The Faded and Tattered Memory of a Car Ferry

 

I think it was the summer I was 12. I don’t remember precisely. It was more than 40 years ago now, at any rate. Family friends offered me the chance to go with them on vacation. They may have offered it to my immediately elder brother first, I’m not sure, but it came down to me, and I jumped at the chance. They had two kids, slightly older than me. I learned about a lot of things I had never heard of before on that vacation. The route was up from where we lived near Chicago to Milwaukee where we took a car ferry across Lake Michigan to some city on the Michigan coast, probably Muskegon. Then from there to the rest of the vacation.

I had never heard of a car ferry. Even at that age, I was a history nut with two elder brothers, the elder of whom was also into history, especially military history. I had heard of Harper’s Ferry, of course, but that rather predated automobiles. My vision of a ferry was basically a raft that was pulled across via a rope or was poled across a river. I am not sure what I thought I would see when I heard we would be taking a car ferry across Lake Michigan, but when it arrived at the dock, it was not what I expected. To my eyes, it was a ship, a big ship.

I grew up in Joliet, IL. For some reason, ocean-going vessels did not come through town much. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t on the coast. I had seen pictures of ships. I had read about them. Perhaps I had seen some at a distance on family vacations that had included stops in Florida. But the closest I had seen in Joliet were barges going up and down the Desplaines River and the I&M Canal. The river barges do not compare to a Great Lakes car ferry.

I could not tell you for certain the size of the car ferry now. It seemed like hundreds of cars drove on, but memories can grow larger with time, especially as we grow larger, such as a 12-year-old boy growing into a man. With just a little research to jog the memory, I suspect it may have been SS Spartan. If not her, it was one of her sister ships. I remember that it was part of the Chessie System with the black and gold funnel, my school colors at the time. The SS Spartan ship has a 180-automobile capacity. It was originally built as a railroad car ferry. It was amazing to me. Over four hundred feet long, nearly sixty feet in the beam. It was the largest thing I had ever been on moving under its own power.

According to the information on Spartan’s sister ship, the more direct ferry route takes four hours. It may have been four or it may have been as many as six hours with the route we took. It was most of one of our sunny summer days on that vacation.

I don’t remember whether we were able to drive onto the ship and park on it, or if they had their people do that and we walked on, although I vaguely remember that we drove on. Memories are strange things, and they do play tricks on us. They had a large area for passengers that was either called the salon or saloon. I believe it was called the saloon because I vaguely recall getting a laugh out of that, as if some bar had been transported from the Old West onto a huge car ferry on Lake Michigan.

It was cooler steaming across the lake than it had been in Milwaukee. There was a constant breeze out on the open walkways on the sides of the ship. It was much more fun out there, watching the water, seeing the ship move, seeing the foam the ship created behind it. And we had the summer sun.

There was a crew-member, perhaps he had something to do with loading and unloading the ship, but during the crossing, he spent his time out on those outer walkways creating folk art. He would take a soda or beer can and slice it up and bend the strips around to make various things. I bought a rocking chair. It wasn’t a full-sized rocking chair, of course. The bottom of the can made up the base of the seat with all the strips curled around to make the heart-shaped back and the legs going down to the rockers. He cut off the top of the can and covered it with a bit of padding and red felt to be the upholstered seat of the rocking chair. He cut the rim off the top and used it to make the rockers and attach them to the strips still attached to the bottom of the can. Then he sprayed the metal of the can gold, and put the upholstered top on as the cushioned seat. As with the size of the ferry, I can’t say for certain how long this artwork took. Watching it as he sliced and bent the metal in a manner obviously long-practiced over hundreds or thousands of crossings, it seemed mere minutes, perhaps as long as a quarter hour, and then I had a small rocking chair in my hand, a present I gave my mother as a souvenir from the trip. That’s one thing I remember for certain, and she still has it.

It’s funny how much I don’t really remember after more than forty years. It was a bright new thing for me, going on a car ferry across a lake that seemed as big as an ocean, to be out in the middle with no land visible on either side. It was something new to see the crewmember transform an empty can into a small work of art. But now I can’t remember his face. I have a vague impression of a baseball cap, perhaps green, and hands moving deftly and quickly, but the rest is lost, faded to shadows of a summer long gone when a man who had been a Michigan Congressman was President.

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    If you are interested in ferries and history, this book might interest you. It was written by a friend 20 years ago, but should be available through interlibrary loan. (You could even work the concept into one of your novels.)

