Saturday, March 21, 2015

ISLAND WATERFRONT - Captain William Jepson - Part XII

Capt. William Jepson, from wheel house window.
Photo taken June, 1932 by A. H. Fensholt of Chicago and
made available for publication in book Over and Back
by Millie Jacobsen.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When perusing the Island waterfront, then and now, it is impossible not to bestow a great deal of credit upon William Jepson, who not only was an early ferry operator, but also dock builder, and to an extent, a visionary of for transportation services and how they could be ably fulfilled.

I've seen only a couple of photos of Jepson, somewhat strange, since so many of the older, glass plate photos were credited to him.  The photo above appeared in my book, Over and Back (1990) and it was passed to me by the late Millie Jacobsen.  Captain Jepson looks back toward the photographer from the window of the wheel house.

The other photo of Jepson I happened on is in the Wisconsin State Historical Society archives, (and which I published with permission for a fee) in the book, Thordarson and Rock Island.   In that photo, Jepson stands in front of his Ford snow machine, which is hooked to a bobsled used for hauling freight and mail.  He stands in front of the Island post office (across the street from what is now the Red Cup), smoking a cigarette while in apparent conversation with C. H. Thordarson.  I supposed that Jepson could have been discussing ice conditions that morning, or perhaps he was being propositioned for a ride to the mainland by Thordarson.

The point I made in that winter photo was to show that in the ice months, Jepson and helper made regular trips to the mainland to exchange mail and freight.  His Ford conversion snow rig and bobsled appear to be the same used by his successors, Carl and Arni Richter, who likely purchased those assets in 1940 when they bought the Welcome and North Shore, when they took over ferry operations from Jepson.

Anyone who ventures out regularly across the Door on ice will, sooner or later, encounter conditions he may wish he didn't have to face.  Underscored in my March 10 blog entry was the danger encountered when crossing ice that shifted quickly or deteriorated from currents and wave action.  If anything, it's a wonder more fatalities didn't occur during those years.

This news clipping from March 24, 1936 (newspaper source unknown) recounts one example of a close shave by Jepson in his efforts to deliver the mail:

THREE ESCAPE AS TRUCK BREAKS ICE - Death's Door Gives Warning to Capt. Jepson -

Captain William A. Jepson and two other persons narrowly escaped death yesterday when the Washington Island mail truck, with the island's mail on board went through the ice on the trip froth mainland to the island over honeycombed ice.

The mishap occurred over the passageway known as Death's Door where several persons died last winter and where many lives have been lost.

The truck was about a quarter mile from shore at Loebel point (sp) when the back end of the vehicle sank.  Besides the captain those on board were his son, Gordon, and Charles Hagen.  By putting on all the motor's power and turning the wheel the captain managed to reach firmer ice.

Three passenger cars following saw their peril and avoided the danger.  All reached the mainland safely, but there will be no more passages over the ice this spring.

For about two months the mail route to the island led over the ice.  Tonight Captain Jepson had launched his ferry and was attempting to clear the Detroit Island passageway so mail might be delivered by ferry boat. 

It was Jepson who worked out a mainland docking spot with Gills Rock property owners, Voight and Johnson family members, a landing that while far from being a perfect location was still a decided improvement over the more distant Ellison Bay.   It was Jepson who, after operating from the Gislason dock at the far eastern shore of Detroit Harbor for a number of years, shortened up the ferry's run considerably by improving the shore land he purchased from Ole Christiansen on Lobdell Point.  The development of this location for future auto and passenger services was a natural, given the shorter distance to the mainland and the elimination of crossing a somewhat shallow harbor.  But this shift entailed a considerable amount of fill to be placed in a lowland, plus construction of a pier and landing suitable his two ferries.

In this postcard photo Jepson's Welcome moors at an
Ellison Bay pier, likely near where Cedar Grove is
located today.

Prior to the 1930s, according to bits of information passed down from J. W. Cornell to Arni and Mary Richter, there had been at first only a walking path out to the Point from the Main Road area, then a two-track buggy route through the swamp.  By 1930, we assume, a stone and gravel road led through woods and wetlands connecting Jepson's ferry dock with the rest of the Island.

One aspect of operating passenger vessels that Jepson faced that might easily be taken for granted were the requirements to meet government certification for operation under the regulations of the day.

