2011-08-11 / Front Page

For Chief Elevator, Rebuilding Seems Unlikely

Town Awakens To Find Historic Structure Collapsed; City Cites High Cost To Maintain or Restore
By Karen Gould


Tucker Thomas of St. Ignace sadly looks over the pile of iron and timber rubble, the remains of the rail elevator that once served the Chief Wawatam railroad ferry. “It’s too bad,” he said. Now he would like to see it rebuilt. Mr. Tucker served on the Wawatam for 13 years as a fireman, water tender, and oiler. Tucker Thomas of St. Ignace sadly looks over the pile of iron and timber rubble, the remains of the rail elevator that once served the Chief Wawatam railroad ferry. “It’s too bad,” he said. Now he would like to see it rebuilt. Mr. Tucker served on the Wawatam for 13 years as a fireman, water tender, and oiler. The landscape of St. Ignace changed forever in the predawn hours of Wednesday, August 3. The foundation of the old railroad track elevator on the Wawatam Dock gave way and left a pile of iron and timber rubble in its wake. The failure ended the life of the waterfront’s distinguishing feature and undermined the city’s efforts to embrace its historic past.

It was not insured. With the city in serious financial straits already, city officials do not seem inclined to explore the possibility of restoring the historic structure, and while they are already discussing options for its removal, City Manager Eric Dodson acknowledges the authority to make a decision about its fate rests with the city council, which will consider the matter Monday, August 15.


Above: The old elevator that used to lift the railroad tracks to the deck of the rail ferry Chief Wawatam toppled into a pile of iron and wood at the Wawatam Dock when the foundation holding the rail bed crumbled. Above: The old elevator that used to lift the railroad tracks to the deck of the rail ferry Chief Wawatam toppled into a pile of iron and wood at the Wawatam Dock when the foundation holding the rail bed crumbled. The incident happened 24 days shy of the 100-year anniversary of the arrival of the Chief Wawatam to St. Ignace.

The A-frame and its large counterbalances, used to lift and align the track apron to the deck of the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam, has long been a focal point in the harbor. With a forceful crashing noise, massive iron and timber beams collapsed onto each other and grinded over concrete forms before coming to rest in a heap of debris on the Wawatam Dock just feet from the Huron Boardwalk and Wawatam Park, currently under construction. The park is designed to highlight the dock’s railroad ferry past, and new railroad tracks were just being laid in the park as the structure collapsed.


Aftermath of the collapse shows the rail bed dipping into the water, after the foundation crumbled, and the lifting timbers sprawled about the dock. Aftermath of the collapse shows the rail bed dipping into the water, after the foundation crumbled, and the lifting timbers sprawled about the dock. “My heart’s broken,” said Jim Litzner of St. Ignace, as he stood looking at what remained of the uprights that assisted in the vital link of transportation and commerce in the Upper Peninsula. Mr. Litzner worked as a fireman, water tender, and oiler on the Chief Wawatam.

“I hope they can come up with some money to rebuild it,” said Tucker Thomas of St. Ignace, also a former fireman, water tender, and oiler for 13 years on the Chief.


Now only the 52-foot tall Wawatam Lighthouse dominates the landscape of the Wawatam Dock. Now only the 52-foot tall Wawatam Lighthouse dominates the landscape of the Wawatam Dock. Looking over the rubble, Mr. Thomas said, “It’s too bad; at first to see the dock deteriorate and then to see this happen, it’s too bad. They’re doing so much to preserve the dock now, bringing the tracks in and everything. ”

Turn to page 11: Wawatam

He recalled his days aboard the vessel and the operation of the apron elevator.

“The boat would come in and then the deckhand would jump off and tie it up, and then when it got in they would signal to them to drop the apron on it. There were two locks on there to lock it in so the boat wouldn’t pull back out. Then they would load the trains. When they were getting ready to leave, they would take the locks off, raise the apron, and we’d go back out.”


James Halberg drives the St. Ignace City Marina boat and Gary Bigelow stands on the bow looking for debris that is washing into Moran Bay from the fallen A-frame. The two men and others from the Department of Public Works take turns clearing floating pieces of wood to keep the area clear for recreational vessels and ferry boats like the Arnold boat approaching St. Ignace from Mackinac Island. James Halberg drives the St. Ignace City Marina boat and Gary Bigelow stands on the bow looking for debris that is washing into Moran Bay from the fallen A-frame. The two men and others from the Department of Public Works take turns clearing floating pieces of wood to keep the area clear for recreational vessels and ferry boats like the Arnold boat approaching St. Ignace from Mackinac Island. The distinctive sounds of the operation, he said, are familiar to him still.

