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History Column76

A Railroad, on the Water, and through the ice

Dave Petersen

Prior to the launch of the steel car-ferry Pere Marquette in 1896 most freight was moved in the Break Bulk "Black Boats" owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad. Prior to 1874 when the railroad arrived in Ludington the Englemen line of ships, such as the Manistee, Messenger which we have discussed before provided passenger and freight service along our shores. Winter travel on the lakes was not without problems as Englemen discovered when 2 of his ships were caught in ice floes during the 1873 season for 65 days.

The movement of the freight from railroad car to boat and back off again provided more opportunities for damage to goods and there was a desire to find a way to move more freight across the lake more easily, quickly and year around.

W.L. Mercereau, Car-ferry Superintendent in a 1914 article regarding the car-ferries was quoted as saying "The car-ferry is no respecter of weather- it must run summer and winter, for freight must move and passengers must travel during all seasons."

Certainly that was the thought in 1896 when the first American steel carferry the Pere Marquette was launched. Although there were ships carrying loaded train cars Leslie's Weekly stated in 1897 that "no carferry was ever before built on such a mammoth scale." The Pere Marquette had four tracks and capable of transporting 30 loaded railway cars, 56 feet wide, 350 feet long with twin screws and could attain a speed of up to 16 miles per hour. This great ship was designed by Robert Logan and built by F.W. Wheeler of Bay City. The ship was reinforced with double plating and heavy bracing to help her withstand the rigors of continuous operation year around in Lake Michigan.

The P.M. 15 was so successful for the railroad that the P.M. 16 was built and launched in 1900, and followed closely by the P.M. 17 in 1901, the 18 in 1902, the P.M. 19 and 20 in 1903, and the new Pere Marquette 18 in 1911

The two worst events in the first 20 years of the steel carferry fleet was the total loss of the Pere Marquette 18 in 1910 and the wreck of the P.M. 19 on January 17th 1916. The loss of the P.M. 10 cannot be attributed to bad weather but the wreck of the P.M. 19 occurred during a blinding snowstorm. Weather played a role in the wreck but not ice, as the P.M. 19 drove into a sandbar 2 miles south of the Point Sauble Lifesaving Station where she laid for 12 days before being freed.

Ice breaking tugs of the time were fitted with extra large rudders and could be employed to break ice for the larger ships by rocking side to side while being pushed forward by their screws. The rolling motion made it possible for the ship to break through the ice. The Ashtabula was featured in a 1914 article in Scientific American that featured a Sperry Stabilizer, a Gyroscope that when mounted would allow the ship to rock and batter it's way through the ice in much the same manner as the smaller tugs.

The article is quoted as such " It takes but a relatively small amount of power to on the part of a precession engine to right or left as far as need be. Of course when on duty the big Gyro is steadily spinning." You can see the effort that ship owners continued to expend in order to keep shipping moving through the year on the Great Lakes. If you have any stories or photographs you would like to share with our readers please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or email at davep@blackcreekpress.com

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