Mackinaw City Historical Pathway
Railroad construction across America boomed in the second half of the 1800s, spurred on by technological improvements and demand for distant products. Getting rail cars across the Straits required special boats.
Railroads were completed on both sides of the Straits of Mackinac in 1881. The railroad companies were picking up the products of the northern states such as western wheat and Michigan iron ore. A ferry boat system had to be implemented to cross the 5-mile wide Straits of Mackinac. Railroad cars were shuttled back and forth by boat while the heavy locomotives remained on land.
was the first ship the railroad built. It operated until 1888 and was replaced by the St. Ignace
. In 1893, the Sainte Marie
began crossings as well. The Algomah, St. Ignace and Ste. Marie
were all wooden-hulled icebreakers and proved unable to withstand the strain of heavy ice at the Straits.
In 1911 the steel-hulled Chief Wawatam
started service. At the time, it was the most advanced icebreaker in the world. The "Chief"
and the second Sainte Marie
worked as sister ships until 1957 when the Mackinac Bridge opened.
The End of the railroad ferries
Ferry use dropped dramatically in 1957 with the opening of the Mackinac Bridge.
In 1984 the railroad dock in St. Ignace collapsed and the Chief Wawatam
stopped running. In 1988 she was sold and converted to a barge that worked until the barge was scrapped in 2009.
Chief Wawatam's Design
For ice breaking, the Chief Wawatam
had a bow propeller that sucked the water from under the ice to weaken it. Her hull was cut away at both the bow and stern so she could ride up on the ice and crush it with her weight, ideas later incorporated in the Icebreaker Mackinaw
She also was designed for fast loading and unloadings with railroad tracks that aligned with the dock. She has a sea gate that lifted out of the way so she could be loaded from the bow.