2008-03-20 / Columns

Autos Across Mackinac: The Straits of Mackinac Is Sunk Near Chicago

PART 62: Conclusions
By Les Bagley

In the summer of 2005, 77 years after she was launched in Detroit, the remains of the very last Michigan State Ferry still afloat, The Straits of Mackinac, were intentionally sunk about 14 miles off Chicago's Navy Pier to become a scuba diving attraction. Today she rests in about 80 feet of water and is visited by divers from throughout the world. (Patrick Hammer photograph) In the summer of 2005, 77 years after she was launched in Detroit, the remains of the very last Michigan State Ferry still afloat, The Straits of Mackinac, were intentionally sunk about 14 miles off Chicago's Navy Pier to become a scuba diving attraction. Today she rests in about 80 feet of water and is visited by divers from throughout the world. (Patrick Hammer photograph) For the past year, the St. Ignace News has serialized Les Bagley's unpublished manuscript,"Autos Across Mackinac ; A History of Michigan State Ferries." The series, which began in January 2007, traced the history of the ships that carried automobiles, freight, and travelers between Michigan's peninsulas before the Mackinac Bridge opened more than 50 years ago. In this final installment, he traces the disposition of the remaining ferries and the facilities that played such an important role in the history of our area.

The hull of the very first ferry to transport autos across the Straits remains afloat to this day. Built in 1911, the Chief Wawatam carried the first autos across Mackinac in 1917. Sold and stripped of her engines and superstructure in 1989, she works today as a barge home-ported at the Canadian Soo, under her original name. She is owned by Purvis Marine and still occasionally visits the Straits of Mackinac. (Skip Natzner photograph) The hull of the very first ferry to transport autos across the Straits remains afloat to this day. Built in 1911, the Chief Wawatam carried the first autos across Mackinac in 1917. Sold and stripped of her engines and superstructure in 1989, she works today as a barge home-ported at the Canadian Soo, under her original name. She is owned by Purvis Marine and still occasionally visits the Straits of Mackinac. (Skip Natzner photograph) JOINING HER FLEETMATE

In the late 1990s, the City of Kewaunee, Wisconsin, planned a waterfront renewal. Railroad car ferries from Michigan had served the port for more than 100 years, but the Michigan Department of Transportation withdrew operating subsidies from the Ann Arbor Railroad in the 1980s. The Chessie System withdrew under the Kewaunee Plan, which phased out Lake Michigan car ferries over several years, ending in 1984.

That year, a savior appeared. The Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company, owned by Ludington businessmen Glenn Bowden and George Towne, bought the Chessie's fleet for $1 a boat, and with a guaranteed operating subsidy from the railroad, began operating from Ludington to Kewaunee. Their operation was short lived. Plagued by mismanagement and poor funding, Towne dropped out. Bowden lasted until 1988, when he, too, threw in the towel and declared bankruptcy.

It has been more than a half-century since the fleet of Michigan State Ferries landed in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, but the huge piers, slips, and parking areas that served them remain as mute reminders of the days when ferryboats were the only way to take autos across the Straits of Mackinac. This is Dock 3 in St. Ignace. (Photograph by the author) It has been more than a half-century since the fleet of Michigan State Ferries landed in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, but the huge piers, slips, and parking areas that served them remain as mute reminders of the days when ferryboats were the only way to take autos across the Straits of Mackinac. This is Dock 3 in St. Ignace. (Photograph by the author) The M-WTs assets were sold to Charles Conrad, who formed the Lake Michigan Carferry Company. But instead of carrying rail cars to Kewaunee, he arranged to carry tourists and their automobiles to Manitowoc only in the summer season.

With waterfront renewal now possible, Kewaunee wanted the hulk of The Strait of Mackinac removed.

