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S.S. City of Milwaukee

By June 23, 2017Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

Anyone following railroading today is aware of the delays getting freight through Chicago. The multi-million dollar series of CREATE projects is gradually eliminating choke points, but has a long way to go. Canadian National found its own solution, buying the Elgin Joliet & Eastern to bypass most of the congestion. 

The railroads bunch together because Lake Michigan is in the way. However, from 1892 to the early 1980s, the lake offered a way around Chicago in the form of car ferries.

Four railroads ran them. The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic had the shortest, across the Straights of Mackinac. The biggest operator was the Ann Arbor. From Frankfort, Michigan, it sailed on four routes to Manistique, Michigan, and Menominee, Kewaunee and manitowoc, Wisconsin. The Pere Marquette sailed from Ludington, Michigan to Manitowoc and Milwaukee. Finally, the Grand Trunk Western fielded a single route from Muskegon, Michigan to Milwaukee. In 1962 the ferries offered 13 daily round trips across the lake. Their capacity was about 600 freight cars daily. The downside was the operating expense. It took about 60 employees to crew a ferry and in the long run the economics didn’t work.

The last operating survivor, the 1952-built Badger, still steams between Ludington and Manitowoc, but doesn’t carry freight cars. It’s twin sister the  Spartan is tied up in Ludington and serves as a parts source.

The other survivor is the 1931-built City of Milwaukee.

It served the Grand Trunk Western until 1978, then was leased to the Ann Arbor, where it ran until 1981. The state of Michigan owned the Ann Arbor at the time, including the boat. The city of Frankfort bought the boat from the state and in turn sold it to  the non-profit Society of the S. S. City of Milwaukee, which formed in 1985. Now docked in Manistee, Michigan, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. 

Like all small non-profits, the Society pieces together revenue however they can, with a couple of unusual twists. 3-4 days a week during the summer, the ferry is a bed and breakfast. Guest stay in the passenger and officer cabins and eat in the dining room on board. There are 26 available rooms, but 21-22 is considered full occupancy. There are about 300 B & B guests in a typical summer. The other revenue sources are a marina and RV park, purchased along with the site.

About 6000 people visit the boat each year, including the Ghost Ship in October, the biggest annual event.

The Society has about 200 members, including 15-20 volunteers who work on maintenance and restoration. There is a full time paid executive director, plus 3 full time and 4 part time staff, mostly seasonal. 

I signed up for a tour of the ferry and it was well worth it. Although the City of Milwaukee is not operational, it is completely intact, and there’s plenty to see.

The first thing to meet your eye as you enter the cavernous railroad deck through the stern is an idler flat car. The floating aprons that bridged between the land and the ship couldn’t take the weight of a locomotive, so multiple idler flats extended the loco’s reach. I’m not sure there’s another one that has been preserved.

The next thing you see are a pair of 40-foot steel boxcars. Portions of the rail deck have been covered with plywood walkways to reduce the risk of tripping, but all the rails are still in place.

Each car had to separated and tied down.

The engine room is completely intact, including the pair of huge triple expansion steam engines, and the electrical panels.

The City of Milwaukee didn’t handle automobiles, but up to 26 walk-on passengers were welcome. Their cabins, the dining room, crew quarters and galley are fully furnished.


The galley.

Hallway in the passenger section.

Typical passenger cabins. Bunk beds are the norm.

The pilot house.

The pilot house has all its communications and navigation tools.

View astern from the pilot house.

To learn more, go to carferry.com.






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