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the February theme of “We Need a Little Summer.” If it brings to mind a summer memory that you might share to warm us up, why not go to our schedule and sign-up sheet and sign up? We still have four openings in February.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    If you are interested in ferries and history, this book might interest you. It was written by a friend 20 years ago, but should be available through interlibrary loan. (You could even work the concept into one of your novels.)

    That does look interesting, and yes, I could work it into a novel. Thank you.

    • #3
  4. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    I’ve only been on a car ferry twice, from Bar Harbor ME to Yarmouth Nova Scotia, and to/from Prince Edward Island. But that was while bicycling from the Midwest to Eastern Canada, so I’ve never driven a car on/off the ferry.

    I avoid ferries in the Great Lakes by flying to island (Mackinac, South Bass, Kellys) airports.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Vectorman (View Comment):
    I avoid ferries in the Great Lakes by flying to island (Mackinac, South Bass, Kellys) airports.

    That works if they have airports. If I don’t have a volunteer for tomorrow, perhaps you’ll hear of a bit more from that trip over forty years ago.

    • #5
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Arahant: The SS Spartan ship has a one hundred-eighty automobile capacity. It was originally built as a railroad car ferry. It was amazing to me. Over four hundred feet long, nearly sixty feet in the beam. It was the largest thing I had ever been on moving under its own power.

    When I was building a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, my wife and kids flew down to visit.  While there, we went to Wilmington, NC, and toured the North Carolina, one of the penultimate class of US battleships.  In the first place, it’s huge.  And secondly, they’ve kept it in pretty good shape.  It had a 40mm flak tub that worked.  You could spin the wheels and make the gun traverse and elevate.

    I don’t know if people were smaller back then or not, but the watertight doors were so small it was hard to get through them.

     

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I don’t know if people were smaller back then…

    On average, yes.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    In the first place, it’s huge.

    Yep. The larger Iowa Class ships were about twice the length and beam of that car ferry. The North Carolina was slightly smaller than the Iowa. Huge ships, though. (And yes, @seawriter, I know there are larger today.)

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Yep. The larger Iowa Class ships were about twice the length and beam of that car ferry. The North Carolina was slightly smaller than the Iowa. Huge ships, though. (And yes, @seawriter, I know there are larger today.)

    Not battleships. Those are the largest battleships ever built or that ever will be built. (Admittedly that is also kind of like claim the title of the largest sailing ship-of-the-line ever built.)

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Not battleships. Those are the largest battleships ever built or that ever will be built.

    Well, the Yamoto class, but still WWII. It’s understood that the capital ships were already changing during that war to aircraft carriers.

    • #10
  11. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Not battleships. Those are the largest battleships ever built or that ever will be built.

    Well, the Yamoto class, but still WWII. It’s understood that the capital ships were already changing during that war to aircraft carriers.

    If the Japanese had understood that at the beginning of the war they might well have won.  They destroyed the battleships, but the carriers escaped by being out to sea.  If it had been the other way around, they could have picked off the battleships later using aircraft from their own carriers.

    • #11
  12. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Not battleships. Those are the largest battleships ever built or that ever will be built.

    Well, the Yamoto class, but still WWII. It’s understood that the capital ships were already changing during that war to aircraft carriers.

    The Yamato class are fish habitats, not battleships.

    • #12
  13. A-Squared Inactive
    A-Squared
    @ASquared

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

     

    Well, the Yamoto class, but still WWII. It’s understood that the capital ships were already changing during that war to aircraft carriers.

    If the Japanese had understood that at the beginning of the war they might well have won. They destroyed the battleships, but the carriers escaped by being out to sea. If it had been the other way around, they could have picked off the battleships later using aircraft from their own carriers.

    I’m currently reading  VDH’s book on WWII.

    I’m paraphrasing, but he says if the carriers were destroyed and the battleships were out to sea, no one would have said, “Thank god we still have our battleships.”

    VDH also condemned the Japanese commander for calling off the attack too early, saying a couple of more runs could have destroyed the ground facilities, but the Japanese were too cautious, not wanting to risk losing more planes.

    But, VDH basically says the Japanese never had a plan (nor the capability) to defeat America.

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Badger is the ferry that now goes from Ludington MI to Manitowoc WI. It’s an old, coal-fired boat, and it did once have a sister ship.  There is another, faster ferry that crosses from Milwaukee to somewhere  at our latitude in SW Michigan. We’ve taken the Badger a few times, the most recent being in fall 2016.