Despite several underfunded and misguided attempts to purchase the remains, the ferry continued to rest on the Kewaunee mud bank until, finally, in 2000, a Green Bay diving group called Neptune's Nimrods purchased the hull with plans to sink it as a Lake Michigan instructional and recreational dive site. Under the leadership of several members, including Jeff Rogers, volunteers began preparing the hull for sinking, while others sought locations where the remains could be sunk. Still others began the thankless task of applying for government permits and approvals so the sinking could be done. The club progressed by fits and starts for several years, trying as best it could to preserve the historic integrity of the ship, including the fittings, which still remained largely untouched below the car deck.

But Kewaunee's city fathers were impatient. In early 2002, the area was sold to become a marina, and as a condition of the sale, the remains of The Straits had to be moved. The new owners gave the Nimrods an ultimatum: Either move the ship within 30 days or it would be scrapped on the spot at their expense.

With no means of moving the ship in the allotted time frame, the Nimrods explored other options, including sinking the ship somewhere near her namesake waters in a recently dedicated underwater preserve. But their letters looking for support went unanswered, so after much discussion, the Nimrods reluctantly passed title on to a dive club in Chicago.

Communication between the new club and the marina owners was sometimes strained, but the ship stayed put while the club raised funds, and at last, in July 2002, The Straits of Mackinac was towed to a donated berth on the Calumet River where the process of preparation and permitting began anew. Environmental concerns required removal of asbestos from the hull and machinery spaces, so welders cut away much of the cowling around the engine cylinders and coverings over the boilers. Wooden overhead was sawed out to reach the ancient insulating material. In the process, much of the woodwork, including the mahogany galley sideboard, was seriously damaged or destroyed. Sparks from a welding torch accidentally ignited a small fire in a coal bin, but it was extinguished with little further damage. To allow the ship to be scuttled and safely visited by divers, a series of holes were cut into the car deck.

But all this work was expensive. The divers formed a nonprofit organization, The Mackinac Project, with a goal of raising $95,000 to pay for the move and the work the Environmental Protection Agency required. Sponsorships were offered, wherein advertising would be affixed to various areas of the ship, visible to the divers who explored her. Only a few sponsorships were sold. The club also tried selling artifacts, including her 10 diameter propeller on e-Bay, the Internet auction site. Only some of the smaller items sold. But despite tight finances and frequently conflicting government regulations and requirements, at last everything was in place for a sinking to take place in the fall of 2002. Everything was in place, that is, except the weather, which didn't cooperate at all.

To safely sink the hull on an even keel so that it would settle smoothly to the bottom of Lake Michigan, salvage experts told the divers they would need a day with very little wind and nearly calm seas, with waves of no more than three feet in height. But as October turned to November, the weather grew worse instead of better. The sinking was postponed until the spring of 2003.

When at last spring weather arrived in Chicago, a date was picked, press releases were mailed, and a tug was hired to tow The Straits to a point above her projected final resting place, about 10 miles northeast of Chicago's Navy Pier. On the Internet Web site, "Boatnerd.com," reporter Dave Foss said that the location was chosen, "because it was the only one that met the various regulatory requirements. It is not in a major shipping lane, it is at least five miles from a water intake crib, and it is deep enough that the smokestack is sufficiently submerged."

Foss described the ferry's final moments like this: "Riddled with holes and loaded with seven truckloads of concrete, the 1928 steamship that once linked Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas stubbornly hovered above the surface for more than an hour before finally plunging with a flourish 80 feet to the bottom. Twenty-foot geysers spurted up, wood splintered off, and the ship gurgled helplessly for five minutes after it vanished from sight. 'Oh, that is awesome,' Eileen Campagne, coordinator for the Mackinac Project, said with a gasp as she watched intently from a nearby pleasure boat. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect planned sinking."

The Straits settled to the bottom, where she rests today as one of 23 dedicated Chicago area diving sites, and one of the largest complete man-made structures ever intentionally sunk in Lake Michigan.


