Autos Across Mackinac: Fleet Patiently Awaits Arrival of Vacationland
The St. Ignace News is serializing the history of Michigan State Ferries, which carried automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac in the years before the Mackinac Bridge opened. Written by ferry historian Les Bagley, it relates the stories of the boats, the people, and the times of over half a century ago. In this week's entry, the State of Michigan takes delivery of the largest doubleended icebreaking ferryboat ever built.
The newspapers of September 27, 1951 carried a front-page illustration of the new Vacationland. Though not entirely accurate, it was the region's first glimpse of what the new ferry would look like. Taken from a drawing by artist Phil Troeger, the image would be reproduced on postcards and souvenirs for years to come.
The Republican-News and St. Ignace Enterprise also revealed that Capt. Frank Nelson's trip to Detroit hadn't been for vacation. On the way back from visiting the new ferry in the shipyard at River Rouge, the captain and his family had stopped in Lansing, where he interviewed with Commissioner Charles Ziegler for appointment as the new ship's Master. In announcing Nelson's appointment, Ziegler also added, "Every effort is being made to place Vacationland in service soon after November 1 in order to give the best possible service to deer hunters crossing the Straits." SIM Christiansen wrote in the newspaper, "Nelson spent the next few weeks trying to figure out which end was the bow."
"One of the boys says the only time his wife finds out he is broke is when she asks for money and doesn't get it. Maybe the boys really do need a raise."
And he reported that in October, The Straits of Mackinac made several "business trips" to Mackinac Island.
The island was the site of a fall convention of the National Association of Travel Organizations. The group elected George E. Bishop of the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau as its new president. Bishop also released figures showing 1951 tourism in Upper Michigan had increased by as much as 50%. The Grand Hotel did $160,000 more business than in any previous years. Resort and tourism businessmen praised the bureau for its continuing advertising campaigns.
But lots of tourism toes were stepped on in Lansing when the Citizens Research Council of Michigan suggested that Governor G. Mennen Williams require each of the state's four tourist promotional bureaus to match state aid dollar for dollar up to $25,000 for each bureau in the coming year. The match would then be reduced over the next few years, until no state money was involved. The report also suggested the governor appoint five members of the Michigan Tourist Council without the approval of the four regional bureau chiefs. The local bureaus slammed the suggestions, noting that Michigan actually already paid less of a percentage of tourism advertising than many other surrounding states.
As October drew to a close, workers put the finishing touches on the new ferry dock at Graham's Point. Proksch Construction of Iron River wrapped up a $43,311 contract to install the dock's power and lighting system, and Mrs. Geraldine Bellville Brooks, the only female dump truck driver in Northern Michigan, turned in her keys after helping with Bacco Construction's earth moving there. Just before hunting season began, Capt. Pat Gallagher was scheduled to take the City of Cheboygan into the new docks for the first time. Contractors wanted to make sure everything was ready for the ferries to land, and the Cheboygan would be used to test the two new end-loading slips for a perfect fit.
Bad weather on November 7 delayed the test, however, it was successfully conducted several days later. Commissioner Ziegler planned to use the new dock for the first time during the hunting rush, handling southbound motorists, while the northbound boats landed both there and at St. Ignace Dock 2 at the start of the season.
He also hoped the Vacationland would be ready in time to help out, but it was not to be. The seasonal rush began on Friday, November 9, with almost 200 fewer cars transported than in the year before. In fact, there were fewer cars each day of the first weekend, with the heaviest northbound traffic, 3,256 cars, on Sunday, Armistice Day. The ferries did use one ramp of the new dock to "spread" traffic congestion, and it gave a good indication of how efficiently the new facility could handle auto traffic. It also showed merchants downtown what they could expect when all traffic moved to the new facility during the next tourist season. They were concerned: Many asked, "Where are the hunters?"
Northbound traffic did pick up Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week, so the season wasn't as bad as early figures projected. But the season only showed about a 2% increase. And because the new dock diverted traffic off State Street, sales in St. Ignace stores were down by as much as 50%.
With hunting season winding down, the ferries went to the "early winter" schedule, sailing every 90 minutes from 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., and one more overnight sailing. While that schedule was supposed to end December 17, Commissioner Ziegler decided to extend it through the holidays. The Vacationland would then take over.
The Highway Department announced that, for the year, crossstraits travel was up 13.2%. But it was still being done with only four state ferries. The Vacationland still hadn't left River Rouge. In fact, she was only now getting a full compliment of crewmembers, including reporter "Scoop" Christiansen, who signed on in the galley and noted some of the men were planning on putting up a Christmas tree at the shipyard. They still hoped to leave for the Straits any day, but had not as yet gone on any sea trials. They hoped to get underway for tests on December 9.
