Friday, July 26, 2013


Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

A light rain is falling, and there is a temporary lull in tourism this afternoon, a good time to consider a new blog.  I've had some of these images on my computer screen for months, waiting for that opportunity to string them together with observations.

What got me started on this was the topic of dredging and dock work, and how one thing builds on another over the years and decades.  The present island ferry dock was formerly the property of Ole Christianson who had a boatyard and marine railway there.  If you're interested in more details on that yard, a letter from Ole to Thordarson is included in the about-to-be-published Thordarson and Rock Island.  Thordarson, it turns out, was interested enough in Ole's boatyard to exchange letters with him and get a price.  Ole, it is assumed, was what we call today a "motivated seller" because when Thordarson didn't bite, William Jepson who operated the ferries from the shipyard location at the far end of the harbor did.  Jepson moved his ferry landing and began to make dock improvements.  (This move would also have entailed the improvement of a road for motorized vehicles to and from the Lobdell Point area.  John W. Cornell recalled walking to work along a footpath when he first expanded his dock, where the current Island Outpost dock is now situated.)

North Shore moored inside the slip.
Barrels are lined up along the Standard Oil
dock to the north.  Chambers house is
in background (right).

In the first photo I think we can safely say the North Shore is backing from the location that is also the current ferry landing, backing "into the channel" so-to-speak.  Since the exact year isn't known, there might not yet have been a dredged channel, only a naturally deep waterway. (It was first dredged in 1937.)  Jepson wasn't the only operator to carry autos.  But he appears to be the first to do so, and the first to operate a regularly scheduled service using two ferries, the Welcome and the North Shore, built expressly for passenger and auto service from the Island to the Door Peninsula.

Earlier passenger service?

Eric Bonow provided the 1909 timetable below that outlines early passenger service options to upper Green Bay ports, including Detroit Harbor.   The larger Bon Ami or Sailor Boy made the main run between Sturgeon Bay and Marinette-Menominee, and then north to Escanaba.  A smaller vessel, Thistle, was used to call on smaller harbors along the Door Peninsula.  If someone from Washington Island wished to go to Escanaba, for instance, they could board the Thistle from Gislason's dock (near present day Shipyard Marina), and then transfer near the harbor's entrance to the northbound Bon Ami, which then continued on its way to Escanaba.  When southbound, the Bon Ami or Sailor Boy would stop in Washington Harbor, but apparently only when there was demand.

The fact that trains could be met at Sturgeon Bay or Marinette/Menominee (also at Escanaba, although it is not stated on the Time Card) made it a convenient means of scheduling travel.   It was with such possibilities that C. H. Thordarson often arrived in Escanaba, Michigan, from Chicago by train in later years.  A smaller boat trip completed his last leg to his Rock Island estate.

 Although it is hard to read the fine print, Eric highlighted the Thistle's name in yellow.  Passengers who wished to disembark in Detroit Harbor would also transfer from the larger Hart Line boat to the smaller Thistle near the harbor's entrance.  Then Thistle and her crew were optimized with an offer of "cheap excursion rates outside of Detroit Harbor every pleasant afternoon" to help fill time before she began her run south.

A promotion ran in the Time Card:  if passengers continued to Escanaba, they would arrive in the evening, "Giving all our passengers a chance to approach the city by night and view the immense ore docks lighted by electricity, which is a beautiful sight."

Other early Detroit Harbor vessel activity

Another Eric, Eric Greenfeldt, sent me a volume of great information in the form of early newspaper article reprints.  These clippings tell of the very first beginnings of  ferry transportation on Washington Island.  Here is a sampling:

The Door County News (DCN) of 22 May 1919 reported Capt. Carl Hanson of Washington Island, owner and master of the gasoline freighter Marion, stated his intention to make twice daily round trips from Detroit Harbor to Garret Bay (west of Gills Rock).

In the next few weeks, Hanson apparently sold (or leased) the Marion to William Jepson.  The June 26, 1919 issue reported the first trip carrying an automobile, the ferry Marion under Jepson's authority.  Success of the undertaking, it was noted, depended upon the "patronage of the public." But a "large increase in the number of autos during the past and first of the present season" was optimistically noted.  Also described was "a dock being built at Gills Rock for the ferry to discharge the autos conveniently and expeditiously, and the work will be completed by the end of the week."

Highways and automobiles led to a decline, then the end, of around-the-bay services such as the Hart Line offered.

The Marion's schedule and rates as advertised in the July 10 DCN:  Trips were twice daily.  Round trip rates were $5.00 for small cars, $7.00 for touring cars.  Passengers were 75 cents each, one way.  An accompanying column noted that "The line promises to become a popular mode of travel when brought to the attention of the outside world."

[We're still working on that...]

Competition was in the wings.  The following account appeared in the April 21, 1920 issue of the DCN:

Pete Anderson, the Mail Carrier, Will Carry Cars Across the Door In His New Boat

Washington Island is to have a ferry service again during the coming summer for the accommodation of the inhabitants of that part of the county as well as the tourists trade.

Pete Anderson, the hustling mail carrier, is the man behind the proposition and he will combine it with his regular business of handling Uncle Sam's mail and carrying passenger s back and forth.

During the past winter Pete purchased the big gasoline yacht Navarre which formerly belonged to Judge Turner, now deceased, and during the past couple of weeks, he with Thos. Johnson and George Jorgenson have been busily engaged at Two Rivers in converting the craft into a business boat.   She was thoroughly overhauled below the waterline and is now as good as new.

On Monday, Mr. Anderson, accompanied by Messr. Johnson and Jorgenson, arrived in the city with the boat on their way to Washington Island, stopping only long enough at the yards of the Fuller Goodman company on the west side to take on a load of material with which to finish the craft.  It is the intention to put in exceptionally heavy beams and decks for carrying automobiles.  The upperworks and decks will be put in at Detroit Harbor during the ensuing month, it being the intention to have her ready for commission along about the first of June.  The Navarre is 56 feet long and 15 feet wide and will be capable of carrying three cars handily.  She is an exceptionably fine boat.  The owners will also have accommodations for passengers as well.

Mr. Anderson has not as yet figured out just what schedule he will run on , but this will be announced at a later date.

There are a large number of autos owned on the Island, which together with those of people who wish to visit the place should provide a good business for the ferry.  
(Note:  In this early newspaper article the word "autos" appears with an "e," similar to "potatoes," a new word then for editors and readers alike.)

Well, enough for one rainy day.

Eric Greenfeldt sent me quite a few column inches reporting discussions leading to that first official auto being carried by Jepson on the ferry Marion in 1919.  When it rains again, and tourism doesn't require my services, we'll continue with this subject.

-  Dick Purinton


Tia said...


Rick Heineman said...

Thanks for sharing this information Dick. I've always enjoyed hearing stories of the early days of the Island when life was so much different than we know today. I was interested in how you said Bill Jepson owned or leased the Marion. I had also heard this at one point during my own research, but could never find much information about it. Regardless, I have always had a deep respect for the men who used to make their living on the waters of Lake Michigan/Green Bay. How great it would be to have been able to hear the tales men like my Grandpa Jack Anderson, Arni & Carl Richter, Bill Jepson, Ole Christianson, Chris Anderson,and so many others could have told us.