2011-10-13 / News

Mackinaw Historical Society Will Celebrate Chief Wawatam

The Mackinaw Area Historical Society will conduct its annual meeting at the at the Mackinaw Area Public School on Central Avenue at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 17, using the occasion to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Chief Wawatam, last of the Straits’ great train ferries. The event will take place in the multipurpose room of the school, where the society will conduct a brief business meeting and area librarian Jolene Michaels will introduce the new Chief Wawatam library exhibit.

In a prior lecture Mackinac State Historic Parks historian Brian Jae- schke spoke to the society about the railroad ferries at the Straits, including the Chief Wawatam, the St. Ignace, and two ferries named Ste. Marie. The train ferries provided year-around service between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace from the early 1900s to 1984. Operation of the ferries was a severe challenge because of the heavy ice buildup in winter. Mr. Jaeschke said the Chief, which began service in 1911, was revolutionary in design, with its bow propeller able to both maneuver the boat and suck water out from underneath the ice so that it could be broken by gravity.

The Wawatam was 338 feet in length and had a beam of 62 feet. Her three propellers, two in the stern and one on the bow, were driven by coal-fired triple-expansion steam engines. The Chief is believed to have been the last hand-fired, coal-burning boat in commercial service on the Great Lakes.

The train ferries carried freight cars, not locomotives, and from the 1930s to 1952, were used to transport automobiles from December through April , when the car ferries did not operate. In 1952, the car ferry Vacationland, built for icebreaking, entered service.

The train ferries ended up as barges or were scrapped. The Chief’s wheel, bell, furniture, and pilot house equipment have been stored by Mackinac State Historic Parks, and several items are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

The public is invited to the annual meeting Monday and refreshments will be served.

The meeting will also cover an update on the heritage village and the election of three new members to the society’s board of directors.

The society encourages members to bring friends, families, and neighbors to the meeting.

Next month, Mr. Jaeschke will speak to the society about the ferry services Monday, November 14.

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