"Some men," he said, "had been planning to take time off to come home for the holidays, until they heard the sea trials might go all the way to Florida. Others say we'll be home by the 15th. But they haven't said the 15th of which month."
As with any new, large ship, there were unexpected problems. Equipment was late arriving for installation. In trying to fill the fuel tanks for the first time, it was found one fuel line ran from the bow fueling ports through the car deck to the tanks below. The car deck ran through the other fuel line. The resultant spill caused a big mess, which required several hours of cleanup. A load of cream got stuck in the dumbwaiter halfway between the car deck and the galley. And in a sprinkler system test on the car deck, several Coast Guard inspectors got drenche'd when they were caught about 30 feet from the nearest exit.
On the plus side, Christiansen noted, "I don't believe the other boats have washing machines." He also observed, "No television as yet, but there have been clocks installed in each mess room. The ships' electrical current is converted to AC. Don't get that mixed up with our ABs. They're not converted as yet! Engineer Bill Bentgen is a very busy fellow trying to get the bugs out of the engine room. He also appears to receive the most mail from home."
One thing coming late from home was the crew's paychecks, which failed to arrive on time and caused some of the men to sleep in been paid. The bulk of crewmembers were allowed to move to cabins onboard just before Thanksgiving, though for a time they still lacked mattresses and covering for their racks.
The first meal from the galley was served the Monday before Thanksgiving, consisting of roast beef and pork with all the trimmings. The galley crew marveled at how easy it was to cook with the electric stove and ovens and to clean up using the ships automatic dishwasher.
To occupy their time while the ship continued to fit out, some of the men rigged a small broadcasting station and recorded some of their own songs to play over it. Second Mate Red Smith's talent was particularly impressive to the Highway Departments head man on site, George M. Foster, who didn't realize his sailors had such talent. Foster had recently had his own talents in coordinating the ferry's construction recognized by Commissioner Ziegler. On November 6, he had been promoted to Chief Deputy Commissioner of the Highway Department. He would spend much of the rest of his career with the department, directly overseeing Michigan State Ferry operations.
Finally, all was ready. Painted a gleaming white with silver and black funnels, Vacationland was ready for sea trials in the early morning hours of December 8. The 150 guests included highway department and shipyard officials, her designers, the U of M's Louis A. Baier and the shipyard's Howard M. Varian, Michigan politicians, reporters, and representatives from equipment suppliers. They boarded at 6:30 a.m. to enjoy a gala breakfast reception hosted by Highway Commissioner Ziegler and Charles Haskell, president of the yard. At 7:44 a.m., lines were loosed and Ferry Superintendent George Lloyd rang up the first official command on the ship's telegraphs. With Captain Frank Nelson watching the radar scope in the early morning darkness, Vacationland got underway, moving stern first, so her anchors could pull her free if the big ferry accidentally ran aground. As her guests settled in to watch the dawn through her lounge windows, the ferry began a 22-hour series of tests and trials over a course set up on western Lake Erie.
Since the ferry was a doubleender, each test had to be run at least twice, once going in each direction. One guest observed that he soon couldn't tell if he was coming or going. The captain of a passing freighter radioed Capt. Nelson, jokingly asking him to hoist a red flag on the bow so he could take bearings and know which end to cross. He said his crew was taking odds that Vacationland was a secret weapon.
But down in the engine room, ship engineers and Nordberg officials were taking in problems developing in the huge thrust bearings transmitting the ship's thrust to the hull. They were overheating rapidly. A quick phone call to the pilothouse stopped the ferry in mid lake while the bearings cooled. The delay lasted more than three hours.
As the hours dragged on, guests entertained themselves by playing cribbage, pinochle, and canasta in the lounges. Some napped while others toured the ship's nooks and crannies, taking in all the wonders the huge ferry had to offer. Vacationland finally limped back to the shipyard while her designers and engineers conferred. Apparently, they thought, the bearings were designed to take thrust one way only. When the ferry ran the other way, with the forward propellers pulling instead of pushing, it caused the bearings to go "off track," heat up, and wear much too quickly.
While designers planned, engineers cursed, and officials exchanged heated letters and phone calls between component manufacturers and the shipyard, the crew waited to go home, and ice began to form in the Straits.
Since Vacationland was originally supposed to arrive in November, the Highway Department had not renewed its lease on the Saint Marie (II) for 1952. Despite the ice, the City of Petoskey gamely soldiered on, carrying cars and trucks between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. As the ice thickened, it became more and more difficult for the Petoskey to cross. But there was little choice.
