Chief Wawatam 110th Launching Anniversary

Frank Kirby

  Due to increased railroad traffic across the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Transportation Company decided in 1910 that a new ferry needed to be built. The company had two ferries at the time, the St. Ignace, built in 1888, and the revolutionary Sainte Marie, completed in 1893. These vessels had been designed by noted Great Lakes naval architect Frank Kirby and he was asked to plan the new ship. The keel was laid on June 1, 1911 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio as hull number 119. The ship was christened Chief Wawatam after an Ojibway Indian who befriended British fur trader Alexander Henry in the 1760s.

Captain Louis Boynton

  At 9:10 a.m. on August 26, 1911, the Chief Wawatam was side launched with no ceremony or traditional breaking of champagne on her bow. Charles Calder, part owner of the shipyard, recorded that it was a clear day and the launching proceeded with “not a scratch on her hull.” The ship was 338 feet long, 62 feet wide and had a draft of 20.7 feet. Built with a steel hull, she would be the largest and most powerful railroad ferry to serve the straits. She could carry 28 to 32 railroad cars depending on their size. The hull was taken to a fit-out dock where work was completed. The ship set sail for the straits on October 16, 1911 with Commodore Louis Boynton in command.

   The Chief was constructed with many unique features including three engines, two in the stern for propulsion and one in the bow for ice breaking. The bow propellor first appeared on the St. Ignace after Boynton successfully used two vessels tied bow to bow to break ice. The ship was one of the first to have electricity for lighting although lanterns continued to be carried as backup. In order to protect the open bow, the anchor was placed on the stern. Thus, the vessel could anchor stern-to during a storm preventing water from entering through the sea gate. For many years, the ship bore the words “U.S. Mail” on her bow as she carried letters and packages between the two peninsulas.

  The Chief Wawatam operated at the Straits of Mackinac until August of 1984 when the railroad pier in St. Ignace collapsed. The ship remained tied to the dock until 1988 when the State of Michigan, which owned the vessel, sold it to Purvis Marine Limited of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Prior to her departure, numerous objects, paper material and other items were selected and removed by Mackinac State Historic Parks staff. The plan was for the state park to store the collection until a transportation museum in St. Ignace could be built. Funding for the museum fell through and the state park continues to be the home for the collection. Objects including the ship’s steering wheel and engine room telegraph are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.

 

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse Exhibit Update

For the first time in the history of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, the second floor of the house will be available to the public. As part of our Mackinac Parks: 125 celebration, a new exhibit will debut on the second floor of the house exploring the domestic life of the Marshall’s in the early 1910s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he provides a construction update. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and the new exhibit, will open May 7, 2020.

The Wharf at Michilimackinac

The Wharf at Michilimackinac

The fort’s water gate, as seen from the lake. Although not yet reconstructed, the wharf would have occupied this space in the 1770s.

Situated on the Straits of Mackinac, Michilimackinac was ideally located to serve as a major transshipment point and resupply hub for the Great Lakes fur trade. Every summer, dozens of canoes and a few small sailing vessels filled with tons of fur, trade goods, food, and other supplies called at the shoreline community. To facilitate movement between water and land, by at least the mid-1760s Michilimackinac’s residents relied upon a wooden wharf. (more…)