“When we pulled in and they’d dropped those hooks on the apron, it would just echo all through the boat. Clunk. Clunk. Both of them went down. Then you knew we were in.”

Boaters spending the night in the nearby city marina Wednesday heard the crash, but darkness left them to speculate what had happened.

“My flag was making some noise, so I got up to look at that and I hear this horrific crashing and I thought it was a barge coming in on the rocks,” said Dennis Duermeier of Parry Sound, Ontario. “About eight seconds later, it all stopped. I could tell it was steel on rock, but, other than that, until I see this thing laying down here this morning, I didn’t know what it was. It scared all the seagulls away. They just flew up. It was a rocket of seagulls for about a minute after that. Then they quieted down and that was it, it was all over.”


The sea gate is up on the Chief Wawatam as a train car crosses the track apron, far left, that links the railroad tracks in St. Ignace to the boat. The Chief transported the trains between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. The track elevator, a tall landmark when it stood on the Wawatam Dock, is small by comparison to the 338-foot-long railroad ferry. (Photograph courtesy of Vic and Mary Swiderski) The sea gate is up on the Chief Wawatam as a train car crosses the track apron, far left, that links the railroad tracks in St. Ignace to the boat. The Chief transported the trains between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. The track elevator, a tall landmark when it stood on the Wawatam Dock, is small by comparison to the 338-foot-long railroad ferry. (Photograph courtesy of Vic and Mary Swiderski) Mr. Duermeier was vacationing in the area and staying in the marina on his boat, Split Crow.


Tracks lead to the collapsed elevator that once would raise the track bed the deck of the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam. The elevator collapsed Wednesday morning, August 3, a victim of age and rotting timbers. The City of St. Ignace has been developing a park that recognizes the history of the site. Just one day before the collapse, these railroad tracks were laid as an added park feature. “I hate to see this,” said Mayor Paul Grondin of the collapse of the structure. “This still is going to be a fantastic park when it’s done and it would have been nice to have the uprights in place. It’s a fixture of St. Ignace history and it’s something that living here, we always have been accustomed to seeing, day in, day out.” Tracks lead to the collapsed elevator that once would raise the track bed the deck of the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam. The elevator collapsed Wednesday morning, August 3, a victim of age and rotting timbers. The City of St. Ignace has been developing a park that recognizes the history of the site. Just one day before the collapse, these railroad tracks were laid as an added park feature. “I hate to see this,” said Mayor Paul Grondin of the collapse of the structure. “This still is going to be a fantastic park when it’s done and it would have been nice to have the uprights in place. It’s a fixture of St. Ignace history and it’s something that living here, we always have been accustomed to seeing, day in, day out.” Captain Luke Clyburn and the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets onboard the 80-foot research and training boat Pride of Michigan heard the rail elevator fall about 3 a.m., he estimated.

“We heard the noise,” said Capt. Clyburn. “The kids got up. It was a loud crashing noise that made us concerned something had fallen on the boat. I’m down deep in the ship and, to hear it, it had to be very loud.”

They inspected the deck of their boat, found nothing, and also speculated, as did Mr. Duermeier, that a barge had hit the high rock wall that offers the marina protection from storms. Hearing nothing further, the crew believed the barge had sailed away. As soon as it was light, he said, they knew what had happened.

City Engineer Brian Olsen inspected the site early Wednesday and several times after that, including Friday afternoon, August 5.

“It appears that the north side fell and it pulled the south side over to it,” he said Wednesday morning.

When the dock was constructed, the wood pilings were driven into the bottom sediment and a cement cap was pored on top of the pilings, said city marina director Gene Elmer. In the last 12 years, as the Lake Huron level has dropped, waves have undermined the foundation and the pilings were exposed to the air, and rotted. It was not until last Wednesday, when the elevator dropped, that anyone realized the extent of the rotting timbers and how even the center foundation support had rotted, he said.

“Once it went, there was no stopping it,” Mr. Olsen said. “It was like a focal point of the park and now it’s gone. One good thing is it opens everything up, but it was a focal point and really one of the last historical things left in St. Ignace [from this period], and now it’s gone.”

Cleaning up the site will be costly, he said, and rebuilding likely would be cost prohibitive.

