First-of-its-kind Pere Marquette car ferry made maiden voyage on this day in 1897

LUDINGTON, MI – One-hundred and nineteen years ago today, the legacy of modern Lake Michigan car ferries began.

It was Feb. 16, 1897 when the Pere Marquette 15, the first all-steel car ferry, made its first crossing between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wisc.The Pere Marquette Ferry #18

Built in 1896 by F.W. Wheeler Co. in Bay City and designed by naval architect Robert Logan, the vessel set the standard for Great Lakes car ferry design.

The “15” was the first of the Pere Marquette/C&O Fleet that would eventually include 12 more car ferries. The last, the still-in-operation SS Badger, made its maiden voyage in 1957.

A Muskegon Chronicle article published in February of 1959 cited a Ludington Record report from November of 1897; the 15’s first year of service. It stated:

“During the recent spell of rough weather the car ferry Pere Marquette was given a severe test, which not only fully established her sea-going qualities, but also proved the practibility of handling and landing the big craft in a gale.”

“The weather on this shore both Wednesday and Thursday was violent and changeable and yet the ferry made her usual two trips per day without interruption or mishap.  In spite of her large exposed surface, it is believed that she has sufficient power to take her to windward in almost any kind of weather.  It was found that she rolled considerably but not enough to move her cars or loosen their fastenings.”

The Pere Marquette 15 continued service until 1930, when she was laid up in Ludington. There it remained until it was scrapped in Manitowoc in 1935, but many vessels would bear the Pere Marquette moniker in the years to come.

The Pere Marquette 17, 18, 19, 20 were built in 1901 to help handle the increasing tonnage in Ludington. The Pere Marquette 21 and 22 followed in 1924 and the turbo-electric car ferries, The City of Saginaw and The City of Flint, in 1929. Finally, in March of 1941, the City of Midland made its maiden voyage.

Muskegon resident Paul Elkins remembered his days working in the Pere Marquette fleet shop and traveling on the Pere Marquette 17 in a Muskegon Chronicle article published on Feb. 5, 1959.

In the article, Elkins recalled “the unusual combination of circumstances” that led to him handling the wheel of the vessel during its final run from Manitowoc to Ludington before its sale to the state in 1940.

“I wasn’t licensed for this sort of job, but I did have the necessary experience,” he said. “It was a sad occasion, since most of us had a deep affection for the vessel and hated to see her go. She sailed for several seasons out of Muskegon and it will be grand to see her back. She has a story to tell.”

Car ferries continue to have an impact on Lake Michigan in 2016. The SS Badger, the last coal-fired ship on the Great Lakes, travels the same route between Manitowoc and Ludington each season.

By Brandon Champion |