, becoming the state's first "second-term" chief executive in 36 years. But Soapy was now the only Democrat officeholder in the state capitol. His function as chairman of the state administrative board was thus largely an honor, and, according to some wags, he'd lack the power to even make or support a motion.
While in several states governors announced programs of retrenchment to conserve funds severely drained by rampant inflation, Soapy continued his 1950 plea for increased spending. In Michigan, the situation was acute. The Korean War pushed inflation to nearly 15%, with projections for an additional 10% by the end of 1951. Much of the state sales tax was already being diverted to help local governments, so Michigan's treasury was actually going in the red to the tune of more than $100,000 per day.
Then the Civil Service Commission granted state employees their first raises since May, 1949, which dramatically affected the largest state agency, the Highway Department, cutting severely into road building and maintenance funds. With badly needed transportation projects stalled, Williams and his supporters immediately proposed the creation of a separate authority to design, finance, and build a series of Michigan turnpikes.
The word "turnpike," meaning a toll road, came from the earliest toll gates, long, thin poles or "pikes" stretched across the road to bar travel until the appropriate fee was paid. The gatekeeper would then "turn the pike" out of the way to let travelers pass. The idea of charging tolls was nothing new. Toll roads, bridges, and ferries had been around for centuries.
But when it opened in 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was something entirely different. Engineers used an abandoned railroad grade and tunnels to cross the Allegheny Mountains with the nation's first "super highway." Built by a private "authority" and financed with revenue bonds purchased by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to "make work" toward the end of the Depression, it was extended again and again. By the end of WWII, it stretched from Philadelphia to Ohio, with a 70 mph speed limit. Traffic counts and revenues exceeded all expectations, making it the envy of transportation planners everywhere.
Within half a decade, most states in the "rust belt" would jump on the turnpike bandwagon, but not Michigan.
Charlie Ziegler didn't hate the idea of tolls. His department had been charging to ride the State Ferries for years. But Michigan's highway commissioner was distrustful of independent turnpike authorities, such as had sprung up in other states. With his engineering and road building experience, he could see that autonomous boards composed of highway contractors, material suppliers, politically connected financiers, and even politicians themselves, could easily gouge the public while lining their own pockets with nearly unlimited revenue.
With one stroke of a pen, a new turnpike authority might be able to sell revenue bonds, condemn property, hire its own contractors at inflated rates (with the potential for graft and corruption), and crisscross the countryside with toll roads designed, not to meet future needs, but to make a quick buck for the promoters and their builders. Preventing that sort of scam required close scrutiny.
CMZ also was concerned that Governor Williams and Michigan's turnpike" forces might be trying an end-run around his own department. When wartime restrictions cut budgets for road building and maintenance to bare bones, Ziegler and his engineers used their time to carefully plan Michigan's transportation future. Using meticulous studies and travel models, they projected roadbuilding needs and designed highways on paper to meet them. Now, at the century's midpoint, and despite inflation, they were starting to put some of their plans into action. Ziegler had even published a 300-page "Highway Survey and Design Manual" to assure new roads would meet their exacting criteria. But unregulated and unwarranted turnpikes might go counter to those plans, irreparably changing travel patterns and gutting long-range goals for trunk-line highways in the entire state.
Publicly, the governor chastised Ziegler for not using his department's budget to get full federal matching funds for road building. Ziegler countered that he had to retain some money to build and maintain state roads and bridges that weren't on federal highways. But Williams was impatient. He told supporters that a Michigan Turnpike Authority could quickly raise money and get needed superhighways built, much faster than the plodding Highway Department was doing.
Ziegler was building as fast as revenues and inflationary budgets would allow. And since no Michigan turnpikes had yet been authorized, he couldn't really come out and accuse the governor and his organized labor supporters of potentially plotting corruption. Privately, he cited the possibility. And he took great care to thoroughly examine all the toll road proposals to make sure they couldn't easily go financially astray, or damage the work his own department was already doing.
Meanwhile, as if to highlight the governor's organized labor connections, there were rumors Soapy planned to nominate United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther to the U.S. Senate, should Senator Vandenberg resign. Soapy denied them, noting the stories were as premature as saying Governor Kelly had been reelected. And he again called the Highway Commissioner to task, citing him for standing in the way of Michigan's transportation progress. But Ziegler for the most part, at least in public, kept mum, and continued the work the Michigan State Highway Department was already doing.
One of those jobs was to let bids to build the two-lane access road from Route 2 to the new dock in St. Ignace. The job was expected to cost $225,000 and be completed by July 1. It would be a free highway, and not a toll road, though to prevent land speculation like had happened in 1923, much of it would be declared limited access. That didn't stop everyone from buying on speculation, however. Most local buyers got skunked, but Senator William "Little Willie" Ellsworth bought up property across from the intersection where the new road would join Route 2, and made plans to build a home and an adjacent motel.
