Chief Wawatam; A Familiar
By James Donahue
Older residents of Michigan, especially those who lived near or rode the ferries the preceded
the bridge at the Straits of Mackinaw, fondly remember the railroad car ferry Chief Wawatam.
The old Chief’s
black smoke could be seen hovering over the straits from miles away, and people in the two port towns remember the sounds
of the vessel coming to dock and the steam engine that moved the cars on and off its decks. The sounds and visions were a
way of life for residents of both St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.
From the day it went
in service in 1911, this 338-foot coal-fired vessel carried on a 73-year-long career carrying railroad cars between Mackinaw City and
St. Ignace. It was the fourth consecutive steamer to take on the job of hauling railroad freight cars over the five-mile stretch
of water separating Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
The Chief was owned and
operated by the Mackinac Transportation Company, which was, in effect, a railroad car ferry service for three other railroads
that reached the straits. Those railroads were Michigan Central and Grand Rapids & Indiana Railway from the south, and
the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette
from the north.
It may be of interest
that the railroads cooperated in developing Mackinac Island into a major vacation destination
in the 1880s.
The Chief Wawatam was
unique in that it was destined to be what was believed to be the last hand fired steamer operating on the Great
Lakes by the time it retired from the ferry service in 1984. The vessel was designed by Frank E. Kirby, builder
of many other well-known boats the plied the lakes including the Tashmoo and Put-In-Bay.
The Chief was a steel
ice-breaker so it could operate year around, making that trip across the straits every day. The vessel was capable of carrying
22 fully loaded freight cars. Unlike other ferries of the day, the Chief Wawatam loaded through the bow. It had one bow propeller
which was used to break up ice, and two stern propellers, all powered by three triple-expansion engines rated at a total of
When the automobile came
upon the scene, and good roads were built leading into both St. Ignace and Mackinaw
City, there was a demand for a ferry service to also move people and
For some reason the Chief
Wawatam’s owners never encouraged this service. They did, however, offer passenger service until 1958, and carried passenger
cars as “freight.” To have a car carried over the straits on the Chief, owners were required to have the gas tanks
drained and then load them on freight railroad cars. The charge was $40 for each vehicle carried.
The high rates and limited
passenger space led to the formation of the Michigan State Ferries in 1923. Thus the ferries Straits of Mackinaw, Mackinaw City and
St. Ignace began operating between the two towns along side the Chief Wawatam and the Sainte Marie, the other railroad car
ferry operating at that time.
The Mackinaw Bridge was completed and opened for
traffic in 1957, which quickly put an end to the automobile ferry service.
The Chief Wawatam was
beginning to wear out by then and her days as an operating ferry were numbered. By 1965 the ship’s boilers deteriorated
so a tug, the John Purves, was chartered to push the ferry across the straits. The boilers were still used to build steam
to operate the winches and sea gate.
By April, 1968, the Chief
was laid up at Cheboygan in a retired state. Its replacement, the tug Muskegon
and barge Manistee, could not cope with the ice and the Chief was called out of retirement in January of 1969.
The old ferry serviced
on a limited capacity, being towed as a barge, until 1984 when the dock at St. Ignace collapsed. Also that year the last rail
link to St. Ignace was abandoned, so that eliminated any further need for a ferry service at the straits.
The Chief was laid up
at Mackinaw City
until 1988 when it was sold to Purvis Marine LTD, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and was cut down for use as a deck barge. The vessel
remains in barge service under its original name.
The Mind of James Donahue