Wood, Steel, and Ice: The History of the Straits of Mackinac Railway Ferries Vignette

Mackinac History: A Continuing Series of Illustrated Vignettes, Volume IV, Leaflet #3

The Straits of Mackinac has been an important shipping lane for centuries. Connecting Lakes Huron and Michigan, this vital transportation route contributed to the success of the upper Great Lakes fur trade and northern Michigan’s fishing and tourism industries.

By the late nineteenth century, however, this water highway had become a water barrier to the emerging rail system that was spreading across the United States. Nearly 80 years before the world-famous Mackinac Bridge was constructed, commercial railroad ferry service emerged to link Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

By 1881, two rail lines ran to Mackinaw City, located at the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The Michigan Central Railway traveled up the eastern side of the state while the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway stretched the western side. At the same time, the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette Railway connected the Upper Peninsula cites of Marquette and St. Ignace. The five mile wide Straits of Mackinac posed a daunting challenge for transporting railway cars between the peninsulas.

To meet this challenge the Railway Ferries were introduced.

Author: Brian S Jaeschke
Publisher: Mackinac State Historic Parks
Fully illustrated, 15 pages, 2008
Price: $3.77