Of all the large ferries that carried vehicles across the Straits of Mackinac, the one that did it first, incredibly, lasted the longest. Built in 1911 by the Mackinac Transportation Company, the Chief Wawatam continued to shuttle railroad cars across the Straits long after the Mackinac Bridge opened, and the other ferries that once carried autos at the Straits were either scrapped or sold. Increasing government regulations for safety and pollution made her survival difficult. Improved rail connections through Chicago and larger, longer freight cars made her more inefficient, still.

The board of the Mackinac Transportation Company first heard reports that converting her to oil firing or diesel propulsion would cut manpower costs. Instead, on November 5, 1963, they voted not to repair her at all and filed to abandon cross-straits service. When the matter came before the Interstate Commerce Commission, however, there were so many protests, the petition for abandonment was denied.

But MTC kept filing, and finally, when the petition was ultimately granted in 1976, the State of Michigan stepped in, subsidizing the ferry's continued operation through a company called the Straits Corporation. Traffic on the ferry became sporadic, and occasionally she only made one trip a week.

Over the years, several attempts were made to replace her with a tug and barge, but with no better results than experienced by the Algomah/Betsy combination in winter operations a century before. Like a cat with nine lives, the Chief survived, including a near brush with calamity when a fire destroyed another ferry at the Manitowoc Shipyard while the Chief was in for her five year inspection. The two had been sideby side until just half an hour before the blaze broke out. Fortuitously, the Chief had just been moved.

In 1979, Michigan contracted with the Detroit and Mackinac Railroad to provide service to Mackinaw City from Lower Peninsula shippers. This increased service frequency to as often as two trips a day. The state also considered converting the handbombed coal burner to oil. At the same time, she became a relative celebrity, when she was featured in a book, "Chief Wawatam, The Story of a Hand-Bomber" by Frances D. Burgtorf.

Her captain at the time, Roderick "Rod" Graham, described the mechanics of taking the hand-bomber across the straits in layman terms: "You go down in the basement," he said, "grab a shovel, and throw as much coal as you can into the furnace. Then you run like hell up to the steering wheel and try to get across the straits before it all goes up the chimney!"

The Chief continued operating, and smoking up the region, until August 21, 1984, when a dock wall collapsed as she approached her slip in St. Ignace. The narrowed area made it impossible for her to land, and she returned with her cargo to Mackinaw City. There, she sat while the state tried to decide what to do.

The decision was finally made for the state by the Soo Line railroad. After waiting two years for activity, in 1986 the railroad could ill afford to maintain the roadbed to St. Ignace without a reason to run trains. There were no major shippers or receivers in town, except for the ferry itself. So, taking matters into its own hands, the rail line filed for partial abandonment and tore up the tracks leading to St. Ignace and the ferry dock.

Without a rail connection, there was no need for the ferry, and soon the tracks to Mackinaw City from the south were removed as well. The Chief was laid up at her Mackinaw City dock until 1988, and was then taken to Sault St. Marie. Preservationists pleaded to save her, but citing existing efforts to preserve the City of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Clipper, both of which were, at that time, marginal at best, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) refused. Instead, for $110,000, they sold the historic ferry to Purves Marine, Ltd. of Sault St. Marie, Ontario.

That company cut her down to a deck barge, scrapping most of her antique equipment, but preserving a few artifacts for future inclusion in museums. Her forward engine, which had turned the bow screw on her many forays into the ice, was dismantled and shipped to the Manitowoc Maritime Museum in Wisconsin, where it was restored, and today, in simulated operation, is one of the major exhibits of the attraction. One of her after engines was recently offered for display at a potential transportation museum under consideration for St. Ignace.

It would be a fitting monument. Minus her propellers, engines, boilers, superstructure, and railroad cargoes, and pushed by a Purves Marine tugboat, the rusty barge (Canadian registry 0805396) with a tiny sign reading, "Chief Wawatam," still occasionally passes through the Straits of Mackinac today.


While, with the exception of the Chief as a barge, the big ferries that once crossed the entire straits are gone, there are still many reminders of the great fleets that once connected Michigan's two peninsulas.