    I like car ferries, whether I’m traveling by car or bicycle. The most recent was one in Northern Ireland, and one day nearly 20 years ago I barely made the last ferry across the Shannon River to rejoin the rest of my family, who were traveling by car.  Some other car ferries we’ve taken have been in Washington State (Puget Sound or thereabouts?), the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Northwest Territories (as they then existed), to NewFoundland, to Prince Edward Island (where there is now a bridge), and one on the inside passage from Alaska to Prince Rupert. We’ve also taken the ferry across Lake Champlain. I’ve taken the ferry across the Mississippi between Iowa and Wisconsin,  two different  ferries across the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky, one near the San Jacinto battlefield in Texas.  And there are probably others I can’t think of at the moment. I hate to pass up an excuse to take a ferry.

    Oh, there was a ferry to Manitoulin Island in Ontario, and another to Drummond Island in Michigan and back. Once upon a time I thought it would be great to travel every car ferry in the United States and Canada, but soon realized there are just too many of them.

    I just now remembered the one I bicycled past a couple of days ago, at Port Aransas, Texas. We took that one by car last year.

    One nice thing about ferries is that you have to wait for them.

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Almost forgot the ferry to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

    • #15
  16. A-Squared Inactive
    A-Squared
    @ASquared

    Back on ferries, when I was at Ft Bragg, we used to go to the outer banks. There were two ways to get there, one of which involved a car ferry.

    The ferry route was shorter but took much longer. Nevertheless, it was my favorite route.

    • #16
  17. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    Well what do you know @arahant! I grew up in Lockport and went to Joliet Catholic H.S., are you still around there? I’m just North of Milwaukee, live right by the Lake. Feel free to PM me if you’re in the area.

    We took the ferry out of Manitowoc to Luddington when I was a kid. I recall being in awe as well-didn’t think as a kid you could just drive on/off a ‘ship’ like that, not exactly an I&M barge. I still enjoy seeing the occasional ship on Lake Michigan, wish there were more.

     

    • #17
  18. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    There are currently (to my knowledge) two car ferries sailing across Lake Michigan.  The older of the two is the SS Badger (the sister ship of the SS Spartan @arahant mentioned). The SS Badger sails from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, (and back) making two round trips each day during the season.  The SS Spartan is berthed in Ludington right next to the SS Badger’s docking site, but it doesn’t sail anymore (and I suspect it’s used for spare parts for the Badger). The other car ferry is smaller (and faster – it apparently makes four round trips a day) and sails between Muskegon, Michigan, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I’ve taken the SS Badger to Wisconsin and back five or six times in recent years to get to Door County Wisconsin (the peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan) and up to Northern Wisconsin to visit my wife’s relatives. It’s a great way to go because it saves a lot of travel time and it’s fun and relaxing – but it is fairly pricey. The Milwaukee to Muskegon car ferry is the Lake Express. It takes 2 1/2 hours for its trip – as opposed to the 4 hours the Badger takes – but it’s smaller (and newer, I believe). I’ve never taken the Lake Express (no need to go to Milwaukee), so I can’t comment on it. I believe the season for both these boats starts in April, so it’s time to start planning a trip!

    • #18
  19. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    I like ferries. Drivers drive their own cars onto every ferry I have been on.

    As a teenager riding my bicycle around Newport Beach, California (1970’s, before everything got so congested), I frequently used the 3 car Balboa Island ferry. Several of my high school classmates worked the ferry, especially during the summer when it was busier. 800 foot crossing, but the ferries were self-propelled. The dance among the three ferry barges in high traffic times was an interesting bit of choreography. Still going. Still using the same barges that were old in the 1970’s.

    The largest ferry I have been on (and it’s not that large) is the Jamestown (VA) ferry that forms part of Virginia state highway 31. It fascinated me even as an adult. It had a “lounge” above the car deck, but it wasn’t a long ride, so not much call for entertainment there.

    From the OP:

    “My vision of a ferry was basically a raft that was pulled across via a rope or was poled across a river.”

    A cable-powered ferry still crosses the Willamette River in Oregon, connecting Canby and Wilsonville.

    Despite living in western New York State, I never rode the massive “fast ferry” that operated very briefly between Rochester, NY and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 750 passengers, 220 cars, 10 buses or trucks (tractor-trailers). [Much speculation on the failure of the ferry is that the ferry was too big to be a sustainable business enterprise.]

     

     

    • #19
  20. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    In the first place, it’s huge.