A letter from the Wm. Jepson file in the Island Archives, dated December 7, 1938, from U. S. Local Inspector Henry Ericksen of the Milwaukee office, Department of Commerce, Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, addressed a fire safety issue:

Dear Sir:    The matter of protecting your two vessels, the NORTH SHORE and the WELCOME with sprinkler systems was referred to the Supervising Inspector of the Sixth District and it is his opinion that both vessels should be equipped with an approved type of manually operated sprinkler system as follows:

NORTH SHORE -  The sprinkler system should be installed overhead on the main deck, extending from the forward side of the upper deck to the stern on port and starboard sides.

WELCOME - Should be equipped with an overhead sprinkler system on the main deck the entire length.

It will be necessary for you to furnish this office with blue prints in triplicate fully descriptive of the type of sprinkler system that you intend to install, showing plan and profile, also power pump location, size of pump.  We believe that the open head system would be advisable for those two vessels.  It will be necessary to have this installed, approved, and tested by this Board before the issuing of a Certificate next spring.

We are herewith enclosing Supplement 51, and calling attention to the requirements on Page 79, as marked, relating to the requirements to manually operated sprinkler systems to be installed on ferry boats;  also Page 82-83, which will give your the information regarding such types of systems as have been approved.       Respectfully,   Henry Ericksen

Satisfaction of this requirement would have necessitated, we imagine, a trip off the island to visit a naval architect or a shipbuilder in Sturgeon Bay, and the production of a satisfactory plan outlined on blueprint - in triplicate for approvals - and then the purchase and installation of pump and piping.  These were likely unforeseen cost in material and labor that fell into the cost of vessel operations.

Pennants signal a special occasion -
North Shore at the Burger Boat yard prior to launch in 1931.
Vessel was built for a Milwaukee owner, used in service there
for two years before Jepson purchased and placed it into
Island service.  This vessel remained in service until the Griffin
was built in 1946.

It could be that the mounting expenses faced in operating, the winter challenges, and wooden vessels that grew more problematic with age, caused Jepson to look toward a new design.   He had a basic plan in place by 1939, and whether or not he came close to acting on that blueprint is unknown.  By early February of 1940 he had reached an agreement with Carl and Arni Richter to sell his operation, and when the season more or less began, April 11th 1940, that transaction officially took place.

North Shore on the ways, after conversion
to auto/passenger service.

Even as late as 1951, Jepson was very much involved with commercial vessels.  According to the Dec. 27, 1951 Door County Advocate, Jepson initiated a double trade of vessels, the Velox for the Lester H. Smith with Murray Cornell, and then the Velox was traded to Glenn and Alvin Sorenson for the fish tug Sorenson Bros., an all-steel boat.   According to the story, Jepson used the fish boat Lester H. Smith the previous four years to "carry mail."     [A sign of brisk commercial fishing enjoyed during that era, in a related note below the Jepson reference it was reported that for the winter, "There are now 17 tugs moored at the ferry, Standard Oil and Cornell's docks at Lobel's (sp) Point.]

Jepson was a true entrepreneur, starting up a number of businesses, and planning others that may never have gotten off the dock, such as vessel service from Sturgeon Bay to Marinette.  He operated at least one supper club, the Mill, an establishment still operating today near the "Y" north of Sturgeon Bay.

He was married three times (Karen Sorensen, Esther Orman and Dorothy Young) to wives who preceded him in death.  His daughters were Jane Jirtle (who was married to attorney Don Jirtle of Kewaunee) and Hazel Flaherty.   His sons were Gordon and Earl.

Jepson was born March 25, 1881 and he died May 23, 1978.   Pall bearers at his service were:  Cecil Anderson, Jim Anderson, John Hanlin, Ed Marsik, Lloyd Orman and Arni Richter.  His funeral service program read:

Captain Bill was a man who was at home upon the water. He was a member and served in the U. S. Life Saving Service.  He sailed on the Great Lakes, owned and pilot dthe Lucile, Minnie S., Wisconsin, Welcome and the North Shore.  Captgain Bill owned and operated the Washington Island Ferry Line, the Ship Yard, two night clubs and the Hotel Washington.       He will be remembered for his stories of the sea, his longevity, his generosity and his love of our island.

-  Dick Purinton

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