Mackinac Transportation Company
The Mackinac Transportation Company was a train ferry service that shuttled railroad cars across the Straits of Mackinac from 1882 until 1984. It was best known as the owner and operator, from 1911 until 1984, of the SS Chief Wawatam, an icebreaking train ferry.
The Mackinac Transportation Company was a joint venture founded in late 1881 by three separate railroads, the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette Railroad, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and the Michigan Central, to create a twelve-month service to connect their three railheads located in Mackinaw City, Michigan and St. Ignace, Michigan.
These three railroads faced a serious engineering challenge posed by local climate conditions. The Straits of Mackinac is often a region of significant ice buildup in winter. After using several boats unsuccessfully, the joint venture spearheaded the development of an improved icebreaker design. Vessels with a bow propeller, such as the Chief Wawatam, could plow through the ice and connect the two peninsulas of Michigan throughout the year.
With changes in railroad ownership, the names of the partners who owned the Mackinac Transportation Company also changed. The Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette became part of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway and then the Soo Line Railroad; the Grand Rapids and Indiana became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad and then the Penn Central and finally the Michigan Northern Railway; and the Michigan Central became part of the New York Central, the Penn Central and finally the Detroit and Mackinac Railway.
With completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957, however, customers who had used railroads trains to ship goods back and forth between the two halves of Michigan began to shift their usage patterns to heavy trucks. The Mackinac Transportation Company permanently ceased operations in 1984.
The Mackinac Transportation Company began its operations in 1881–1882 with barges, but the non-icebreaking vessels could not operate successfully in the Strait of Mackinac in winter. With economic success, they purchased and operated four icebreaking ferries:
- SS Saint Ignace – built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company in 1888, 1199 tons, capacity 10 cars on 2 tracks. Retired c. 1913
- SS Sainte Marie (1893) – built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company in 1893, 1357 tons, capacity 18 cars on 3 tracks. Retired 1911
- SS Chief Wawatam – built by the Toledo Shipbuilding Company in 1911, 2990 tons, capacity 26 cars on 3 tracks. Retired 1984
- SS Sainte Marie (1913) – built by the Toledo Shipbuilding Company in 1913, 2383 tons, capacity 14 cars on 3 tracks. Retired 1961
- Colton, Tim. "American Ship Building Company, Detroit, Michigan". www.ShipbuildingHistory.com.
- Colton, Tim. "American Ship Building Company, Toldeo, Ohio". www.ShipbuildingHistory.com.
- Zimmermann, Karl (1993). Lake Michigan’s Railroad Car Ferries. Andover New Jersey: Andover Junction Publications. pp. 52–63. ISBN 0-944119-11-5.