    Yep. The larger Iowa Class ships were about twice the length and beam of that car ferry. The North Carolina was slightly smaller than the Iowa. Huge ships, though. (And yes, @seawriter, I know there are larger today.)

    Those last two classes of battleships the US built were lovely.

    • #20
  21. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    I’ve used a couple river-crossing ferries.  This one’s in Washington State on route 21, although I understand it’s been replaced by a newer one since this picture was taken in 1991.

    There’s also an active ferry in Wisconsin near Merrimac on WI 113.

    • #21
  22. Old Buckeye Inactive
    Old Buckeye
    @OldBuckeye

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Almost forgot the ferry to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

    Arahant: we took a car ferry across Lake Michigan to some city on the Michigan coast

    I’ve taken both of these trips too. Beaver Island was beautifully unspoiled when I visited, but that was about 40 years ago. The one crossing I remember as the scariest is the one across the Tennessee River in between Dayton and Decatur, TN,  before they built a bridge at Rt. 30. It was a small raft that only fit our van. Like Arahant, memory plays tricks, but I seem to recall that the guy poled us across. Either that or a mule pulled it from the opposite bank. :)

    • #22
  23. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Arahant: I don’t remember whether we were able to drive onto the ship and park on it, or if they had their people do that and we walked on, although I vaguely remember that we drove on. Memories are strange things, and they do play tricks on us.

    If it weren’t for my hubby and his nearly eidetic memory – I’d have so much less of the past to hold onto with absolute certainty.

    It’s so sweet that you mother still has that rocking chair.

     

    • #23
  24. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    My drives to Joliet and back currently skirt the southern end of the lake as there isn’t much point to crossing by ferry. I’d be picking up the traffic through Chicago from the north in exchange for the traffic past Chicago from the south.

    I vaguely recall taking a car ferry somewhere in the South when I was on vacation with my parents when I was a kid. I took the Staten Island ferry to Staten Island and back around the same time, but we were foot traffic and spent most of the time out on deck.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    There is another, faster ferry that crosses from Milwaukee to somewhere at our latitude in SW Michigan.

    Yeah. Much more modern, a catamaran, or possibly using SWATH or a variation. Also much smaller. I’m sure for most people, the trip’s only being 2-1/2 hours is also a plus. I’m not sure whether that would have been a plus for a twelve-year-old who loved the water, but the construction of that ferry would have been.

    One of the companies crossing to Mackinac Island uses fast cats. It’s a fun ride, but no cars, just passenger ferries.

    • #25
  26. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    There is an active cable-pulled (probably diesel powered) ferry at White’s Ferry north of Leesburg, Va.  That is used as a commuter route, but closes during high water on the Potomac.  It is good for a bike, since it is cheap ($.50 ??) and on the Maryland side is the C&O canal which goes from Cumberland, Md to Washington.

    One of my early – and vague – memories is taking a vacation up the East coast and taking a Ferry across the Chesapeake.  I am pretty sure that it is where the double Bay Bridge is now.  I don’t remember much about that, but do remember the motel where we stayed on the North side.  It had a swimming pool with underwater lights!  At night, it was like being in space.

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    WI Con (View Comment):
    I grew up in Lockport and went to Joliet Catholic H.S.

    Well, nobody’s perfect. Hey, @percival, look what we got here? We went to Joliet West.

    WI Con (View Comment):
    …are you still around there?

    No, I live north of Detroit and have for 28 years. I occasionally visit the Chicago area. Still have a brother and his family there. But I’m unlikely to get up to Milwaukee.

     

    • #27
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Pugshot (View Comment):
    The Milwaukee to Muskegon car ferry is the Lake Express. It takes 2 1/2 hours for its trip – as opposed to the 4 hours the Badger takes – but it’s smaller (and newer, I believe).

    Yes, definitely newer. I have linked to their site in response to The Reticulator above. I would not put their ferry before 1990, although perhaps @seawriter has a much more expert opinion that he’d like to share. (Also the exact type of construction if you can tell from the pictures. I do suspect something interesting beneath the water line.) SS Spartan was from the early 1950’s and was a steamship, as is SS Badger.

    • #28
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    More about SWATH, for those who don’t know. It’s interesting stuff.

    • #29
  30. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    Drivers drive their own cars onto every ferry I have been on.

    I thought that I remembered that we drove on, but I was in the back seat, not at the wheel. Something about being twelve years old. 😜

    • #30
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