Autos Across Mackinac: Bridge Construction Continues; Tourism Down
The St. Ignace News is serializing Les Bagley's unpublished manuscript on the history of Michigan State Ferries, the "Great White Fleet" that ferried automobiles, trucks, and passengers across the Straits of Mackinac before the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957.
In June 1956, bridge workers strung catwalks and prepared to begin spinning suspension cables above the Straits, but an accident claimed two lives when several men fell to the water from high on the walkway.
Below, the Edison Sault Electric Company completed laying some new cables under the Straits. A high voltage underwater power line connected the power grids of Michigan's peninsulas for the first time that summer, bringing a new and nearly unlimited supply of electricity to the region.
Some of it was tapped in mid- July when the bridge's catwalk lights were powered, casting a magnificent glow that could be seen for miles. The sight so impressed Mackinac Bridge Authority Chairman Prentiss Brown that he later asked Dr. David Steinman to include lighting on the bridge's suspension cables when they were finished.
With cowbells tinkling, cable spinning started in mid-July, but the lights and the sights did not induce hoards of visitors to flock to the Straits that summer. Unseasonably cool weather downstate kept people at home, and ferry traffic again showed monthly declines, to the point that by mid-summer, annual numbers were off by 2.6%. July numbers fell by 4.7%, with a resulting lag in tourist business. Forecasters predicted better weather for August, and more tourists, they hoped.
In July, a bill was passed in the state senate to provide unemployment compensation for state employees. It was then sent to the House Labor Committee for study, where it appeared doomed to die in committee. The benefit for ferry workers was that they would get up to 14 weeks of pay for the winter months when they were unemployed while most of the ferries were not running.
On August 7, Willard Lamyotte and Richard Hankin went to Lansing and testified before the committee. Their action spurred the members to bring the bill to the house floor, where it passed, 71 to 0. The most important aspect of the bill was that it was amended to be retroactive to January 1, 1956, meaning nearly every ferry worker would get the minimum weeks of work to qualify for the benefit that fall. A laid-off worker with four dependents would get an additional $54 per week.
The Ferry Employees Committee took up a collection from crew members to pay the pair's salaries and expenses while they were gone. When he got back, Richard Hankin was elected as the new chairman of the employee committee.
In 1956, Michigan's Turnpike Authority sat poised to ask state voters to approve a $300 million bond issue to finance more than 500 miles of new toll roads in the state. One of them was slated to connect the new Mackinac Bridge to the Ohio state line, another would connect Detroit with Chicago. It looked like their proposal might go through, despite Highway Commissioner Charles Ziegler's opposition to toll roads.
Ziegler was invited to a "show down" meeting with George Higgins, chairman of the Turnpike Authority. He declined to go, instead writing, "The Michigan Turnpike Authority came into being in 1953. ... It is now over three years later, during which time the Authority has not been able to accomplish anything tangible as to actual road construction. There has been not one foot of highway built by the authority. So just what has it done? As far as I can see, it has spent $500,000 of State Highway funds plus part of an additional $150,000 of the same funds. The results to date are an unsatisfactory set of preliminary plans and a traffic analysis that is insufficient."
He also wrote, "I am sure that you would not want the improvement and development of free roads halted in order to subsidize a toll road."
But Ziegler knew something most toll road advocates didn't. Through his work with the Eisenhower administration in Washington, D.C., a new system of four-lane freeways was coming to America. That year, Congress passed President Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway program and suddenly states received a fount of federal money for superhighway construction. Michigan was no exception. By combining the federal money with that approved by the state legislature's Good Roads Bill in 1955, for the first time since the Depression in the 1930s, the Highway Department had a budget sufficient to actually get ahead of the curve for highway construction needs without resorting to toll roads.
Ziegler immediately put the money to use, announcing a huge road building program and derailing Michigan turnpike efforts for at least the next half-century. The road between Ohio and Mackinac would be a freeway, part of the new Interstate Highway system. The road would continue across the bridge to the Soo, but the exact route still had to be decided.
