2006-07-13 / News

Journals of Captain Paul Allers Reflect Decades of Change Over Great Lakes Career

By Ryan Schlehuber

Captain Allers, inside the pilot house of his favorite boat, the steel-hulled Huron, received a Lifetime of Dedication award from the Maritime Industry Shipmaster Lodge 22 in Sault Ste. Marie in 1998. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Allers) Captain Allers, inside the pilot house of his favorite boat, the steel-hulled Huron, received a Lifetime of Dedication award from the Maritime Industry Shipmaster Lodge 22 in Sault Ste. Marie in 1998. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Allers) For 54 years, Paul Allers kept a personal journal of his experience on the Great Lakes, from the time he was a teenager shoveling coal in a steamer's engine room to his last days piloting jet engine-powered passenger ferries to Mackinac Island. His last journal entry was March 24, when he brought the Arnold Transit's Motor Vessel Huron from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace on its first trip since ice stopped the boat in January. Then he retired.

Captain Allers is the classic Great Lakes captain, from his bushy graying beard to his oldfashioned sailor's cap and a habit of keeping one eye on the ship's controls and the other on the passengers and crew.

"You have to keep thinking 150 percent ahead," he said about the responsibility of being a captain, "especially with today's faster boats. You can talk to people, but your mind should always be on the boat."

At left: Paul Allers has logged 54 years of life on the water in his personal journals. Arnold Transit Company's long-time captain took the helm for the last time this year, having the honor of making the first voyage of the season across Lake Huron, from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace, March 24. Pictured with him are his wife, Betsy, and their dog, Skipper Anne, in front of their Mackinaw City home. At left: Paul Allers has logged 54 years of life on the water in his personal journals. Arnold Transit Company's long-time captain took the helm for the last time this year, having the honor of making the first voyage of the season across Lake Huron, from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace, March 24. Pictured with him are his wife, Betsy, and their dog, Skipper Anne, in front of their Mackinaw City home. His home in Mackinaw City is decorated with photographs of the many ships he has sailed and the people he has met. A cement bit, which he took from Dock 1 in St. Ignace after it was ripped out by the boat tied to it during a storm in 1992, decorates his front yard. His dog, a friendly golden retriever, is named Skipper Anne. His most prized mementos of the lakes, however, are his journals.

A requirement for all captains on the Great Lakes, journals usually contain the condition of the boat, the weather, and names of the crew. Mr. Allers usually writes beyond that.

"I like to add any bit of historical notation to the journals because I think it's important to be able to go back and read that," he said. "There are notes about rescuing people from sinking boats or meeting an interesting or famous person on board. I remember one time we had a convoy of sailboats following us into the Mackinac Island harbor on a foggy day."

Paul Allers (far left) began his maritime career at Arnold Transit Company as a deckhand at age 14 on the 50-foot speed cruiser Fairy Isle in 1952. The mahogany wood cruiser, formerly called the Florence K, held 49 passengers. Pictured with Mr. Allers are (at left) Pat Woods, the purser, and Captain Kayron Tamlyn. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Allers) Paul Allers (far left) began his maritime career at Arnold Transit Company as a deckhand at age 14 on the 50-foot speed cruiser Fairy Isle in 1952. The mahogany wood cruiser, formerly called the Florence K, held 49 passengers. Pictured with Mr. Allers are (at left) Pat Woods, the purser, and Captain Kayron Tamlyn. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Allers) He also remembers the last excursion Arnold Transit made to the Les Cheneaux Islands in 1957. The trip took 1.5 hours on boats with a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour.

The Les Cheneaux Islands are a popular resort area north of Mackinac, where resort hotels and boarding houses flourished from the late 1800s to the 1950s. Arnold Transit, founded in 1878, made regular trips to the "Snows," connecting resorters with the Great Lakes steamers at Mackinac Island.

With the improvement of state highways and the construction of M-134, a paved connection between St. Ignace and Les Cheneaux, more people were getting there by car than by ferry, and by 1957, the last of the large hotels was closed and the era of housekeeping cabins took over.

"I remember the hotels used to put flags up on poles for us, indicating they had people for us to pick up," said Mr. Allers.

His journal notes a cruise for St. Ignace school's senior class went to the Snows in 1958.

