Monday, November 15, 2010


Two photos above show the 1960 vintage ferry Voyageur as a Chicago tour boat (photos courtesy of Shoreline Marine)
Voyageur typically carried 12 autos.  Here she is shown with "tour bus plus six" ................

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

The ferry Voyageur was designed by Walter Haertel of Sturgeon Bay, and built by Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding & Dry Dock in 1960 for Arni Richter and the Washington Island Ferry Line.

This was the first open deck or "flat-top" ferry, as people liked to refer to it, for Washington Island.  With a single ramp that lowered in the bow, for the first time large, long and heavy loads could be transported to Washington Island.  This was a major potential change that lead to dump trucks, gravel crushers and screeners, semis, long trailers and other large highway vehicles reaching the island, in addition to automobiles.  

Until the Voyageur was built, only autos, short trucks, and trailers that could be disconnected and worked across the deck by hand could be transported, given the limited deck space of the C.G. Richter, Griffin, and their wooden-hulled predecessors.

Shortly after the Voyageur came into service, tankers carrying road oil, graders and other large equipment arrived to blacktop island roads, just one example of the change the Voyageur's design brought to island life and commerce.

In October 1960, the Voyageur's first year of service, the Sturgeon Bay bridge was struck by the Swedish freighter, Carlsholm, a blow to the single highway link over the bay.  This incident necessitated emergency measures to keep commerce and at least essential transportation flowing north and south in the county.  Within about six hours after the incident occurred, the Voyageur and C.G. Richter arrived from Washington Island to begin continuous service across the bay.  The two ferries and their island crews ran for several weeks straight, hauling vehicles that lined up on either side of the bay at temporary landings that consisted of piles of gravel, sculpted and adjusted for vehicle loading. 

Nathan Gunnlaugsson was then a young captain,  one of several men who piloted the Voyageur with its finnicky air controls.   Older island pilots preferred to stay with the familiar, ferries and engine controls they had mastered and were comfortable with.  Doug Foss, a licensed Great Lakes ore carrier mate, also operated the Voyageur during that time.  The run from the east to west side of the bay was short, from the Fruit Growers Co-op dock to the opposite side of the bay, frontage where the tug John Purves now is moored.  

Those tricky Westinghouse air controls were, on the one hand, fun to operate because depressing each button with a characteristic hiss that followed took some getting used to.  On the other hand, even experienced operators could be caught short not having made a successful shift.  In such cases, the ferry might react in a totally different manner than anticipated, especially when extra throttle was applied, skewing the ferry toward the landing point.  But when they worked, this ferry's short overall length (65 feet) and smooth underbody made spinning it in a circle within its own length possible, and highly maneuverable.

The original engines were GM 6-72 motors, supposedly WWII surplus engines rebuilt for this commercial application.   However, they broke down repeatedly during those first years, and by 1965, a pair of 4-cylinder 452 Murphy diesels with Twin Disc gears replaced them.  The generator was a single-cylinder Onan that produced 3.5 kw, just enough for lights and compressor and a wall-mounted furnace on the car deck.   Despite numerous mechanical problems with the Murphy motors over the course of its operating life and a characteristic black cloud of smoke from improperly combusted fuel, the Voyageur was still a workhorse ferry through the 1990s.  A classic side profile gave rise to the nickname "shoe."

In 1999, the Voyageur was repowered with new Cummins 855 motors (approx. 350 hp each, which are still working today), and a stern loading ramp was added to make it more versatile for auto traffic.  Although the aft overhead was low (slightly over seven feet to the underside of the upper deck), cars exiting via the stern ramp could, for the first time in the Voyageur's operating history, drive on one end and drive off the other.  Also in that repowering project, old pilot house air controls were scrapped for newer-style Morse cable controls (which also happened to be "old-style," just not as old.)  A new passenger deck extension with box benches for seating and life jacket stowage was created forward of the pilot house.  

The addition of the ferry Washington in 1989 to the fleet relegated the Voyageur to official standby status, for use in only the busiest of times or when one of the first-line ferries was for some reason disabled.  Built when semi-trucks were not much longer than 45 feet in length (the open foredeck was approximately 50  x 30) the Voyageur and even her sister ferries were often inadequate when faced with modern semi trucks 60 feet and longer.  

Once the all-season ferry Arni J. Richter was placed in service in May of 2003, the Voyageur as fourth ferry seldom saw underway time.  A for sale notice went up.  An inquiry came from Shoreline Marine of Chicago, a company that specialized in tours and excursions from the foot of Navy Pier, and after a day of survey from top to bottom, the Callopy family acquired the Voyageur.  

Shoreline Marine moored the Voyageur at Bay Shipbuilding for approximately one year until plans for modification were firmed and approved, and once those changes were made to suit its new location and service, it began its second - and for all appearances successful - life as a passenger tour boat on the Chicago River.  Two recent photos from Shoreline Marine (above) show the handsomely modified Voyageur getting underway, with a low wheelhouse structure for sliding under bridges, and ample deck seating for unobstructed passenger viewing during architectural tours.  A bow thruster was added for maneuvering (and side-stepping small vessel river traffic), and beverage coolers and shelving for stores were created below decks.  A distinctive paint scheme also added to the new design and helped reduce the boxy appearance of the main deck.  

The life of the Voyageur was successfully extended through a sensible, presentable modification.  Former Washington Island ferry passengers can bring back their early memories of travels across the Door, complete with vintage wooden slat benches for seating, by joining a Shoreline Marine Chicago River cruise from Navy Pier.  
Air operated throttle, one for each motor, sat beside a set of   three stainless buttons.  (Forward,  Neutral and Reverse buttons.  It was advisable to throttle down completely, then depress the neutral button prior to changing from forward to reverse, in order to improve the odds of not missing a shift.)

Voyageur shown ferrying screening plant crossing Sturgeon Bay in 1960.
This photo was believed to have been taken by the Door County Advocate's
editor, Chan Harris.
  - Dick Purinton


Anonymous said...

Thanks, always look forward to your blog updates....

Anonymous said...

Neat information, Dick.
I remember being on the Island for a Great Lakes Ferryboat Convention in the early 90's(?)and hearing one of your operators refer to her as "the pushbutton princess."