While Ziegler was able to forestall Michigan turnpike construction, his concerns also extended to the newly appointed Mackinac Bridge Authority. His department had just committed millions of dollars it barely had to build a new icebreaking ferry and docks on both sides of the Straits. The engineers hired by the Bridge Authority estimated that a bridge might cost $76 million, nearly 25 times the cost of the new ferry and docks. Then the Authority released studies showing that if it charged the same toll as the ferries, it would be sufficient to pay for the construction. But they presently had no money to start.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike had sold revenue bonds to the RFC during the Depression. The original bridge authority had tried to do the same. But the RFC was a "make work" program, and it's directors determined that projects like the turnpike, which employed relatively unskilled labor to dig and pave in areas near large populations centers, were more effective than complicated bridge foundations and steelwork, which called for skilled labor. And the bridge site was far from population centers, so the request to buy bonds was declined.
Commissioner Ziegler shared the same concerns in the 1950s. Seventy-six million dollars would build many more highways in Southern Michigan, where they were desperately needed. Still, the authority noted if foundation work were to start that summer, it could be finished sometime in 1955. But there was still a great deal of planning and work to do before construction could begin, and Governor Williams learned that because of the Korean War, sufficient steel for a bridge would probably not be available until 1953 at the earliest.
In River Rouge, there was enough steel, and construction of Great Lakes Engineering Works Hull 296 was progressing. While the older steamboats handled six lanes of cars, this boat would be eight lanes wide, or 75 feet over the guards. Wider would have been impractical. To keep the lines clean enough to work in ice, the ferry couldn't be too long, so a length of 360 feet was chosen.
Since motorists might be afraid to drive up and down winter-slick ramps to an upper deck, a single, completely enclosed car deck for 150 autos was the result. The deck would be reinforced to withstand a load factor of two trucks abreast, each with a single axle load of 16 tons. Access would be through a pair of rolling, clamshell doors at each end. Each door section would weight 4 tons. There were also to be folding side auto doors to match the side loading slips already at the Straits. An equipment trunk down the middle of the car deck would carry engine exhausts, crew stairways, and provide for car deck equipment lockers. Aturning space between the side doors would interrupt the trunk, about 2/3 down its length.
Under the direction of Great Lakes Engineering's chief engineer, Howard M. Varian, frames were built up every two feet, not every five, like in most vessels. The hull was built of 1.125-inch steel, with 1.75-inch plating in the ice-crushing ends. For maximum strength, both rivets, the standard technology of the day, and welding, a new process for hull construction just being tested on a few ships, would be used. For her size, Hull 296 would become the heaviest ferry ever built.
While the hull was being assembled, the Administrative Board assembled in Lansing to name the new ferry. Nearly every Michigan community had been suggested for the honor, each having it's own merits for selection. Rumor said the board planned to pull the winning name out of a hat. Instead, a committee of Upper Peninsula senators and representatives met February 6 and settled on a name, which they recommended to the board. They chose "Cloverland Queen" in tribute to the area the ferry would serve.
Somewhat belatedly, Commissioner Ziegler's office announced that January 1951 ferry traffic had increased 31.8% over January 1950. Almost 14,000 vehicles had been carried across the Straits of Mackinac. Traffic had increased even more in February, up 34.3%. In the first two months of 1951, ferry travel had increased by nearly one-third.
The numbers came from the ferry office in St. Ignace, but were announced by the commissioner from a temporary office rented in a commercial building on Lansing's East Michigan Avenue. The delay was unavoidable. On February 8, an arson fire gutted the department's long-time headquarters building, destroying countless documents and priceless historic photographs in the archives.
Richard C. Shary, a 19-year-old department employee and former Eagle Scout, hoped that a misdemeanor arson conviction would keep him out of the Korean War draft. At lunchtime, he lit a string on his desk with his pipe lighter and left, figuring someone would find the smoky nuisance and put it out. But everyone else had also gone to lunch.
When he returned, he discovered no alarm had been sounded and the blaze had grown too big to extinguish alone. Firemen finally got the inferno under control, but by then 14 state agencies were left homeless, and damage exceeded $5 million.
There was better news in March. The Legislature passed a new gas tax increasing the Highway Department's coffers by $28 million. Saying it was too big a burden on motorists, Governor Williams vetoed the bill. Then, just in time for Commissioner Ziegler's birthday on May 23, the Legislature overrode the veto, with the revised measure still granting the department a $23 million budget increase. Ziegler's chauffeur said his boss thought it was a wonderful birthday present.
The year 1951 had started out cold and blustery with temperatures at times plummeting to 20 below. The ice bridge to Mackinac Island formed early. On land, the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad retired the last of their steam engines, meaning from now on the Chief Wawatam and Saint Marie (II) would be switched by diesels in St. Ignace.
And in St. Ignace politics, former mayor Bert Highstone announced plans to run against incumbent mayor A. G. Phillips, who changed his mind after originally declining to run in the spring elections.
