Chief Wawatam; Historic Great Lakes Workhorse
By James Donahue
Older residents of Michigan, especially those who lived near or rode the ferries that 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 1880's.
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 4,500 hp.
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 automobiles.
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 alongside 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 was finally scrapped in 2009.
Two of the three triple-expansion engines were saved from salvage. One of them was restored and placed on display at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The second one went to the City of St. Ignace, where it in 2012 it was sold to the Friends of the Chief Wawatam, a local historical group, for one dollar. According to Friend’s spokesman Doug Taylor, the engine has been sandblasted and painted and placed in a building for public showing along Highway 2, at St. Ignace.
Other artifacts from the ferry, including the whistle, wheel, telegraphs, and furniture, are preserved by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in Mackinaw City.