2011-10-13 / Front Page

Chief Arrives at Straits

100 Years Ago


At right: The railroad ferry Chief Wawatam arrived at St. Ignace at noon Wednesday, October 17, 1911, depicted in this photograph submitted by reader Stephen LaJoice. Her arrival was cause for celebration, and community dignitaries, school children, and residents crowded up the track apron and into the deep hull of the large ship for a look-see. Writes Mr. LaJoice: “I count as many as four dogs who also showed up for the event.” A similar local delegation had seen the boat earlier that day in Mackinaw City when the ship stopped so the apron there could be fitted to the Chief’s deck tracks. Among the crew bringing the ship from its birthplace in Toledo were Commodore Lewis R. Boynton, his son, Captain Albert H. Boynton, and Chief Officer Fred Ryerse, probably among the three uniformed men standing on the bridge in this photograph. Chief Engineer was Richard Walsh. Chief Engineer John McLaughlin of Cheboygan also made the trip, monitoring the new engines for the railroad. The elevator that was used to raise the apron, seen so prominently in this photograph, collapsed August 3, 2011, and an effort is being made to restore the structure. At right: The railroad ferry Chief Wawatam arrived at St. Ignace at noon Wednesday, October 17, 1911, depicted in this photograph submitted by reader Stephen LaJoice. Her arrival was cause for celebration, and community dignitaries, school children, and residents crowded up the track apron and into the deep hull of the large ship for a look-see. Writes Mr. LaJoice: “I count as many as four dogs who also showed up for the event.” A similar local delegation had seen the boat earlier that day in Mackinaw City when the ship stopped so the apron there could be fitted to the Chief’s deck tracks. Among the crew bringing the ship from its birthplace in Toledo were Commodore Lewis R. Boynton, his son, Captain Albert H. Boynton, and Chief Officer Fred Ryerse, probably among the three uniformed men standing on the bridge in this photograph. Chief Engineer was Richard Walsh. Chief Engineer John McLaughlin of Cheboygan also made the trip, monitoring the new engines for the railroad. The elevator that was used to raise the apron, seen so prominently in this photograph, collapsed August 3, 2011, and an effort is being made to restore the structure. Tuesday, October 18, marks 100 years since the venerable railroad ferry Chief Wawatam first landed at St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, a new, powerful, steel icebreaker slated to replace the smaller, woodhulled St. Ignace, built in 1888. Her arrival drew dignitaries, school children, and other community members to see the awesome coal-fired steamer, which, at the time, was “the largest, fastest, most powerful, most modern ice-breaking car ferry in the world,” according to the ship’s foremost historian, Frances Burgtorf, in her 1976 book, “Chief Wawatam; The Story Of A Hand-Bomber.” In 1917, she would be the first boat to ferry automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac.

The Chief was built in just 4.5 months by The Toledo Shipbuilding Company for the Michigan Central Railroad Company, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Company, and the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railroad Company.

She left the Toledo yard Sunday, October 16, had her compass adjusted in Lake Erie, and stopped in Detroit to be viewed by the railroad officials before making an overnight run to the Straits.

Richard McLaughlin, a young oiler on the maiden trip, described the event in Mrs. Burgtorf’s book: “They brought her into Mackinaw City first ... to fit her to the apron ... they had to adjust the rails on it to fit the ones on the boat. And they we went over to St. Ignace and people crowded aboard. Same as at Mackinaw City ... they came on board there too, to see the boat.”

His father, John McLaughlin of Cheboygan, the chief engineer sent by the railroads to monitor the new equipment on the trip, recorded in his log for October 18, 1911, also published in the Burgtorf book: “They had her running wide open from about 4 a.m. We were up near Hammond’s Bay when we went on watch. We passed Cheboygan light at 8 a.m. and got to Mackinaw City at 9:15 and got to St. Ignace at noon.”

When the Chief arrived in the Straits, she joined two other railroad ferries, St. Ignace and Sainte Marie. Both had wood hulls. In late 1912, Sainte Marie’s engines would be salvaged for a new boat of the same name, but with a steel hull, and Sainte Marie (II) went into service in 1913 to support the Chief until sold in 1961. The St. Ignace was retired in 1913.

Chief Wawatam plied the Straits as a railroad ferry until 1984, then her hull was used as a barge from 1989 until 2009, when she was finally scrapped.

Public copies of the 1911 St. Ignace newspapers don’t exist, but the account of Chief Wawatam’s first day on the job, Sunday, October 29, appeared in the Friday, November 3, 1911 edition of the Cheboygan Democrat:

“The big new four hundred thousand dollar car ferry Chief Wawatam, that is to ply between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, went into commission for the first on Sunday afternoon last. A great Lakes dredge has been digging out a deeper channel around the dock at Mackinaw City, and supposed they had one deep enough and wide enough to permit the big boat to reach its slip, but on coming over on Sunday night with its load of passenger and freight cars and a small load of passengers the thing grounded just off the end of the dock and was obliged to lay there most of the night before it could release itself and get into the slip. The two passenger trains that are usually held for this connection pulled out before the boat made its landing, and left a Democrat representative standing on the dock watching the big fellow try to get off the mud, to remain in the city on the north until the noon train on the following day. He was not the only one left, however, for it was a mad bunch that came off the boat when it finally did get tied up and unloaded, and they were obliged to wait twelve hours or more for the next train out.

“To see the big ferry is worth getting left for, however, and if one can find a vacant place to roost in the Simpson house thereafter the time is well spent, but just at this time of the year that hotel is pretty near filled to the doors with hunters and travelers and one is lucky to get sleeping quarters.

“The big new boat that inspired this story is one of the largest and finest boats in the world of her kind. She is in fact, the greatest ice crusher. The boat has a capacity of 25 standard sized cars on her steel deck, there being four tracks. The new feature embodied in her construction is the fact that she is equipped with double engines forward and aft, with twin screws at the bow.

“The new boat is one of three which maintain freight traffic between upper and lower Michigan via the Straits of Mackinac. She is operated by the Pennsylvania Michigan Central and Duluth South Shore & Atlantic railroad lines.

“The boat is under the command of Capt. A. H. Boynton and Grandville Boynton for the night and day shifts, and she will carry a crew of forty people.

“The dredge will continue working at Mackinaw City and before it is through there will be a sufficient depth of water to enable the big craft to get in and out without trouble.”

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