2009-11-12 / Front Page

Chief Wawatam Scrapped

By Jonathan Eppley

The railroad ferry Chief Wawatam is depicted in the ice at the Straits of Mackinac in this photograph taken by G. H. Wickman in 1913. Launched in 1911, she was designed to break heavy ice in the Straits and carried railcars and automobiles between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, operating until 1984. Around 1988, her hull was converted into a barge to carry steel to Detroit, Windsor, and Chicago. The Chief’s deck is now beyond repair, and her owner, Purvis Marine of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is scrapping the hull and will sell the steel. In her heyday, the Chief was a lifeline to security and commerce between the peninsulas. The railroad ferry Chief Wawatam is depicted in the ice at the Straits of Mackinac in this photograph taken by G. H. Wickman in 1913. Launched in 1911, she was designed to break heavy ice in the Straits and carried railcars and automobiles between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, operating until 1984. Around 1988, her hull was converted into a barge to carry steel to Detroit, Windsor, and Chicago. The Chief’s deck is now beyond repair, and her owner, Purvis Marine of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is scrapping the hull and will sell the steel. In her heyday, the Chief was a lifeline to security and commerce between the peninsulas. The venerable old Chief Wawatam, which ferried trains and automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac for 73 years and which has been used as a barge for the past 21 years, is being scrapped, her 2,500 tons of steel to be sold.

In the end, it was her deck that gave way, not her thick, 338-footlong hull, which had been designed to break the heavy winter ice on the Great Lakes.

"Her deck was beyond repair," said the ship's owner, Jack Purvis, and was no longer fit for carrying cargo. "It just didn't make financial or economical sense to replace the deck."

"The rest of her is quite sound, though," he added, and his company, Purvis Marine of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is dismantling the hull piece by piece and will sell the scrap steel to Essar Steel Algoma, also of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Launched in 1911, the coal-fired Chief Wawatam transported railroad cars between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace until 1984. Her thick, carbon smoke was a common sight at both ports and, for years, she was the life-link between Michigan's two peninsulas.

In her waning years as a barge, she was used mostly to haul steel to Chicago, Detroit, and Windsor, Ontario, and the sight of her famil- iar black hull being towed through the Straits elicited both excitement and sorrow from those who knew her, a pathetic remnant of a onceproud era.

Her profound influence on the Straits and the many residents who worked on her over the years was best chronicled by Frances D. Burgtorf in her 1976 book, "Chief Wawatam, The Story of a Hand- Bomber," and her service as a car ferry before and during the state's car ferry operations here is compiled in Les Bagley's book, "Autos Across Mackinac," available in the online archives of The St. Ignace News.

The Chief was the last hand-fed, coal-burning boiler ship, known as a "hand bomber," to operate on the Great Lakes. Incidental to her railroad service, the Chief, owned by the Mackinac Transportation Company (MTC), was the first boat to carry automobiles across the Straits, in 1917, and she also served as an icebreaker for the Lake Carriers' Association in the 1930s and early 1940s, clearing shipping paths in the ice as far north as Whitefish Point in Lake Superior and as far west as Escanaba in Lake Michigan.

The Chief's sister ship, Sainte Marie, was commissioned by Mackinac Transportation Company in 1912. She was 88-feet shorter than the Chief and had two engines (one forward and one aft) to the Chief's three. She was sold in 1961 as rail traffic through the Straits declined.

Mackinac Transportation Company began a long series of petitions to abandon its cross-straits ferry service in 1963, when it said it would be too costly to convert its coal-fired boilers to an oil or diesel propulsion system, and when the Interstate Commerce Commission finally relented in 1976, the state of Michigan stepped in to subsidize the ferry's operation through a company called the Straits Corporation. Freight train traffic through the Straits became so sporadic, however, that the Chief often made only one crossing a week.

In 1979, Detroit and Mackinac Railroad contracted the ship to transport rail cars across the Straits, and, for the next five years, the Chief Wawatam was making as many as two trips a day carrying up to 22 rail cars per crossing. The service was halted in 1984 when a St. Ignace dock wall collapsed, making it impossible to unload cargo. The Chief Wawatam sat idle in Mackinaw City for four years while her fate was decided.

Preservation efforts to save the rail ferry included a Mackinaw City plan in March 1985 to raise $100,000 toward the purchase and restoration of her as a floating museum, but, ultimately, such plans were unsuccessful.

The state decided not to repair the dock and sold the ferry to Purvis Marine for $110,000 in 1988. The company stripped the Chief's superstructure to its deck and removed her engines to use the empty hull as a barge.

Mr. Purvis donated two of the Chief's three 65-ton engines. One was given to the city of St. Ignace and now is stored at the Mill Slip, and the other was given to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where it was restored and put on display. Purvis Marine retained the third engine.

St. Ignace City Manager Eric Dodson said the city would like to display its engine at a transportation museum it hopes to build someday.

So many of the ships the Chief sailed with are gone, and, ready or not, what’s left of her will now disappear, too.

"I'm real sorry to hear that" the Chief Wawatam is being scrapped, Mr. Dodson said, but "it was kind of sad to see it the way it was, anyway.”

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2009-11-12 digital edition