Meanwhile, Vacationland was forced to spend the holidays in the shipyard. While many of her crewmembers hitched rides home to celebrate with their families at the Straits, a few were left to mind the ship, alone in a closed shipyard. Levi Furlott, an able seaman sent down to the shipyard on a brand new bus from St. Ignace, wrote that his saddest time was on Christmas Eve, "all alone on the big boat, listening to the radio playing Silent Night. But," he observed in a letter home, "I'm well fed and I don't work hard, and its still better than on that old Sainte Marie (II)." Furlott noted that if the new ship didn't come north soon, he'd be sent home and his next job would be to help fit out the City of Munising in the spring.
At the end of the year, the Highway Department announced the ferries had set a new record of 800,000 vehicles transported in 12 months, 85,000 more than had been carried in the previous high year of 1949. The department looked forward to greater service Improvements with the new docks and new ferry about to come online.
But as calendars turned to 1952, ferry traffic suddenly came to a halt. On Saturday, January 5, the Petoskey struck something with one of her propellers, damaging one of the buckets (blades) and causing a very serious vibration with the screw out of balance. She limped over to Dock 2, where using ballast in her forward tanks, her stern was raised out of the water so repairs could be made. Meanwhile, the tarpaulins were quickly pulled off the almost completely laid up City of Munising, her fires were re-lit, and after a 5.5 hour delay, Straits traffic resumed with the substitute vessel.
There was a problem at Dock 2, however. On the evening of Thursday, January 10, a fire broke out in the bridge maintenance office there. Ferry purser Charles Kennedy, who was on duty at the time, noticed smoke, and called the fire department. His prompt action saved the building, limiting damage to about $500 in the basement.
There had been a flurry of paperwork between River Rouge, Lansing, and the Vacationland's engine builders in Wisconsin. After several rounds of blame for the overheated bearings, Nordberg finally agreed that they'd specified the wrong model for use in the ship. As a temporary fix so the ship could be brought into service, the existing bearings were modified with additional lubrication and cooling systems. A new set of correct bearings was ordered from another supplier, to be installed on Vacationland's next visit to a shipyard.
With engineers confident they at last had the thrust bearing problems under control, the ferry departed River Rouge at 10:04 a.m. January 11 for the voyage to her new home at the Straits. Hundreds of residents and motorists lined the banks of the St. Clair River as the ship moved northward. Those freighters that still had steam saluted her, along with a cacophony of auto horns and shouts from the shore. Originally, the Highway Department planned to tie her up for a few hours near the Veterans Memorial Building in Detroit so Lower Michigan residents might tour the vessel. But the icing situation at the Straits meant the big ship was needed there, and she proceeded without benefit of aids to navigation on her northward voyage.
The ship got her first taste of ice in Lake St. Clair, where she plowed through a foot of the stuff without difficulty at about 12 mph. Since all other craft in the area were berthed for the winter, the Vacationland had the stage to herself and put on quite a show for the cars stopping along the shore to snap her photo as she passed. At Marine City, Holy Cross School recessed classes temporarily so students could watch the giant ferry pass on what newspapers called "her lone-wolf voyage." Her sleek, double-ended lines, side opening clamshell doors on the car deck, and modern, streamlined pilot houses caused quite a sensation to those who saw her for the first, and perhaps last time, as she passed.
Leaving the shore behind, Capt. Nelson ordered full speed, and at times the ship made 17 miles per hour on her northward journey. Crossing the mouth of Saginaw Bay, Nelson headed the ferry into the wind and waves, just to see what his new charge would do. A big sea knocked one of her end doors off its trolley, but with no major damage. Crewmen quickly rehung the door and tightened its fittings against further wave action.
The trip north took just under 23 hours. City and county dignitaries and a sizable crowd of ferry workers, local residents, and curious onlookers were on hand at the new Graham's Point dock, now called Dock 3, to greet the ferry, grimy with soot from the shipyard and Detroit industry, as she nosed into the north slip at 9:05 a.m. As her compliment of VIP passengers and official guests debarked, Capt. Lloyd, who had made the trip north himself, remarked, "I'll eat my hat if there's a lineup of cars at the Straits next summer." Some of the locals were calling the new ferry "Wonderland." Asked why, one wag reported, "Because we were all wondering when she'd finally get up here."
