Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: The History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries

Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: The History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries

by Grant Brown Jr.

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An illustrated book about the visionary, risky, and influential business of transporting loaded railroad cars across Lake MichiganSee more details below


An illustrated book about the visionary, risky, and influential business of transporting loaded railroad cars across Lake Michigan

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University of Michigan Press/Regional
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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The History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries
By Grant Brown, Jr.


Copyright © 2008 Grant Brown, Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07049-7

Chapter One

The Beginning

November 24, 1892, dawned cloudy and cold with a light north wind as sixty-eight-year-old James M. Ashley, president of the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan Railway Company, boarded the Ann Arbor Car Ferry No. 1 in Frankfort Harbor. After conferring with the captain, he settled down for the five and a half hour voyage across Lake Michigan to Kewaunee, Wisconsin. The ship carried a cargo of four railcars filled with coal—the first loaded freight cars to cross the lake, ever. In doing so, Ashley culminated fifteen years of personal effort and initiated ninety years of cross-lake service by the company soon to be known as the Ann Arbor Railroad Company.

No one knows when Ashley first decided to build car ferries to cross Lake Michigan. It certainly wasn't in 1875, when he moved to Ann Arbor from Toledo. A prominent Ohio congressman during the Civil War, he had been defeated when the war was over and, after a disastrous stint as governor of the Montana Territory, moved to Toledo. He practiced law for a few years and then moved to Ann Arbor so his oldest son, James Jr., could attend law school and his next oldest son, Henry, could do undergraduate work at the University of Michigan. Once he was an Ann Arbor resident, he recognized a long-standing civic problem: the city needed a second railroad. The city had been served by the Michigan Central since 1839, but residents were convinced that the railroad, with its monopoly on freight and passenger service, set its rates much too high. There had been attempts by Ann Arbor citizens to build a railroad to Toledo, but the endeavor was in limbo with a mostly graded roadbed but no track, no cars, and no engines.

With little money of his own and no experience in railroading, Ashley sensed a business opportunity and stepped in to fill the breach. He traveled to Pittsburgh to see an old friend, T. A. Scott, a former assistant secretary of war under Edwin Stanton in the Lincoln administration and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott told Ashley that he could buy rails and other materials on credit if he could find the funds to begin the operation. Ashley raised nearly $80,000 in pledges from the Toledo/Ann Arbor area, mortgaged his property in Toledo for $114,000, and went to Boston to seek money. He returned with enough to buy and complete construction of the Toledo and Ann Arbor Railroad. Within a year he had finished grading, laid track, and bought cars and engines. On June 21, 1878, his first train rolled into Ann Arbor.

Ashley made his railroad a family affair, installing his twenty-three-year-old son, James Jr., as vice president and his twenty-one-year-old son, Henry, as general manager. James and James Jr. were both big men. James was about six feet tall and quite heavy with white hair that reached down to his collar. He was powerfully built, an impressive speaker, and well suited for his role of raising money to build the railroad. Deeply religious, he believed that no one should work on the Sabbath, and while he was president he made sure that none of his trains ran on Sundays. James Jr. was even taller, about six feet four inches. He weighed 250 pounds and was very strong and quite willing to use his physical strength when other persuasive methods failed. He stuttered at times, but his physical presence and visible strong will marked him as a leader of men. Henry, two years younger, was less impressive but, ironically, remained with the railroad long after his father and brother were gone.

With the railroad up and running, Ashley immediately began expanding to the north. He had something to offer—a connection to the East through Toledo—and that was a significant enticement to small towns without service. In fact, most towns throughout the Midwest were eager to have a railroad, believing rail service was essential to their survival. Roads were still "unimproved" and nearly impassable in wet weather. Even when conditions were good, travel was slow and the shipment of goods in volume impractical. Railroads were fast and comfortable and could accommodate goods in almost any quantity. Towns with rail service flourished while those that were bypassed often died.

After some false starts Ashley extended his railroad north and west, partially through new construction and sometimes through buying existing trackage. Ashley placed James Jr. in charge of construction, and, though young, he rose to the occasion. James Jr. gained the trust of his men and became adept at extracting right-of-way agreements from small towns and farmers. When his negotiations failed, he usually went right on grading and laying track, willing to fight disputes in court. In 1883 Ashley announced plans to extend the line to Mount Pleasant and mentioned a "proposed" route all the way to Frankfort. In 1884 he changed the name of the company to the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan Railway Company, and in 1887 his railroad reached Cadillac. In 1889 he expanded to Copemish, a little over twenty miles from Frankfort and the Lake Michigan shore.