Below Mackinaw City, huge stretches of the old roads would be bypassed with new four-lane construction. Whole towns would be cut off from the main highway, connected only through access roads and "clover leafs." The coming of the highway spelled disaster for hundreds of mom and pop businesses like motels, restaurants, and roadside attractions cut off from the main traffic flow. Some, like the Underground Forest, an exhibit of mounted native Michigan animals in an underground hallway near Grayling, made plans to relocate. The exhibits became the Call of the Wild Museum in Gaylord. Others would struggle to survive, or would quietly fold their tents to make way for chain motels, restaurants, and gas stations at the interchanges.
Merchants were fearful the same thing would happen in St. Ignace, as the Highway Department announced plans to build a four-lane bypass from the intersection of the bridge road and Highway 2 northward along the west side of the city, to near Castle Rock. The four-lane would then continue to the Soo.
To counteract adverse conditions the city fathers anticipated, the chamber of commerce launched a campaign to secure title to the State Ferry docks once the ferry operation closed down. With the St. Lawrence Seaway under construction, members hoped the city could use the docks to become a major international port.
The leaders of Mackinaw City felt the same on the south side of the Straits and approved a resolution letting the state abandon part of its highways as village streets. In return, the Highway Department signed a letter of intent giving the town priority to secure the dock when the ferries stopped. But the state delayed making any decision on the St. Ignace properties, which were more numerous and had greater potential value.
As summer turned to autumn, traffic continued its downward turn. August traffic set no records. Labor Day saw lines at the docks, but nothing like the carnival atmosphere of years before. September traffic also declined by 3,313 cars, making the annual decrease about 2.7%. Looking back, tourism officials said the season had been good, but not record-breaking, and noted the area had four inches more rainfall that summer.
The highlight of October for many ferry workers was the opportunity to take their high school equivalency General Education Development (GED) tests. The Civil Service Commission administered the tests in the basement of St. Ignatius Loyola Church, since there were no unused public school classrooms available on weekdays. The exams allowed men who passed, but had not been graduated from high school, to apply for state jobs requiring a high school diploma. The tests were one of the first visible results of the Governor's Commission on Ferry Employment, which had been meeting monthly throughout the summer and fall. For many crewmen, they were a godsend; several admitted they'd felt ashamed they'd never finished school, and now they could hold their heads proudly as they applied for new employment opportunities.
Over the course of three days, the men completed five examination booklets. The church women made coffee and sold cakes and donuts for refreshments, raising money for a picture project fund. And two Employee Committee members, Richard Hankin and James Jonas, spent five days each on administrative leave to allow men from each watch on each boat take the test on their own time. They did such an excellent job, the office gave them each an extra day off with pay as a reward. Of 82 men who took the tests, 79 passed. Ferry management was so happy with the results that they strongly encouraged more men to take the test the next time it was given.
But before they did that, there was still a ferry fleet to run. October traffic actually showed a slight gain, about 4%, for the first time in months, although the annual count still lagged by 2.3% from 1955. Commissioner Ziegler gave Captain George Lloyd permission to hold the 9 a.m. ferry departure from Mackinaw City to make sure to it made the mail connection. Since the railroad had discontinued mail car service, mailbags came by way of the New York Central passenger train from Detroit, normally arriving at the depot at 8:30 a.m. They were then carried by taxi to the state ferries to be taken across, since the railroad boats no longer handled the mail, either. But if the train was delayed, the connection could be tight. Still, Ziegler rationalized, "The mail must go through. But don't hold the boat too long."
