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After World War I, Michigan faced a unique challenge in getting automobiles across the Straits of Mackinac. For many years, the railroad car ferries Ste. Marie and Chief Wawatam served as the primary method of transporting goods and people across the waterway. Public frustration had grown with expensive transport of automobiles by the railroad car ferries. It cost $40 to ship an automobile on a flatcar across the Straits, and the gas tank had to be emptied beforehand. With the growing number of automobiles and the desire of their owners to get to and from the Upper Peninsula, some Michigan residents began calling for an alternative.
State Ferry Service
Michigan Public Act 106 of 1923 created a state ferry service across the Straits of Mackinac. The Department of State Highways was to administer the service.
In July 1923, the Department of State Highways acquired the former Detroit River ferry Ariel. On August 2, 1931, Ariel, carrying three automobiles, made her first trip across the Straits of Mackinac. With only a twenty-automobile capacity, the boat was too small for the service intended. Even so, she carried 10,351 passenger cars across the Straits during the first season of work, so the need to expand the fleet became apparent.
Sainte Ignace and Mackinaw City
The U.S. created a massive national shipbuilding program during World War I. Because of the short duration of American involvement in the war, there were a terrific number of excess ships after the war ended. The State of Michigan saw an opportunity. In 1923, it purchased two boats – the Colonel Pond and the Colonel Card – from the United States Shipping Board. The State paid $30,000 total for the two of them.
The Colonel Pond and the Colonel Card were each 130 feet long with a 38-foot beam. In the spring of 1924, they were lengthened an additional fifty feet by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Detroit. This enabled them to carry forty automobiles each. The new craft were named Sainte Ignace and Mackinaw City.
Expansion and End
The new automobile ferries were an immediate success, with cross-channel traffic quadrupling in their second year (That year, some 38,000 automobiles made the trip.). After years of service, the fleet expanded, first by modifying their boats with additional decks, and later with new (to the fleet) boats, including former railroad car ferries. The other boats serving over the years included the Straits of Mackinac (It began service in 1928); City of Cheboygan (1937), City of Munising (1938), City of Petoskey (1940) and Vacationland (1952).
With the opening of the Mackinac Bridge in November 1957, the state-operated automobile ferry system came to an end. It had operated for thirty-four years and transported approximately twelve million vehicles and thirty million passengers.
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record,
Vol. 32, No. __, December 15, 1923. p. 14.
Vol. 33, No. 23, June 7, 1924. p. 13.
Vol. 37, No. 5, January 30, 1926. p. 8.
Vol. 41, No. 18, May 5, 1928. p. 20.
Vol. 22, No. 26, February 2, 1924. p. 9.
For Further Research: Archives of Michigan Collections
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