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.

Early Christmas at Mackinac

In the midst of the holiday season, and with Christmas upon us, let’s take a look at one of the earliest recorded Christmas celebrations in the Straits of Mackinac.

This map, drawn around 1717, shows the location of the original St. Ignace Mission, labeled “maison des Jesuits,” as well as the Odawa and Huron communities nearby. Edward Ayer Collection, Newberry Library

  During the winter of 1679, Fr. Jean Enjalran supervised the Jesuit mission of St Ignace. Originally intended to serve a group of refugee Huron people brought to Mackinac by Fr. Jacques Marquette, the mission also served converts among the local Odawa. Combined with ministering to a French trading settlement that sprang up soon after the mission’s founding in 1671, Fr. Enjalran spent much of his time preaching to Native converts and instructing them in the Catholic faith. There were so many Odawa people living near the St. Ignace mission that the Jesuits eventually set up a smaller church, dedicated to St. Francis de Borgia, to specifically minister in their communities.

During one of the      Christmas processions the Huron carried a banner depicting the Holy House of Loreto, which some believe was the house that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived in while Christ was a child. The remains of the house are now enshrined in the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy. This image may have been chosen thanks to the Huron’s familiarity with Fr. Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot, another Jesuit who worked extensively with the tribe in New France and who felt a special connection with the Holy House after visiting multiple times before sailing for Canada.

  During the Christmas season, Fr. Enjalran supervised an elaborate series of services, processions, and feasts to mark the birth of Christ. In preparation, the Huron converts built a grotto in the mission church, complete with a cradle and a statue of the infant Jesus. After Fr. Enjalran conducted a midnight mass on Christmas, the Hurons and some of the Odawa asked that the priest bring the statue to their villages. Instead of simply moving the statue, the Hurons planned an elaborate procession for Epiphany, recreating the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. The Hurons, including those who were not converts, split into three large groups, each with a tribal leader wearing a crown and carrying a scepter to represent the three kings and accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Proceeded by a banner carried on standard depicting a star on a sky-blue field, the three groups marched to the church, where they presented gifts to at the grotto and prayed. Fr. Enjalran then wrapped the statue in a fine linen cloth, and followed the procession, this time led by two Frenchmen carrying a banner depicting Mary and Jesus, to the Huron village. Once there, all of the Hurons, including those who had not converted to Christianity, participated in a dance and feast. A week later Fr. Enjalran supervised a similar procession, with the Huron this time visiting the Odawa community for another feast. A complete description of these rituals can be found in the Jesuit Relations of 1679, vol. 61.

  We hope that you enjoy this festive season. From all of us at Mackinac State Historic Parks, happy holidays!

Chief Wawatam Archival Collection

In the fall of 1911, the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam arrived in the Straits of Mackinac to begin a career which lasted 73 years. The Mackinac Transportation Company built the ship to haul railroad cars between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. The ship could carry 18-26 cars depending upon their size and unlike previous ferries that worked the straits, the Chief Wawatam was built entirely of steel. Along with freight cars, the ship carried passenger train cars, automobiles, soldiers and passengers. At 338 feet, she was the largest railroad ferry at the straits and served the longest, until 1984. (more…)

Railroads in Mackinaw City

Railroads in Mackinaw City

An early 1880s ad for the Grand Rapids and Indiana.

Although platted in 1857, Mackinaw City remained undeveloped until about 1870. By then a village stood on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, and steamboats linked the community with cities around the Great Lakes. However, the town remained small and isolated until 1881, when the first train arrived.

The Michigan Central Railroad was the first to reach Mackinaw, running north from Detroit through Saginaw. George Stimpson, an early settler and prominent resident, drove the final spike. A year later, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad also reached the straits, linking Mackinaw City with Traverse City, Grand Rapids, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. On the north shore, meanwhile, the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette Railroad ran west from St. Ignace across the Upper Peninsula. The railroads brought increased traffic to the straits and Mackinaw City grew quickly, formally incorporating as a village in 1882. (more…)

Winter at Old Mackinac Point

Winter at Old Mackinac Point

At most light stations on the Great Lakes, winter was a quiet time for the lightkeepers. With commercial freighters and passenger vessels frozen in their harbors for the winter, there was little traffic on the lakes to warrant keeping light stations operational. Some remote lights were even abandoned every winter, with crews returning only when the ice began to break up in the spring. At Old Mackinac Point, however, keepers stayed at the station and even continued to work once snow started falling. (more…)

It Could Be Another Good Winter To See Snowy Owls

It Could Be Another Good Winter To See Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls have recently been observed on Mackinac Island, in St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, and Cheboygan and on the Mackinac Bridge.  It is still the first week of December but these beautiful arctic visitors are appearing throughout the Midwest in relatively large numbers.  If they continue to arrive at this rate, we may be able to enjoy watching them in the Straits area all winter long. (more…)

Ste. Anne de Michilimackinac

Ste. Anne de Michilimackinac

A recent wedding at the church.

A recent wedding at the church.

After the question is popped, the real fun begins- planning the wedding. One of the most exciting and challenging tasks is finding the perfect location for the memorable day. Outdoor or indoor venue? Intimate or spacious? In a busy city or tucked away on a quiet beach? The options are endless. Mackinac State Historic Parks offers ten historic wedding venues on Mackinac Island and in Mackinaw City. One of our truly unique historic wedding venues is the Ste. Anne de Michilimackinac church. Located in Colonial Michilimakinac, this reconstruction was built on the original location of the 18th-century church. (more…)

Historic Solar Events at the Straits: The Parhelion of 1671

Historic Solar Events at the Straits: The Parhelion of 1671

The solar eclipse which will take place on August 21 will be the first total eclipse of the sun visible across the entire United States in nearly 100 years. The path of the totality of the eclipse (the area where the moon will perfectly align with the sun, momentarily but completely blocking the view of the sun from the ground) will pass south of the Straits of Mackinac, but viewers in northern Michigan will still be able to see the moon block about 75% of the sun. (more…)