Though it made a lot of ice, the cold weather didn't hold. On March 9, the City of Petoskey was added to the cross-straits run, supplementing primary service from the Saint Marie (II) to keep the channel open. Both boats ran together for nearly a week until the railroad boat damaged the engine to raise and lower her seagate. She was pulled for a day for repairs, and then was sent to the Soo for icebreaking, leaving the Petoskey to handle auto traffic alone. It was the earliest opening for a "white boat" in years, even earlier than the year before.
While the spring schedule wasn't set to start until mid April, the Highway Department promised to advance the start of a second white boat to April 1, as traffic continued to run one-third higher across the Straits than it had in 1950. But those plans were put on hold when a huge storm swept through in mid-March. Ice piled in windrows 40 feet thick against the Mackinaw City dock. Unable to land on Sunday, March 18, the City of Petoskey retreated to St. Ignace and spent four hours trying to make her dock there. She finally had to be rescued by the Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite, which, with her sister, the Kaw, was working to clear the southern Straits channel, jammed with nearly 10 miles of solid ice. High winds also delayed the railroad icebreakers. The powerful Mackinaw was out of the area, trying to open navigation in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
That week, despite the weather, the Highway Department started condemnation proceedings against nearly a dozen St. Ignace residents to acquire property for the road to the new dock at the furnace site, and it advertised for bids to construct a new "tank farm" near the State Dock in Mackinaw City.
As the new ferry would be diesel powered, like the new engines of the D, SS&A railroad, running the boat all winter would require a year-around fuel supply. Crews in St. Ignace had coaled the state's steamboats since 1923, and there was always a large coal pile on the St. Ignace dock. But the new diesel ferry would fuel in Mackinaw City, closer to oil refineries.
The engines would burn "Bunker C" oil, a barely-refined crude product. It would be shipped by barge to the new slip on the north side of the Mackinaw City dock. Then it would be pumped nearly a quarter mile up a long pipeline to the tank farm, consisting of three large steel storage vessels on the shore, just north of the dock's exit lanes. The tanks, to store both light and heavy fuels, along with lubricating oil, would also be accessible by railroad cars and highway trucks, should land transportation prove cheaper. Fuel would be returned to the ferry down the same pipeline.
Since bunker C has a high viscosity and nearly turns to tar when chilled, the pipe would be encased in a steel jacket and steam-heated to 100 degrees to keep everything flowing in winter. The tanks, associated pumps, and boiler house would all be enclosed by an earthen dike to contain a spill, if any of the tanks were damaged.
Bids to begin work were opened March 23 and the job awarded to Proksch Construction of Iron Mountain, which offered to do the work for $247,885. The company thought it could complete the job by October 20.
As March marched toward April, the State Administrative Board again met, this time to consider complaints from Upper Michigan residents who thought the name "Cloverland Queen" was too pretentious for the ferry the state was building. When someone suggested simplifying it to "Cloverland," the name sounded too "seasonal" for an icebreaker that would carry travelers to their winter vacation as well. But the word "Vacation" clicked! Instead of "Cloverland," the board named the new ferry "Vacationland," to promote the U.P.'s recreational opportunities all year.
Progress at Great Lakes Engineering Works had been swift. Christening and launching of the newly named Vacationland was set for April 7, and shipyard painters hurriedly applied the name on each of the ferry's identical bows. But what would be launched would barely resemble a finished ferry. The hull was only finished to the top of the cardeck. A short equipment trunk down the centerline hinted at a superstructure to come.
From the equipment trunk, stairways and ladders led down to 12 watertight compartments in the hull. An onboard sewerage treatment plant at one end and a boiler room for heat and hot water on the other flanked twin engine rooms amidships. Fuel and water ballast tanks were built at the ends of the hull, between propeller shaft alleys and in void spaces along the keel. At each end was a steering gear room that would be connected to the helm at the opposite end by a long series of shafts and universals, once the superstructure was completed.
Fitted with huge rudders and her propellers, Hull 296, Vacationland, (Official Number 262971) would still require months of construction while afloat before she was ready to enter service at the Straits.
The boats already serving the Straits of Mackinac had a hard time Easter weekend. That Thursday evening, one of the winter's worst snowstorms dumped 14 inches in just four hours. Skidded and abandoned cars blocked snowplows and salt trucks everywhere. The area had just begun to dig out Friday, when a second blizzard thoroughly plugged roadways. People going from Detroit to the U.P. took as much as 24 hours to make the trip. The ferries couldn't keep up with holiday travel demands. Ice again blocked the City of Petoskey and delayed both the Chief Wawatam and Saint Marie (II). Area hoteliers set up cots in their lobbies and dragged mattresses into hallways to accommodate stranded travelers who couldn't find rooms.
The snow lent a festive air to the 1951 Easter Parade, but by Monday, things were pretty much back to normal. And that week, Albert "Bert" Highstone was reelected St. Ignace's mayor.
Despite the weather, the Easter holiday traffic was the primary factor in raising the March crossstraits auto count by 39% over the year before. The annual average increase hovered at 35.6%.
Next Week: 1951 Continues
Copyright 2007 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.