Both railroad docks, one in Mackinaw City, and one St. Ignace, still jut out into Lake Huron, as they have for more than 100 years. The ferry transfer spans are still visible, crumbling reminders of the black boats that used to load rail cars and passengers there, but inaccessible behind chain link fences, erected to keep trespassers away from the decaying wood structures. The St. Ignace railroad dock has been dormant since the wall collapse in 1984 but is being converted to a recreation area by the City of St. Ignace. The shore side of the St. Ignace dock is used for parking and as an auxiliary ticket location for Star Line ferries, the third modern Mackinac Island passenger ferry operator. The old freight depot has been converted into the Mackinac Grille restaurant.

Mackinaw City's landing was used until the Chief Wawatam was sold in 1988. The north side of the old Mackinaw City railroad dock has been filled with stone to make the south boundary of a pleasure boat marina, adjacent to Shepler's ferry landing. In the railroad slip itself, the 1944-built Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw, retired when replaced by a new ship of the same name, operates during the summer months as a static maritime and icebreaking museum, an honor which might have once been given to the Chief. The old depot across the street has been remodeled into a full service restaurant, as part of a tourist-themed shopping complex called Mackinaw Crossings. The complex occupies the site of the old rail yard.

To the south, the long rock fill of the Mackinaw City State Dock still extends more than a quarter mile in to Lake Huron. In the summer, it's a convenient parking lot for overnight Mackinac Island visitors. For a decade after the bridge opened, it was used as a terminal for both Straits Transit and the Arnold Line. After the merger, Arnold relocated most operations to a better-protected moorage, though occasionally spare boats tie up at the south-side slip adjacent to the old waiting room.

The waiting room is mostly unused. Several years ago there were plans to turn it into a lighthouse museum, but they were put on hold when Michigan began to explore using the dock as a terminal for a revived Great Lakes cruise ship industry. Other than a few signs stored inside, there has been no evidence of further development, while awaiting finalization of plans to enlarge the village's pleasure boat marina. In 2007, the water end of the dock was fenced off, pending the onset of construction.

The original end loading slip on the south side of the holding area is still visible, though the long finger pier that extended to the south of the ferries has been extensively modified with lighting and a pedestrian walkway. This would allow visitors a closer look at the waters of the straits if it were not protected behind the chain-link fence. The apron structure, along with the larger moveable transfer span at the Vacationland's slip on the north side of the fill, were demolished in the early 1980s and were apparently scrapped.

Unused since 1940, the concrete elevator tower that hoisted autos to the upper decks of the smaller state ferries still stands as an eerie sentinel at the end of the dock. Today it is a roosting place for flocks of pigeons and seagulls. In 2006 or 2007, contractors working in shallow water north of the slip brought up what appeared to be remnants of the old rock light fixtures that lined the original causeway built in 1924. The author noted them laying just inside the chain-link fence.

The shoreline around the Mackinaw City State Dock has changed dramatically. Where to the south there used to be a few tourist courts and cabins, today sprout dozens of mega-motels, mostly affiliated with the best national chains. Each boasts heated (and often indoor) pools, spas, and many deluxe amenities, and some are even adding water parks. To the north, where the old tank farm once stood, is a grassy space.

The tank farm, which once supplied bunker "c" fuel to the Vacationland, was taken over by a local fuel distributor after the bridge opened. For several years, bargeloads of heating oil and gasoline were shipped to Mackinaw City and pumped ashore through the old heated pipeline along the north dock railing for over-winter storage. Once all-weather roads became the norm, the barge operation was discontinued in favor of trucks, and the tank farm and pipeline were demolished.

In St. Ignace, the Michigan State Ferries headquarters building still stands on Dock 1, much as it did when the ferries quit running 50 years ago. The restrooms are open to the public, and the building houses The Touch of Craft gift shop, featuring items made by area senior citizens. The Arnold Line still uses Dock 1 as its primary St. Ignace terminal for island-bound passengers. Today, fast catamarans tie up in the north slip where the Mackinaw City, Sainte Ignace and Elva once landed. Except for the half-century growth of trees and foliage in the summer, Dock 1 looks much the same as it has since it was remodeled in the 1930s. Only the wooden elevator tower has changed. It was "topped" to only one story and, today, Arnold uses it for storage.