Ashley was constantly short of money. With almost no resources of his own, he bargained for free right-of-way agreements where he could, secured local aid from villages and counties, and sold mortgage bonds, intending to pay the interest with the profits of the railroad. He counted on James Jr. to secure right-of-way agreements, and his son did not disappoint him. Both men were well known and highly respected in Michigan—and in New York City, where financial institutions were most interested in the development of railroads across the country. Railroads provided access to new markets and were considered vital to the growth of the country—not to mention that the men who controlled them could make a great deal of money.

In 1890 the Ashleys hired a new chief engineer, a young man by the name of Henry E. Riggs. Riggs came to the company with about four years' experience with the Burlington and Santa Fe systems and a fertile mind. Given a complete tour of the line, he was appalled at the quality of construction. To Riggs, the railroad resembled many of the logging railroads in use at the time—one-track, built with lightweight rails, not well ballasted, and not well graded. Most logging railroads were not meant to last. After the land was cut bare the roads were torn up or simply abandoned. That was not the expectation for the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan. At the end of his tour the kindest thing he could say was that all but one of the bridges were safe.

Riggs only stayed with the company for a few years, but while he was there he had an impact. At the time he was hired the company had twelve to fifteen lawsuits pending, mostly brought by contractors who claimed that the work had been underbid or they had been underpaid. Riggs was told by Henry Ashley that he had only one responsibility—to dispose of those claims. Ashley had hired a Cadillac lawyer, Eugene F. Sawyer, who he described as "a small town lawyer," to handle the cases. The first case involved Mr. J. Fuery, a contractor who had graded two miles of roadbed south of Cadillac. He claimed "a) gross underestimate [of cost by the company engineer]; b) only partial payment of the engineer's estimate."

Mr. Sawyer believed that the best way to win cases was through thorough preparation. He and Riggs decided to find all the pertinent information concerning the estimate and contract and to make another estimate based on the information they developed. After several months of work digging out files from boxes that had been sent to Toledo for storage, they found all of the original estimates, vouchers, and correspondence. When they completed their own estimate, they were within 3 percent of the original. They located the contractors who had worked on each side of the roadbed Fuery had graded and found that they were fully satisfied with their treatment by the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan. They also unearthed a letter from Mr. Fuery acknowledging the final payment and thanking the company for its courteous treatment. When the case went to court, a jury of twelve farmers delivered a verdict of "no cause for action" after thirty minutes of deliberation. All other cases against the railroad were dismissed.

While Ashley was building his railroad to Copemish in 1889, a group of Frankfort businessmen, in an effort to promote the use of Frankfort Harbor, were building the Frankfort and South Eastern Railroad from Frankfort to Copemish. While there is no written record, it is probable that they had hopes of connecting with Ashley's railroad or allowing Ashley to purchase theirs. When it was completed, the lines did connect, and it is likely that soon thereafter Ashley began negotiations to acquire the Frankfort and South Eastern because the following year (1890) he made plans for the construction of two car ferries. On May 15, 1892, he took possession of the Frankfort and South Eastern and soon began laying track through South Frankfort, now Elberta, to a point near the harbor entrance where he would dock the car ferries.

In 1890 Frankfort was a small lumber town with 1,175 residents. It was located on the shore of Lake Michigan, with an unusually good natural harbor, and its economy was made up of five lumber mills and an ironworks. The resort and fruit industries that would later drive the economy had yet to arrive. Frankfort has little recorded history before the mid-1800s, though it is now believed by many that the French missionary Father Jacques Marquette died at the harbor entrance in 1675. Frankfort Harbor was "discovered" by one Captain Snow in the fall of 1854 when he found himself on Lake Michigan in a November gale with some bleak choices. He could either beach his schooner, which would undoubtedly destroy it but perhaps save his life and those of his crew, or he could stay in the lake and take his chances with the storm. He decided to beach the ship, but as he approached the shore he saw a depression in the bluffs and headed for it. Before he knew what had happened he was inside the harbor. He spent the winter there and in the spring told the vessel's owner, who lived in Buffalo, New York, about the remarkably protected harbor on the Michigan shore. Before long the area was surveyed, settlers arrived, and a town was born.

In the spring, summer, and fall, Frankfort was connected to the outside world by lake boats, mostly sail, which carried lumber to the major cities and brought supplies in return. In the winter the town was largely cut off, though in the 1870s and 1880s there was stagecoach service to Traverse City, forty miles north and east. Travel by stage was unreliable due to the poor roads, which in wet weather were hardly passable, but if a traveler was willing to endure the trip he or she could board a train in Traverse City that would connect to Chicago or Detroit. The completion of the Frankfort and South Eastern Railroad in 1889 gave Frankfort its first railroad, which ran to Copemish where it connected with the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan. A traveler could walk or hire a horse and carriage to cross the few miles from the station in Copemish to Thompsonville, where he or she could board a train to Chicago.