The mail connection wasn't the only rail link causing problems. During the summer, the railroad discontinued sending a bus across on the ferries for train passengers and instead hired Rube's Taxi Service to take them across on the ferry, along with the mail. This caused confusion for some passengers, who bought a through train ticket and then made their own way to the state docks. The train ticket didn't include passage on the ferries, and some passengers became very upset when told they'd have to pay another quarter. Had they taken the taxi, it would have been no problem, as the taxi drove right on. Often, to keep the peace, the dockmen just let them ride. But on occasion it got as far as complaint letters to the Civil Service Commission, which had to investigate each incident, usually to determine the passenger himself was at fault.
The Civil Service Commission did, however, try to improve ferry workers passenger relations skills. For much of 1956, the Training Relations Division sent memos to Capt. Lloyd for posting on ship bulletin boards. The "Public Relations Circulars" with titles like "Meeting our Public," "Easy Does It.," and "We Need to Know How," presented a bi-weekly one-page synopsis of ways to improve crew people skills. Although their jobs would all soon end, everyone seemed to appreciate the gesture.
While annual ferry traffic counts were still down, hunting season loomed right around the corner. A rush of up to 60,000 red-coated visitors was expected, starting Friday, November 9. But the last hunting season for the ferries hardly merited coverage in the newspapers. There was more interest in businesses rushing to relocate and take advantage of access roads to the new Mackinac Bridge.
That week there was also a rush to the ballot box. Governor Williams won an unprecedented fourth term and President Eisenhower was reelected to his second, but Prentiss M. Brown, Jr., known by his friends as "Moie," was defeated in his first bid to become a U. S. congressman. Commissioner Ziegler wasn't up for reelection until April, but in December, he stunned fellow Republicans when he announced he did not intend to run. Tired of the hassles with Governor Williams, who'd just been reelected, and feeling vindicated by his participation in the new Interstate Highway system that was finally bringing much needed roads to his state, newspapers reported Ziegler had had enough. At 66 years old, he decided to retire from public life.
"I believe it is the best thing for the Republican Party," he wrote. "Governor Williams is back in for another two years, and if, because of my age, I would become incapacitated, this would give Williams a chance to put a Democrat in as Highway Commissioner." The letter, written to a friend, may have only hinted at the real reason for Ziegler's decision to retire. Wags speculated he had become a liability, even to Republicans who, with all of Williams' political smoke, were beginning to think there might actually be fire.
The man who took Ziegler's place on the ticket was Deputy Commissioner George M. Foster. In 1957, saddled with all the negative baggage Williams still heaped on the Ziegler administration, he would run against a lanky Democrat named John C. Mackie.
The same papers that announced Ziegler's planned retirement reported
the end of two old friends of the Straits region. The Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company steamers Greater Detroit and Eastern States didn't get a long retirement, however; the two deluxe side-wheelers were burned to the waterline amid fireworks and a flaglowering ceremony on the shore of Lake St. Clair. Their hulks were then towed away for scrap.
That fall, Representative James Goulette of Iron Mountain worked to make sure the same fate didn't befall the Michigan State Ferries after the bridge would open, less than a year hence. He sought help from other Michigan congressmen to get federal funds from the Bureau of Public Roads to build docks for the proposed new ferry run from Frankfort to Menominee. But lawyers for that agency turned him down, saying the 1956 Federal Road Aid Grants were designed for highway construction, not dock building. Goulette, who also chaired the Governor's Committee on Ferry Employment, then asked Wisconsin congressmen to help amend the law, since the new run would also benefit nearby Marinette, Wisconsin. Altogether, Goulette estimated the project to relocate the ferries would cost $6 million for docks and reconditioning the boats for the open lake run.
For the first time, voices rose in opposition to the Frankfort- Menominee route. David S. Lees, international representative for the Seafarers International Union, (SIU) Great Lakes District, AFL-CIO, said, "The union does not object to a ferry service operated by private industry, but it does oppose a statesubsidized operation." He cited the Civil Service Commission's poor record of negotiating with unions for prevailing wage rates and feared that state service would result in "lower state wages reflecting themselves in a lower standard right down the line."
