For slightly over 100 years railroad ferries connected the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan.
In 1881 the Grand Rapids & Indiana, Michigan Central, and Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette railroads formed the Mackinac Transportation Company (MTC). The intent was to ferry railroad cars and passengers across the straits of Mackinac between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, Michigan.
Advent of the Bow Propeller
The first ferry of the MTC was the Algomah. The Algomah was wholly inadequate as she was wooden and open to the seas. Furthermore the poor steersman had to man the tiller while exposed to the elements, not a pleasant duty in the harsh winters of Northern Michigan. The MTC ordered a second ferry in 1887, the St. Ignace. The new ferry had the distinction of having a bow propeller. The bow propeller was used to help break up ice during the winter months. Another ferry, Saint Marie I, was put into service in 1893 and the Algomah was sold in 1895.
Russians visit St. Ignace
The St. Ignace and Saint Marie I gained the reputation of never being stopped by the winter ice. Although, the Saint Marie I did suffer some heavy damage from ice in 1904 and had to go to Detroit for repairs. The reputation of the ferries brought the Russian Navy to the Straits during the winter of 1900-01. Vice Admiral Stepan Ossipovitch Makarov visited St. Ignace to see the ferries in action. The Russian government wanted to establish a ferry across Lake Baikal in Siberia while building the Trans-Siberian railroad around the south end of the lake. The Vice-Admiral was impressed with what he saw and the Russians ordered a ferry based on the Saint Marie I design. The ferry, Baikal, was built in England, dismantled, and shipped to Siberia.
Disaster at the Dock
The St. Ignace had the notoriety of suffering a major accident while docked. A load of iron ore cars was being loaded onto the ferry and the switching crew did not follow the established protocols for loading. The crews loaded a set of cars onto one side of the ferry causing a weight imbalance and the St. Ignace flipped over and sank at the pier. The St. Ignace was raised and eventually retired in 1910 when the Chief Wawatam was put into service. The Saint Marie I had her engines removed and installed in the new Saint Marie II. The old Saint Marie I was then converted into a barge.
Stuck in the Ice
The Saint Marie II and the Chief Wawatam were not as fortunate as the earlier ferries when it came to making it though the ice. In 1922 the Chief Wawatam became stuck in the ice and was marooned for a week. The Saint Marie II was sent to help and she also became stuck. The 160 passengers onboard the Chief Wawatam were evacuated by horse and some walked back to shore. The Chief Wawatam again was stuck in the ice for 100 hours in 1937.
The State of Michigan began a passenger car ferry business across the straits starting in 1923. The ferries used by the state could not break through the winter ice so the MTC ferries carried the automobiles during the winter. Starting in 1936 the state chartered the Chief Wawatam and the Saint Marie II to carry autos and the arrangement lasted until 1952.
Warriors Become Relics
The Saint Marie II was sold for scrap metal in 1961 and the Chief Wawatam was reduced to sporadic service. Sometimes the Wawatam would be used to ferry the rail cars and other times a tugboat would ferry the rail cars across using barges. By 1984 the Chief Wawatam had outlived its usefulness and it was taken out of service. Like some of the ferries before it, the proud Chief Wawatam suffered the indignity of being transformed into a barge.
Rail service was completely abandoned to St. Ignace and Mackinaw City in the 1980’s thereby eliminating the need for any rail ferries. For slightly over 100 years the railroad ferries connected the upper and lower peninsulas and like the other Great Lakes ferry operators, the Ann Arbor, Grand Trunk, and Chesapeake and Ohio, the MTC faded into history.
- Hilton, George W. The Great Lakes Car Ferries, Howell-North, Berkeley Ca. 1962.