In the early 1890s the Great Lakes were crowded with commercial vessels, more than would ever ply the lakes again. In 1892 some 2,926 vessels operated on the lakes. Steam had overtaken sail as the preferred means of propulsion, though there were still 1,226 sailing craft in operation. 18 Manufactured goods from East Coast cities reached Chicago and the West by rail, but commodities normally shipped in bulk, such as grain, ore, and lumber, were transported by water. Chicago, after the great fire of 1871, was rebuilt with lumber shipped from ports that lined the shores of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes were heavily trafficked with commerce, but navigation on them was dangerous and no one had attempted anything close to what Ashley had in mind.

Ashley's plan was to establish a rail and water transportation route from the east to the northwest (Minneapolis/Saint Paul). His route would take days off the time needed to ship goods through Chicago and would reduce the potential for damage. Railcars were handled roughly in the Chicago yards, and damage was common. Tonnage was already being shipped across Lake Michigan by a method known as break-bulk, but it was expensive. Trains ran to ports such as Grand Haven and Ludington where the cars were unloaded. The cargo was then reloaded aboard a boat, shipped across the lake, off-loaded, loaded onto new cars, and sent on its way. By shipping fully loaded cars across the lake without touching the cargo inside, Ashley could reduce the loading and unloading cost of six to twelve dollars a ton to about two dollars a ton. If he could pull it off, he could make a handsome profit.

But pulling it off involved some daunting business and technical challenges. The major business challenge (other than finding the money to build the ships) was to find a trading partner on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan with whom he could develop east-west traffic. While Ashley was bargaining for control of the Frankfort and South Eastern Railroad to gain access to Lake Michigan, the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad was being completed to Kewaunee, linking the Wisconsin port with a generous portion of the Midwest grain belt (all the way to Omaha).

Almost directly across the lake from Frankfort, Kewaunee was a lumber town with a population of 1,251 in 1890 and a deepwater harbor at the mouth of the Kewaunee River, which was navigable up to six miles inland. A major settlement of the Potawatomi Indians for six hundred years, Kewaunee was first visited by the French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634. Father Marquette said a mass there on November 1, 1674. The area's later history began in 1836 when an unknown explorer discovered what he thought was gold near the mouth of the river. Elaborate plans were laid for a city intended to rival Chicago with plots (even in the middle of a swamp) selling for five hundred to a thousand dollars. The bubble soon burst when no gold was found, but settlement began in the years following and by the early 1890s Kewaunee was a lumber port with eight hundred vessels entering and leaving each year. Like Frankfort, Kewaunee did not have a railroad until late in the century (1891), but as early as 1862 residents could reach the outside world by traveling twenty-nine miles to Green Bay and catching a Chicago and North Western train to Chicago or Milwaukee.

The Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad began shipping grain across the lake via break-bulk steamers operated by the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad to Ludington, Michigan, bound for destinations in the East and abroad, but the service was dropped due to a railroad war involving Vanderbilt interests. The Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western route east required shipping grain across the lake on a Flint and Pere Marquette steamer to Ludington; by rail via the Flint and Pere Marquette to Port Huron, Michigan; across Canada to Buffalo on the Grand Trunk Railway; and to New York City on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western was a competitor of Vanderbilt's. The Flint and Pere Marquette was allied with the Vanderbilt interests and did not want to funnel any business to a competitor, so it stopped sending steamers to Kewaunee. Thus, the time was right for Ashley. He crafted a route to the East Coast that included his car ferries across the lake; the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan; and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western.

With the new route in place, the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western did not wait for Ashley to build his car ferries. The company chartered the 183-foot wooden break-bulk steamer Osceola, which began crossing the lake in mid-January 1892. That the ship was not up to the task became apparent within a few weeks as she suffered one mishap after another. On January 27 she missed Kewaunee and wound up in Ahnapee ten miles to the north. On her next trip she encountered a winter gale that drove her off course toward the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal where she ran aground. After she was pulled off, she was found to be leaking. She returned to Frankfort where, while tied to the dock, she took a severe pounding in a high wind and an engineer, W. P. MacDonald, was scalded to death when a steam pipe burst.


Excerpted from NINETY YEARS CROSSING LAKE MICHIGAN by Grant Brown, Jr. Copyright © 2008 by Grant Brown, Jr. . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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