When ferry service first began across Lake Michigan, freight was unloaded from rail cars and placed on the ferry, to be reloaded onto trains across the water. This slow, expensive process was replaced by ferries capable of carrying fully loaded rail cars. The Ann Arbor pioneered in this daring experiment and although it success was copied by other railroads, its ferries kept the line profitable. [Image at left by Byron Babbish, Great Lakes Railway Historical Collection
To maintain its extensive network of water transportation the Ann Arbor required a large number of ferry boats. Between 1892 and 1925 the Ann Arbor built eight ferries which eventually utilized six ports. In the 1950s the Ann Arbor considered constructing new ferries, but the predicted cost led the company to rebuild existing vessels. In 1973 the Ann Arbor defaulted on the loan obtained to reconstruct a ferry, forcing the line into bankruptcy. For several years the State of Michigan kept the ferries running, but in 1982 all ferry operations from the Ann Arbor's home port of Elberta ceased.
Ann Arbor #1
Launched in September 1892,
the wooden hulled #1 could carry 24 railroad cars at a speed of 14 knots. Shippers were hesitant to trust the ferry. The railroad obtained freight for the ship's first voyage by strong-arming the coal company from which the Ann Arbor bought its fuel to ship a few cars loaded with coal. Shippers' confidence in the boat was not improved when the #1 ran aground on its maiden voyage. Despite this difficult beginning the ship proved a financial success and led to a fleet of similar vessels on Lake Michigan. On March 8, 1910 fire burned the #1 to the water line. The hull was eventually converted into a sand scow.
Ann Arbor #2
Launched in December 1892, the wooden #2was very similar in design to the #1. The vessel's wooden hull quickly became obsolete, dooming the ship to a relatively short life. In the fall of 1912 the vessel made its last run, replaced by the newly launched #5. In December 1913 the #2 was sold, cut down, and converted into a sand-sucking barge. In the ship's short history its most harrowing experience occurred in January 1897 when it was trapped in ice just south of Frankfort for 23 days.
Ann Arbor #3
The first steel-hulled car ferry built
for the Ann Arbor, the vessel was launched in 1898. The #3 could carry 22 railroad cars and also had a hold designed to carry grain. In 1923 the ship was lengthened by 48 feet, allowing it to carry 24 longer railway cars. The #3 was the safest of the Ann Arbor's ferries. After a long career, the aging vessel was laid up in 1960. In 1962 the ship was sold and cut down to serve as a barge. However, because the railroad tracks were not removed, in 1965 and again in 1968 the barge was used to transport railroad cars across the Straits of Mackinac.
Ann Arbor #4
The steel-hulled #4 had more
than its share of troubles. In May 1909 the crew incorrectly loaded cars carrying iron ore, causing the vessel to capsize. The ship was eventually put back into service. In February 1923 the ship was caught in a huge gale. One of the rail cars broke loose and smashed through the seagate as it fell into the lake. Taking water, the ship miraculously made its way back to Frankfort, sinking alongside the south breakwall of the harbor. The ship was sold in 1937 to the State of Michigan, which renamed the vessel the City of Cheboygan and used it as an auto ferry at the Straits of Mackinac.
Ann Arbor #5
At the time of its launch in
November 1910, the #5 was the largest ferry on the lakes. It was also the first launched with a seagate; a safety device designed to keep water from flooding in the low stern. With a capacity of 30 railroad cars and engines capable of generating 3,000 horsepower, the #5 was frequently called upon to clear ports and channels. The ship's career was uneventful. After more than fifty years of service, in 1965 the ship was retired. Between 1967 and 1969 the ship's hull became the temporary breakwater at South Haven. In 1970 the vessel was sold for scrap
Ann Arbor #6/Arthur K. Atkinson
Originally ordered for service
on Lake Erie, the #6 was diverted to Lake Michigan and the service of the Ann Arbor. In 1959 the ship was dramatically rebuilt. Steam engines gave way to diesel power and the hull was lengthened from 338 to 372 feet, allowing the vessel to carry 30 railroad cars. The ship re-entered service with a new name, Arthur K. Atkinson, in honor of the then president of the Ann Arbor's parent firm. Between 1973 and 1979 the Atkinson was laid up with a broken crankshaft. Eventually put back into service in 1980, the ship was laid up in 1982. It has passed through the hands of several owners since then, but has never been put back in service.
Ann Arbor #7/Viking
Built in 1925 as the #7,
the ship's sailing life was uneventful. In 1965 the vessel was rebuilt, with four diesel engines and a bow thruster replacing the ship's original coal-fired steam engines. The new engines added five miles per hour to the ship's speed, making the Viking the fastest ferry on the lakes. The Viking's lake service ended in 1982, after which the vessel passed through the control of several owners but without being put back into service.
Wabash/City of Green Bay
Launched in 1927, the Wabash
was the last vessel built for the Ann Arbor. It was the only one to be put into service with a name rather than a number. Controlling interest in the Ann Arbor had been obtained by the Wabash Railroad in 1925. In 1929 and 1959 the ship sailed into enormous storms which threatened to sink the vessel but each time it managed to reach port. Minimally rebuilt and renamed the City of Green Bay, the vessel operated until 1972. In 1974 the ship was sold for scrap.
City of Milwaukee
Built in 1931 for the Grand Trunk Railway,
the City of Milwaukee served that railroad until 1978, when the Grand Trunk discontinued its Lake Michigan ferry service. The Ann Arbor immediately acquired the boat as a replacement for the laid-up Atkinson and put the Milwaukee into service. The Milwaukee experienced a series of mechanical problems, including losing power mid-lake and having to be towed to port. In 1980, when the Atkinson was put back in service, the Milwaukee was laid up. Today the ship is a museum vessel in Manistee, Michigan.