Leisurely trips on the water are a thing of the past. A trip in 1972 from the mainland to Mackinac Island that once took 40 minutes and cost $2.50 now takes only 15 to 20 minutes and costs $20.

"People are too much in a hurry nowadays," said Mr. Allers about today's tourists. "They want to get there fast. You'd think they would want to enjoy the trip to the Island longer. It costs more now and it's a shorter ride."

The biggest change for the boat companies, he notes, has been the focus on tourists.

"Everyone now fights for tourists, from here to all over the state," he said. "You really have to work to bring in tourists now."

The "good ol' days" for Captain Allers started in 1952, when he began work as a baggage attendant for Arnold Transit. He found his way on the boats as a deckhand at age 14, first on the Fairy Isle and later shoveling coal on the Mackinac Islander.

"I really didn't like that job," said Mr. Allers of his coal shoveling days. "I remember falling into the coal pit. The other guys were laughing at me."

Six summers later, he earned his captain's license, receiving a letter of recommendation from William "Cap" Shepler, who started Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry in the mid-1940s.

The first of the Allers family in America was Paul Allers' grandfather, Charles C. Allers, a German immigrant who escaped into Canada from a British freighter in the early 1870s. He settled in South Haven and began a longtime career on Great Lakes in 1872, where he served as a boat captain.

Paul Allers' father, LeRoy, operated a ferry company at Charlevoix, transporting people to Beaver Island in his 102-person speed cruiser, the Mary Margaret, which he later sold to Arnold Transit in 1949 when he began working for the company and moved his family to Mackinac Island in 1949. The speed cruiser's name was changed to the Chippewa.

The 110-passenger Ottawa was the first boat Paul Allers commanded. The following summer, he commanded the Chippewa, the boat his father had owned and operated and the one he remembers learning how to steer when he was six years old.

In the winters when the ferries didn't run, Mr. Allers worked on freighters and tugs and, for eight winters, he worked as a wheelman on the railroad ferry Chief Wawatam. Other winters were spent piloting supply boats for oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

"That was a tough job because those rigs were like tuning forks," he said. "One small touch from the boat sent vibrations all through it. We had to be really careful, which was hard because we'd have to maneuver in swells even on a calm day."

For four years, he served as a quarternaster in the Navy. He was aboard the diesel submarines Sea Poacher and Trutta during the Cuban missile crisis in 1959.

Every Great Lakes captain has a good story or two about storms on the water. For Captain Allers, it was November 1958, when the freighter Carl D. Bradley sunk.

"Waves were rolling over the upper deck of the Huron that day," he recalled. "I remember our engine was slow so we could only go so fast. When we docked, the pressure system in the atmosphere dropped the water about three feet. We had to set milk cartons next to the ramp so people could step off.

"I remember Ray (Wilkins) and Roger (Horn) having to tie down the life rafts," he continued. "It was the first time that I could actually see a freighter from far away rolling in the sea."

He also remembers July 4, 1995, when his boat was struck by lightning.

"I had one hand on the chair and the other on the controls. There was a really bad lightning storm. A bolt struck the boat and jolted through the pilot house. It pushed me right against the other side of the wall. My hand was tingling for almost two weeks after that."

Betsy Allers, his wife of 10 years, said she will enjoy having her husband around more, especially since he is a good cook, but she knows he will miss the lake.

"To some, it's just a job, for others, a career. For Paul, it was his life," said Mrs. Allers. "He was very dedicated and loyal to the company. I should know. I remember him having to check on boats at 2 a.m. at times and putting in many hours a day."

"I enjoyed all the years I worked for Arnold Transit," said Mr. Allers. "I grew up with them. They treated me good."

In retirement, he will skipper a tug or perhaps a research boat every now and then, and will volunteer his time to the Vital Care hospice program. He will also go back to the Island to catch up with old friends, sharing memories.

"I'll have more time to visit now," he said. "I miss seeing the people from the Island every day, and I never ever got tired of looking at the Straits of Mackinac."

He is also thinking of taking the advice of his old friend, the late Dr. Eugene Petersen, former superintendent of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, who told him he should write a book about his experiences on the Great Lakes.

"We'll see," he said. "I'll have plenty of time to think about it."

The Allers have four children, Rochelle, Preston, Patrick, and Penny, and five grandchildren. All but one of their children has worked for Arnold Transit at one point in their lives. Preston continues to work as a part-time captain.

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