Soon after the Mackinac Bridge opened in November 1957, the celebrated structure was taking a toll–and it had nothing to do with vehicles traveling its length. Among those people not excited about the opening of the bridge were the men who operated the car ferries that carried thousands of Michiganians across the Straits of Mackinac.In 1923, the state of Michigan had begun a car ferry service between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Money was soon expended for the purchase and upgrading of ships and the construction or improvement of attendant docks, breakwaters, parking areas and other support facilities at both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Each ferry had a crew of approximately thirty-six men. During the busy travel season, up to one hundred extra employees were hired, providing good summer jobs to local kids and lucky college students.
By the time the bridge was finished, only two of the ferries (City of Petoskey and Vacationland) were still under steam; the rest of the fleet had already been retired to berths in St. Ignace. The surviving pair made their last runs on the bridge’s opening day (November 1, 1957). The Vacationland, the flagship of the fleet, brought the curtain down. In the afternoon of that final day, she sailed from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City with about a thousand specially invited guests and well-wishers on board. As the Vacationland entered the harbor, auto horns blared and fire engine sirens screamed a farewell salute.
The agreement that allowed Michigan to sell bonds to fund the bridge prohibited the state from operating any ferries at the Straits after the structure opened. This provision was designed to assure bond buyers that the expensive span would have no competition that would diminish revenues needed to pay off the construction costs. Eventually, the ferries were all sold; most were scrapped.
Today, the Mackinac Bridge carries in a single month as many people as the entire fleet carried in a year. But in their time, these hard-working vessels served the people of Michigan well–transporting more than twelve million vehicles and over thirty million paying passengers.
For more on the car ferries that sailed the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge history look for Michigan History magazine’s July/August 2007 issue, “50 Years of the Mighty Mac.” Visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or call toll free, 1-800-366-3703.
Photo credit: Car ferry Sainte Marie, Mackinac Straits, LC-D4-5591