I have a picture hanging in my dining room of the Mackinac Bridge being built. This picture has always fascinated me. Every time I look at it, I discover something new. A friend was visiting on their way to Mackinac Island and we got talking about the bridge and the ferries before the bridge. I wanted to learn more about the ferries that would transport people and their cars across the Straits of Mackinac.

I knew they existed but beyond that I did not know anything about the ferries. After all, the bridge opened a couple of years before I was born. But that conversation started me on a path to find out more about the car ferries.

Digging for information

It was not as simple as I thought it would be. With Michigan surrounded by water the need for ferries has been around for a long time and the need to transport goods and people across many bodies of water in and near Michigan. There was not as much about just the ferry taking folks between the 2 peninsulas as I thought there would be.

Vacationland Car Ferry

Vacationland, the newest and largest car ferry added to Straits of Mackinaw fleet. To improve service between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, Mich. Date issued: 1930 – 1945 (approximate)

Before the bridge was built, the only way to cross the straits with vehicles was by using the car ferries. These ferries were owned and operated by the State of Michigan, specifically the Michigan State Highway Department (now the Michigan Department of Transportation). They provided an essential transportation link for motorists traveling between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The Michigan State Ferries played a crucial role in providing transportation across the Straits of Mackinac.

The car ferry service operated from 1923 until the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957. The state ferry operation was basically a highway over water. It was the first service like this operated by a state highway department.

The fleet of car ferries included vessels like the SS City of Cheboygan, SS City of Alpena, SS City of Munising, SS Chief Wawatam, and others. These ferries would transport vehicles, passengers, cargo and even railway cars between the two peninsulas.

The ferry system operated several routes for vehicles and passengers to cross between St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula and Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula. The ferry service operated year-round, navigating the Straits of Mackinac. It was critical to maintain the vital connection between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

One million cars yearly

In the mid 1950’s the car ferries carried almost 1 million cars a year. There were times when they had five ferries running with a total capacity of 500 cars. The largest ferry could carry 150 cars.

The car ferries became an iconic symbol of Michigan’s transportation history. They played a significant role in the economic development and tourism of the region. As traffic volumes increased there was a need for a more efficient and year-round transportation solution. Plans were made for the construction of the Mackinac Bridge.

With the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957, the car ferry service gradually became obsolete. The state-operated ferry system was discontinued. The bridge provided a permanent and more efficient connection between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. There was not a need for ferry transportation.

The last ferry operated by the Michigan State Ferry System was the City of Petoskey. She made her final voyage on November 1, 1957, marking the end of the state-operated ferry service.

SS Chief WaWatam

SS Chief Wawatam served as a train ferry, passenger ferry and icebreaker that operated year-round at the Straits of Mackinac between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, Michigan.

Transporting Rail Cars across the Strait

We mentioned railway cars above, these were carried by the Mackinac Transportation Company which was formed in 1881. The Grand Rapids & Indian, Michigan Central, and Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette Railroads created the company. They were pioneers in ice breaking and ship design for the rail cars. They also carried passengers and their cars until an act of the Michigan State Legislature was enacted. The State took over after complaints that the railways service was too expensive and unreliable.

Rail ferry service continued until 1984 when the dock at St. Ignace Collapsed. The railway’s ships were used to carry autos for the State Ferry Service during the heavy ice periods in winter.

Today, the Michigan State Ferries hold a nostalgic place in the state’s history. Some of the former ferry vessels have been preserved as museum ships or historical landmarks. The Mackinac Bridge remains a vital transportation link, connecting the two peninsulas and serving as an iconic landmark in Michigan.

Michigan State Ferry System/Michigan State Car Ferries Historic Site & Marker

Two World Wars and the Depression (1915-1945) – Registered in 2000 and erected in 2000 – ID #S670

Located at 321 S. Huron, Mackinaw City – Lat: 45.77772200 / Long: -84.72591800

Michigan State Ferry System - Michigan State Car FerriesMichigan State Ferry System

In 1923, in response to increasing automobile traffic, the Michigan Highway Department established the Michigan State Ferry System to connect the Upper and Lower Peninsulas by transporting travelers and their automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac. During the first year, the ferry Ariel, with a capacity of 15 to 20 vehicles per trip, carried 10,351 vehicles. By 1953 the highway department had invested $15 million in five ferries. The state built docks here and at St. Ignace. As the demand for service grew, passengers could wait more than ten hours, especially during deer hunting season. The ferries ran until 1957 when the Mackinac Bridge opened, and the dock was leased to public and private interests.

Michigan State Car Ferries

The Michigan Highway Department operated car ferries between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace for thirty-four years beginning in 1923. The first vessel, Ariel, was a small wooden boat built in 1881 as a river ferry. Unsuited to the rough waters of the Great Lakes, Ariel was relocated in 1926 to carry passengers between Port Huron and Sarnia, Canada. The State Ferry System operated five vessels during the summer season and contracted with the Mackinac Transportation Company to carry automobiles on Chief Wawatam and Sainte Marie during the winter. The “Era of the State Ferries” officially ended on November 1, 1957, when the first vehicles crossed the Mackinac Bridge.

The Mackinac Bridge website has a picture album of all the ships that were used over the 34 years. Click on image below to visit the site.