The largest changes came at Dock 2, the old Ore Dock/Coal Dock, which was converted to an end-loading slip when the City of Munising joined the fleet. In the early 1960s, at least 276 feet of the long pier was demolished, and since then, the remainder has been almost completely rebuilt into the St. Ignace city pier and marina. Pleasure boats and visiting commercial craft tie up there each summer. Unless one knows exactly where to look, it is impossible to realize this was the State of Michigan's old Dock #2.

At the Martel Furnace site, Dock #3 is still very much in evidence. The site can be reached by taking Ferry Lane from the intersection of US-2, just south of town, or by following State Street to the left when driving south out of downtown St. Ignace. Dock #3 is just east of the State Street Ferry Lane intersection.

A fence down the center divides the entry road, formerly the ferry exit lane. To the left, not readily accessible to the public, is St. Ignace's long awaited Coast Guard station. Biscayne Bay, the cutter that ties up there occupies what used to be the side-loading slip built for The Straits of Mackinac.

To the right of the fence is a brick building that once housed the pursers office, and later the Highway Department's truck scales, closed in the early 1960s. It sits between the former entrance and exit lanes. Just beyond, a children's playground beckons youngsters to folic near the old flagpole, which still holds range lights for the slips the State Ferries used so long ago. The slips extend out into Lake Huron much as they always have, though the wooden linings have deteriorated over the years and trees have grown up through the concrete paving.

Both large apron structures were victims of the same scrap drive in the early 1980s as occurred in Mackinaw City. But, apparently, portions of at least one transfer span were recycled into the public boat launch ramp about 100 feet south of the south slip pier. Other parts are said to be in use at another ferry near Ironton. Newer public restrooms serve the playground, boat launch, and walkway that leads out onto the old south pier, but the rusty railings and bollards still recall the Highway Department's Great White Fleet of half a century ago.

The Department's successor, MDOT, still has a presence here. Two large office buildings and associated garages and barns for snow removal, sand, rock, and salt storage now occupy lanes of the auto holding area at the southernmost part of the terminal. Dump trucks and graders now park were tourists once waited for a ferry to the Lower Peninsula.

In fact, auto ferries still land at Dock #3. Part of the space there has been leased to the Arnold Line as their main Mackinac Island freight terminal. The company's "freight boats" are actually newer, recycled automobile carriers with open decks and small raised superstructures. The line owns three of at least four such vessels serving Mackinac Island's need for merchandise, food, beverages, supplies, and just about anything that isn't grown there. All sail from docks in St. Ignace, including two that land at the small apron Arnold has built in the old Dock #3 south ferry slip.

Arnold's freight warehouse is between the north and south slip access roads, surrounded by a gated chain-link fence. Goods for the island are stored either in the warehouse or in the fenced area out front. Most shipments are palletized and the boats are loaded and unloaded by forklift.

The oldest of the freight boats is the Islander (US 253170), originally a 60-foot by 30-foot ferry built as hull number 221, the Drummond Islander, in Sturgeon Bay back in 1947. In her original career, the ferry carried autos from DeTour, at the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, to her namesake island across a channel of the St. Marys River. There, during a stormy crossing in December 1982, she lost her rudder. Chippewa County was her original owner. Purchased by Arnold Line after the county built newer and larger vessels, the Islander normally operates daily in the summer.

Her consort is the Corsair (US 269660), another former auto ferry, built in 1955 by Blount Marine of Warren, Road Island, as their hull number 25 for the Neuman Boat Line of Sandusky, Ohio. Neuman used the Corsair and her nearly identical twin, the Commuter (II), to carry autos and buses from the Marblehead Peninsula to Kelley's Island, in the west central portion of Lake Erie. Both the Corsair and the Islander were built as double-ended vessels capable of loading or unloading at the bow or stern. Arnold modified them by welding guards across the rear of their car decks, making them bow loading only. They also normally carry large concrete weights at their sterns, raising their bows a little, to better handle the Straits' finicky weather. Arnold has also lengthened them by splicing in new mid-body sections of from 30 feet and 50 feet between their bows and their superstructures.

