We wrote about the Michigan Car Ferry System that primarily took cars across the Straits of Mackinac last week. While researching those ferries we discovered that there were ferries that transported railcars. We touched on it a little last week with the Chief WaWatam that would transport the railcars across the Straits. 

Michigan State Car Ferries, also known as the “Michigan State Railways,” had a significant role in the transportation history of the Great Lakes region. Operating primarily during the early to mid-20th century, these ferries were responsible for transporting railroad cars across Lake Michigan between Michigan and Wisconsin.

SS Sainte Marie 1911

SS Sainte Marie 1911

The origins of the Michigan State Car Ferries can be traced back to the Michigan Central Railroad’s desire to establish a direct rail connection between Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois. The construction of rail lines across Michigan enabled the transportation of goods and people more efficiently. However, the biggest obstacle was crossing Lake Michigan, which presented a significant barrier to continuous rail service.

To overcome this challenge, the Michigan Central Railroad proposed the use of car ferries to transport loaded rail cars across the lake. In 1892, the railroad launched its first car ferry, the “City of Milwaukee,” to provide a link between Frankfort, Michigan, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This marked the beginning of the Michigan State Car Ferries’ operations.

Over the years, the Michigan State Car Ferries expanded their fleet and routes to serve various ports along Lake Michigan. The fleet included vessels such as the “City of Grand Rapids,” “City of Saginaw,” “City of Flint,” “City of Midland 41,” and many others. These ferries were designed to accommodate both freight and passenger traffic, allowing for the transportation of goods and people simultaneously.

Connecting Lower and Upper Peninsula Railways

The Mackinac Transportation Company (MTC) would transport railroad cars across the Straits of Mackinac. The Grand Rapids & Indian, Michigan Central, and Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette Railroads created the company and were pioneers in ice breaking and ship design for the rail cars.

The Michigan Central Railway came up through the eastern side of the state and the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway came through the western side. Once the rail cars arrived in the Upper Peninsula the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette Railway connected Marquette and St. Ignace.

SS Algomah

The first vessel was a steamship SS Algomah that struggled due to heavy copper traffic was not able to easily transfer from train to ship in barrels. They then purchase a barge name Betsy that was able to carry 4 railcars when it was town by Algomah. This barge had little capacity and the crew was left out in the elements. The Algomah was also too light to break ice effectively while towing the barge plus there were concerns that the barge could overtake the ferry if she had to stop suddenly to break ice.

MTC went on to order a icebreaking rail ferry named SS St. Ignace in 1887. She was put into service in 1888, she could carry ten railcars and had a propeller in her bow to break the ice ahead of the hull. The SS St. Ignace could not handle all the rail traffic so in 1893 a larger vessel was entered service. The SS Sainte Marie had a capacity of eighteen railcars.

Chief Wawatam

Chief Wawatam

The Algomah was sold to the Island Transportation Company in 1895 to serve Mackinac Island. The St. Ignace sand at the dock in St. Ignace in 1902 but was brought to the surface and returned to service.

There was still a need for larger ships with higher capacity. In 1911 MTC’s largest and first steel hulled vessel SS Chief WaWatam entered service. She could carry 26 rail cars and was chartered by the state for winter service of moving automobiles across the straits.

The Sainte Marie was sold and converted to a barge. Her engines were used in a second Sainte Marie vessel delivered in 1913. At that time the St. Ignace was sold and was eventually cut down to a barge until her disposal in 1930.

Mackinac Bridge Opens

When the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957 the MTC lost the winter auto transport revenue. By the early 60’s they were losing at least $100,000 annually. Their request to terminate ferry service was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). They were finally given permission to end operation in 1976 after repeated requests to the ICC. The State of Michigan stepped in and decided to subsidize the company in order to continue the service. Chief Wawatam was the only ferry operating and continued until 1984 when the St. Ignace dock collapsed.

In 1986 the Soo Line Railroad abandoned the unused railroad to the St. Ignace docks and the tracks to Mackinac City were removed shortly after. The Chief Wawatam was sold to be converted into a barge in 1988.

Across Lake Michigan

Midland41-Outbound Ludington-1976

Midland41-Outbound Ludington-1976

Ann Arbor Railroad, Grand Trunk and Chesapeake and Ohio ran train ferries across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin. Many would also carry passengers on the upper decks.

The Ann Arbor Railroad started running ferries in 1892. They started with their Betsie Lake, Elberta, Michigan to Manistique, Michigan, and Kewaunee Wisconsin. In 1894 they added Menominee, Michigan to their stop and Gladstone, Michigan in 1895. Frankfort, Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin was added in 1896. Service ended in 1982.

Grand Trunk created the Grand Trunk Milwaukee Car Ferry Company. Starting in 1903 ran ferries from Grand Haven, Michigan to Milwaukee, Wisconsin ending that route in 1933. In 1933 they ran the Muskegon, Michigan to Milwaukee route until 1978.

Pere Marquette Railway, which later became part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway ran ferries from Ludington, Michigan. They had routes to Milwaukee, Kewaunee, and Manitowoc Wisconsin. Their last route was Kewaunee which ended in 1983. The Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company acquired the ferries and ran them until 1990.

Detroit to Windsor

Ferry docking with railcars in Detroit

Ferry docking with railcars in Detroit

There were several rail lines that operated ferries across the Detroit River. Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Michigan Central and Wabash Railroad all at some point operated rail ferries. Norfolk Southern purchased 3 ferries from Michigan Central in 1910 and continued operation until 1994.

In 1910 the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel Opened connecting Detroit and Windsor. The tunnel was built by the Detroit River Tunnel company for the Canada Southern Railway. Canadian Pacific Railway still uses the tunnel today.

Grosse Ile, Michigan to Gordon, Ontario

Grosse Ile Township is 12 islands in the Detroit River, the largest being Grosse Ile considered the main island. In 1873 The Canada Southern Railroad Company establish a railroad from Michigan mainland to the island to carry both passengers and freight. Bridges were built over the Detroit River and tracks laid across Grosse Ile. Trains would be able to be transferred to a ferryboat on Stony Island (off the east shoreline of the main island). From there they were taken to Ontario, Canada and they put back on a rail track to head to Buffalo, New York, and further east.

Connecting Michigan to the rest of the Midwest

During the peak of their operations, the railcar ferries played a vital role in the economic development of the region. They facilitated the transportation of goods such as coal, automobiles, lumber, and other commodities. They connected the industries of Michigan with markets in the Midwest.

However, with the advent of modern transportation technologies, the demand for car ferry services declined. The last car ferry operated by the Michigan State Railways, the “City of Midland 41,” made its final voyage on September 6, 1984, marking the end of an era.

Today, the Michigan State Car Ferries have been preserved as historical landmarks. Several of the retired vessels have been preserved and converted into museum ships. Visitors can learn about and experience the history of Great Lakes transportation firsthand.

We included the ferries that serviced areas of Michigan outside of Northern Michigan because we felt they were important to the story. They also provided ways for freight to be delivered to Northern Michigan from points west and east.