A Life Long “love” of Lake Michigan Railroad Car Ferries

Okay, now you can go ahead and think I’m strange. Yes, I LOVE Lake Michigan Railroad car ferries, a haunting memory from my childhood. Nothing takes on the challenge of the “Timesaver” Switching Layout better than switching freight cars on and off the deck of a car ferry. It’s fun, frustrating, challenging, and a great blend of the nautical and landlubber hobbies.

I was exposed to Lake Michigan Railroad car ferries from being born in and seeing these beasts sailing into, my birth city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. As a consequence, I was not exposed on a daily basis to the likes of the “modern” boats, such as the Chesapeake & Ohio’s Spartan, Badger, or the City of Midland 41. Oh, these boats came up to do business with the Soo Line at the slip there, but I never saw them; these boats usually came to Manitowoc to visit the Soo Line on Saturday’s or Sundays, when Dad wasn’t working, or, if Dad was working, Mother and I didn’t venture out on Sunday. My earliest memories of car ferries in Manitowoc are those of the likes of Ann Arbor No. 7, which became AA (Ann Arbor) Boat Viking, Arthur K. Atkinson, and C&O’s Pere Marquette 21 and Pere Marquette 22, classic examples of Lake Michigan car ferries built in Manitowoc proper, and City of Saginaw 31 and City of Flint 32, which, to me, still, to this day, looked the part of being a “Modern” boat. The City of Saginaw & City of Flint combined a sharply upward curved forecastle, with the “standard” pilothouse like that on the Pere Marquette boats, a pleasing esthetic all the way around.

As a matter of “taste” I always preferred, and, still do, the look of the C&O boats. I don’t know why; maybe it was the older boats combining older lines with revised modernity built into them to make the C&O fleet “match”; I never understood why I lean to the C&O’s boats. It could be, too, that when Mother & I would go downtown in Manitowoc there was always a C&O boat unloading to the Soo at the slip there, easy to watch from South 8th street. Maybe I always liked the slightly soot-obscured C&O Herald up on the side of the funnel (smokestack to you landlubbers!) proudly proclaiming, “C&O For Progress”. I dunno. The lean I have toward C&O boats has always perplexed me.

Not that there was anything wrong with Ann Arbor’s boats. Annie was still sailing the likes of the Wabash, the Arthur K. Atkinson, Ann Arbor No. 5 and Ann Arbor No. 7 when I was “But a’ wee Lad”. It remains an eerie memory of watch Ann Arbor No. 7 slip through the open 10th Street drawbridge in Manitowoc, as AA # 7 left the Soo Line Slip heading back out to Lake Michigan in a heavy fog. That memory, of the odd feeling of “floating” within the fog bank, the near-vertigo experience of knowing there as something solid around me, and seeing the ghostly image of AA # 7 sailing serenely past, obscured mostly by the dense fog, a scene that would have looked completely at home in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, still gives me the “willies” yet to this day. Add the sound of AA # 7’s mournful fog wistle signal from the ship’s whistle along with a dim outline of the ship in the fog, you get the setting for a movie backdrop.

Annie’s earlier boats sported single funnels (smokestacks to you landlubbers!) with a white band and a red letter’ A’ on the side; AA # 5 & AA # 7 had twin funnels with a red letter’ A’ on each, making the “AA” of Ann Arbor’s Railroad Reporting marks work so much the better for the boat’s owner markings. Lake Michigan car ferries were unique, not only in application, but in design. Granted, prior to the C&O adding modernizing touches to City of Saginaw 31, City of Flint 32, Pere Marquette 21 and 22, Ann Arbor’s Arthur K Atkinson & Viking, all were of a more-or-less standardized idea of design; with a car ferry, they had to be to fit in the slips, and they had to have a flat car deck for facilitation of loading/unloading freight cars. As foursquare as a design could be because of those necessities, there was a certain “design panache” possessed by the car ferry. Add the fact they looked BEST while steaming across the Lake at full speed, or equally at home in the ferry slip being loaded/unloaded. Lake Michigan car ferries had an aura all their own.

For “panache”, I would be remiss to not mention the bow-loading, hand-fired Chief Wawatam, of which my favorite railroad, the Soo Line, was once a part owner. The Chiefs latter day history was a checkered one, forever trying to meet minimum standards to keep afloat, but her unique design made her the undisputed Queen of any Lake, even though the Chief only plied the waters between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. Older than any of the Lake Michigan car ferries she almost outlasted, (the Chief was built in 1911) she sailed on to 1984 before finally being withdrawn forever. It is a sad commentary that the Chief was not saved; she was a true memorial to older, less technical nautical ways, right down to her hand-fired boilers below the car deck.

I have always wanted to built a scale model of one of the car ferries, perhaps Pere Marquette 21, but, my God, do you realize how BIG a scale model of a car ferry is!??? Where would you put it without a layout? Still, I have a nagging pang to build a model of one of the boats I saw as a child. It would be fun just to build a display of the Soo’s Manitowoc Boat Yard and switch cars onto and off of the model. I just don’t have a Ryder Truck to haul such around in!

I do have access to side and deck drawings that one could turn out a scale model from, quite easily. I talked with two gentlemen at the train show in Madison this year and even most of the boat’s fittings, such as lifeboats, anchors, radar antennae, lifesaver “doughnuts” are available in scale. But an undertaking such as building a scale model of a car ferry requires at least a year of steady work to accomplish, and, of course, there is always the issue of where to store it once you’ve built it. It’s not like I can’t do it; I don’t think I will right now.

Only Badger still sails, as far as I am aware, carrying on a tradition started in 1892 by Ann Arbor No. 1, a wooden hulled boat that sailed until 1910 when she burned in her slip at Manitowoc. Badger no longer carries freight cars on the car deck, but is strictly devoted to automobile travel. In her wake rest the memories of a legion of cross-lake car ferries long since broken up. Should I get the opportunity to see Badger sail, she will encompass the memories of the likes of the boats I saw steaming along when I was a child.

Only I prefer to think she has a car deck full of freight cars!

‘Til next time,

See our Permissions page for use and copyright information.