The Munising continued to make the crossing from the south slip, while Vacationland's crews and men from the warehouse brought aboard laundry, groceries and last minute supplies to outfit the ship for regular service. While visitors flocked aboard to check the new ferry out, a few lucky crewmen got to spend a single night at home, and then at six the next morning, Vacationland went into service, relieving the Munising, which went to winter layup in the nick of time. Her first official passengers were Charles Welfleys and his pregnant wife.
That Sunday saw the highest walk-on passenger count in ferry history as thousands of visitors made the round-trip crossing to experience the new vessel and say they'd been among the first to ride the largest double-ended ferryboat in the world. While designed to make the crossing in 20 minutes, in reality it took just a little longer, about 22, as her crew learned how to handle her in tight quarters while making landings. Third Mate Jerry Cronan reported she handled "like a hog going to war" and suggested, "She needs a jib to help her land in the wind."
To keep her lines smooth for icebreaking, Vacationland was designed without a keel. That, combined with her high, three-deck profile, made her particularly susceptible to crosswinds and currents while coming into her docks. It would be an impediment throughout her career. But the new ship fit into her slips "tight as a bug's ear" and she sucked up automobiles from waiting lines at the docks like there was no tomorrow.
The ship entered service just in time. By the end of the month, temperatures plunged into the teens, blizzards whipped the Straits, and ice formed in earnest. Vacationland sailed through it all and didn't miss a trip, although her first trip one morning was delayed by high winds and poor visibility, which made handling her lines more difficult.
By the end of the month, most of the difficulties with wind and current had been lessened as crewmembers were able to gain more experience handling the vessel. Nordberg representatives stayed with the ship for several weeks to make sure there were no more bearing or engine problems, and while ice conditions remained "better than normal," the ferry plowed back and forth, attracting more visitors to the Straits region than ever before. January traffic was up nearly 8% over the year before, most of it in the latter part of the month to experience a ride on Vacationland, despite the blizzard, and temperatures that dipped to five degrees on some nights. February traffic climbed by almost 4,000 vehicles, up 32.6%!
Still, the ferry was running on a "shake down" period. Normally she left the dock about 10 minutes after the published sailing time, and still arrived about 20 minutes early on the other side.
"The new ship could maintain a two-hour schedule," ferry officials explained, "but there is still a lot of work to do on her, and time in the dock is valuable. Engineers and officers are still ironing out kinks in the boat."
Most visitors didn't notice the kinks, and the three-hour sailing schedule was what everyone had become used to in years past.
But while the visitors were riding the ferry, they weren't coming into St. Ignace. The city council met and decided that they needed much more signage to direct traffic leaving the ferry into town, although they were concerned that people living along the routes might object.
"We're taxpayers," one resident noted. "We didn't object to truckloads of dirty and dusty materials coming and going through our neighborhoods to construct the new dock. I believe keeping tourist traffic on South State Street would be a greater advantage and much less hazardous than what we put up with last year."
Another said, "We fought back in 1923 for the state boats and we must fight now to bring traffic through the First Ward, along State Street, and into downtown St. Ignace."
But in Lansing, designers David Steinman, Othar Ammann, and Glen Woordruff, the board of consulting engineers retained by the Mackinac Bridge Authority, said they were ready to prepare final plans for a suspension bridge across the Straits. All they needed was for the legislature to approve a $2 million loan to get the work started. Hearings on the measure were scheduled February 19. Meanwhile, beyond the loan, the Bridge Authority announced they were ready to assume total responsibility for financing and constructing the bridge.
This concerned ferry workers, and some wrote to the local paper, noting the ferries brought big business to the U.P. and many people came just for the ferry ride. One correspondent countered, writing that many more would come if there were a bridge, and displaced ferry workers could find jobs galore, if doing nothing else, driving a dump truck for bridge construction.
While Prentiss Brown and authority engineers proclaimed the bridge entirely possible, Senator William Ellsworth sponsored enabling legislation. But the legislature preferred not to authorize the money, and the authority elected to continue bridge design on its own funding alone. The authority noted increased cross-straits travel generated by the new Vacationland was actually a plus for getting bridge financing.
"Traffic growth is the key to bridge construction," Prentiss Brown said.
Ultimately, money for design work wasn't Immediately needed. Dr. David Steinman, one of the three consulting engineers hired by the Authority, volunteered his firm to do the job, funding it himself until such time money became available to pay him. The gesture not only kept up the Authority's momentum, it practically guaranteed Steinman's firm would get the job. D. B. Steinman would then be remembered as the designer of the greatest suspension bridge in the world.
Copyright 2007 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.
Next week: The summer of 1952.
If you have memories of the ferries, or photos of them that you would like to share, please contact the author, Les Bagley, via e-mail at email@example.com or through The St. Ignace News office.