Some of Arnold's passenger ferries are occasionally also used as freight boats, particularly those with closed decks. With transit bus-style bench seats removed, these transport some of the island's population of carriage and dray horses and cargos that cannot be exposed to the elements on the open deck of the former auto ferries. These vessels were not originally built to carry cars, but may be able to do so on occasion.

The third Arnold freight boat, the Beaver (US 264186), formerly owned by Moral Re-Armament and Mission Point Resort, was used to carry UPS packages to the Island, until last year. Built in 1952 by Lock City Machine and Marine of Sault Ste. Marie, the 61-foot by 30- foot craft made a single trip each weekday morning with the islandbound United Parcel Service "Package Car" delivery truck. While the ferry crew ate lunch on the island, the UPS driver hand-carried his cargo ashore and exchanged it for outward-bound shipments from residents and businesses. Reloaded, the Beaver returned to Arnold's dock in St. Ignace early in the afternoon.

The Beaver was stored out of the water at the Mill Slip in St. Ignace last summer, and Arnold either took the UPS truck on one of their other freight boats from Dock 3, or just wheeled the packages onto one of the passenger boats.

The fourth former auto ferry freight boat is another Lake Erie island exile. The Sacre Bleu (US 279083) was originally the Put-In- Bay of the Miller Boat Line in Ohio. Operated between Miller's dock in Port Clinton and South Bass Island, location of her namesake city, the ferry is 60 feet by 31 feet and was built by Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding and Drydock as their hull number 250 in 1959. Today she is operated by the Shepler family from their passenger dock and freight warehouse on the north shore of Moran Bay. The Sheplers purchased her from Miller in 1994.

All four of these ferries are used to transport construction vehicles, fire trucks, and police cars to Mackinac, but these vehicle cargoes are charged at freight rates.

Finally, although you can't sail from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, it is still possible to take your own car at least part way across the Straits on a real auto ferry today. A company that dates back to the darkest days of the Depression runs the fifth and final vessel that fits this category. Plaunt Transportation began three quarters of a century ago, when Charles D. Plaunt carried mail and passengers to Bois Blanc (Bob-Lo) Island from Cheboygan, using a small, 6-man motorboat. His son, Ray, soon joined the enterprise and, as demand grew, so did the size of their vessels. Today, the third and fourth generations of the Plaunt family operate the ferry Kristen D (US 915947), named for third generation owner Curtis Plaunt's daughter, between Cheboygan and Bois Blanc, carrying autos, passengers, and freight. The Blount-built vessel began service in 1987, carrying seven autos and 49 passengers. Enlarged in Escanaba in 1998, today 17 autos and 149 passengers can be accommodated on each of up to 10 trips a day (or more if needed) in the summer season.

Over the years, several competitors have challenged Plaunt's Bob- Lo monopoly, including a pair of Michigan State Ferries captains, an owner who bought the Corsair's sister ship in an Internet auction, and several others.

As we look forward to the 2008 sailing season, only the Kristen D of Plaunt Transportation remains to carry on a tradition started 91 years ago. That was when, way back in 1917, the railroad icebreaker Chief Wawatam ferried the very first autos across Mackinac.

Copyright 2008 by Les Bagley. All rights reserved.

If you have stories, photos or memories of the Michigan State Ferries that you'd like to share, please contact the author through the newspaper office, or by e-mail at Les@divco.org. Mr. Bagley thanks you for your continued interest in this series and greatly appreciates all the kind letters, e-mails, and telephone calls you've shared.

The St. Ignace News, likewise, joins our readers in thanking Les Bagley for his tireless research of the car ferries and his offer to share this history with all of us.

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