Those state wages changed in December, however. In response to Employee Committee requests, Civil Service staff conducted a wage comparison survey between ferry jobs and similar work in private industry. On December 19, the commissioners approved an additional 8% pay raise for all classes of ferry personnel, along with a number of favorable rulings to help the men when the ferries terminated.
One of the most appreciated in those days, when age discrimination was still legal, was a directive for a "liberal attitude" when applying age limits on state ferry employees who wanted to transfer to other state employment positions for which they were otherwise qualified.
While some ferry workers still seemed to seethe with unrest, most crew members began to realize that with liquidation of their banked time, payout of unused sick leave, longevity payments, and unemployment compensation, they were looking at substantial checks when the ferries stopped. That thought helped keep most discontent in check through the close of the year.
Winter stopped bridge construction the Friday before Christmas, although some shore-based construction would continue all year. The main suspension cables had been finished in mid-October. Twenty-six of 28 approach spans leading to the cable anchorages had been installed. It was now possible to drive part way across the straits, if you worked for the bridge contractors. Everyone else still took the ferries across.
The City of Petoskey and the Vacationland held the hourly schedule through the Christmas and New Years holidays. Boats left St. Ignace every hour from 4 a.m. to midnight, with departures one hour later from Mackinaw City. If there were too many cars at night, Capt. Lloyd promised they'd also be handled to the "best of our ability." The winter schedule went into effect with only the Vacationland running every other hour from Mackinaw City, between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. St. Ignace sailings left an hour later, all starting January 2, 1957.
When the calendars turned, the ferries entered their last year on the Straits of Mackinac.
December had shown one of the brightest increases of 1956, with traffic up 8.8%, but the annual total was still down nearly 2% from 1955 levels.
Ice froze on Lake Huron, but a sudden thaw and wind in mid- January sent fishermen scrambling from their shanties as the ice broke up. Half a dozen shanties were lost, and the paper carried stories of heroic rescues. It wasn't as critical, but the Chief Wawatam even made a rescue run. The big boat sailed to Mackinac Island to pick up 130 Moral Re-Armament members stranded at their first mid-winter conference on the island.
Communities in the U.P. hoped to rescue their one remaining passenger train. The DSS&A filed with the Public Service Commission to discontinue Shoreliner service, citing excessive revenue losses from running the single-car train. On average, only eight of the 84 seats aboard had been occupied since the service began in 1955.
Substituting for his son at a panel discussion at the Lutheran Brotherhood, Prentiss Brown projected a bright future for St. Ignace and the U.P. when the bridge opened, despite the dislocation of 300 local citizens who worked for the ferries.
"It will be a tough period of adjustment," Brown noted, "however, the future is not that dark. Traffic experts conservatively predict that traffic will double the first year the bridge is open. This will bring prosperity to merchants, auto service, restaurants, motels, hotels, and allied industries."
"Our problem is the 300 displaced men. In this case we must remember that the state stands to benefit greatly from the opening of the bridge. It could extend the period of unemployment compensation for these workers and finance a considerable separation pay by the sale of even a portion of the valuable ferry properties. What substitute employment can be readily provided, I can't honestly say."
But he did promise ferry workers would be given first consideration for some of the 60 bridge jobs advertised that week in the newspaper. He cautioned, however, that the men would have to train for jobs like toll collectors, traffic patrols, office work, and maintenance, on their own time, when they weren't working for the ferries.
As a faithful Democrat, Brown also applauded the plank inserted in that party's convention platform supporting severance pay for faithful state ferry employees. Brown was also a major proponent in passing a resolution through the Bridge Authority saying the bridge would give priority to hiring displaced ferry workers whenever possible.
Meanwhile, the Vacationland carried 5% less auto traffic across the Straits than she had in January 1956.
Copyright 2008 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.
Next week: A new highway commissioner.
The author would love to hear from you if you have ferry stories, photos or memories to share. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the office of the St. Ignace News.