City employees Chuck McCall and Cliff Belonga discovered the collapse when they arrived on the Wawatam Dock to work on the new park project Wednesday morning, said Les Therrian, director of the Department of Public Works (DPW). Only one piece of wood fell outside the area, just feet from the boardwalk fence. The men removed the beam.

About four years ago the city hoped to add stability to the historic piece and shored up the south side foundation with concrete, said Mr. Therrian.

“It would have gone down sooner without that,” he added.

Looking over the pile of debris, Mr. Therrian said the city had talked about further work on the site.

“We talked about trying to do something with it [the rail elevator], but who has the money?” he asked.

Since the incident, the DPW and ferryboat captains have been watching for debris in Moran Bay and, when spotted, DPW crews use the city marina boat to retrieve floating pieces of wood. Waves continue to dislodge the smaller pieces of wood from the foundation rubble.

Built in the late 1800s, the rail dock served the Mackinac Transportation Company’s railroad ferries Sainte Marie II and, later, the 338- foot railcar ferry Chief Wawatam, which first arrived in St. Ignace in August 1911. The Chief transported trains, and sometimes automobiles, across the Straits of Mackinac for 73 years. Until last week, the apron elevator stood as a reminder of the area’s railroad history.

Star Line deeded the north side of the dock near the turn of the century to facilitate construction of the new marina, and turned over the deed to the south side several years later, in 2004, for park development. The dock was insured, said Mr. Dodson, but the apron and its elevator, deemed too costly, was not.

The city is talking with its insurance provider, Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority (MMRMA) seeking funds to have the site cleared. If funding were available, the carrier would seek bids to remove what remains of the structure. With Wawatam Park now underway and the brick walkway nearly complete, heavy equipment would damage the park, said Mr. Dodson. Any work on the site is expected to take place from the water.

“To drive anything over those bricks right now would be pretty detrimental,” he said.

There are no plans to save the pieces for later reconstruction.

“If the money is there, we’d remove everything,” said Mr. Dodson. “If the money is not there, then just whatever we can do to make it safe will be done. The best job to do here would not just make it safe, but remove the rubble and make it look nice, as well.”

If no money is made available from the insurance company, the city will have to reevaluate the situation, he said, and he does not rule out calling a special city council meeting. The next regular council meeting is at 8 p.m. Monday, August 15.

“We have to make it safe and, if we can use insurance money to do so, that puts the insurance company in the driver’s seat and they’ll be reviewing the bids and all that,” said Mr. Dodson. “If there is a situation where we are not able to do any of that, I can’t expend taxpayer dollars without council approval.”

About five years ago, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) applied for a Michigan Department of Transporation grant to preserve the apron and it’s A-frame elevator, but the request was rejected.

“They didn’t feel it was the right project,” said DDA Director Deb Evashevski.

The Wawatam Park project will continue, she said.

“I think the park project would have taken place even if the uprights had fallen down 10 years ago,” she said. “It is tragic, but the fact remains that the Chief did come in there. It is a significant part of our history.”

Signage for the new park already is being changed to reflect the fact that the apron elevator no longer is there, she said.

“We’ve known for awhile that the uprights probably have been wearing away underneath, but the cost of doing anything with them seemed pretty cost prohibitive for the city,” Mrs. Evashevski said. “I don’t know if we could have done anything to keep that from happening.”

Dustin Wilcox of Wilcox Construction in Cedarville is in the process of laying the brick walkway that travels around the park and leads to the track apron.

“It’s unbelievable that it went down during the construction of the memorial for it,” Mr. Wilcox said. “We were surprised.”

In response to some speculation around town, Mr. Olsen, the city engineer, said the equipment on the dock last week had nothing to do with the collapse of the elevator.

“It didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “That thing has been beat on so much over the years from railroad cars and stuff, those uprights didn’t even know that equipment was out there. It absolutely had nothing to do with it.”

The dock has seen heavier use in recent years. The city used an 80- foot crane to install the lighthouse in 2006.

The Chief Wawatam was sold to Purvis Marine of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in the 1980s, where it was converted into a barge. In the fall of 2009, after 21 years of service, the ship’s 2,500 tons of steel were sold for scrap.

Prior to that, in the summer of 2008, the company donated to St. Ignace a 65-ton engine from the coal-fired ferry. The engine is in storage at the Mill Slip in St. Ignace until a permanent home for it is found.

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