2007-08-30 / Columns

Autos Across Mackinac: Ticket Sales for the Ferries Begin To Improve

Part 34: The War Winds Down, the Traffic Heats Up
By Les Bagley

In early 1945, the Greyhound Bus Company bought the land under Teyson's Mackinaw City Restaurant and Gift Shop from the railroad, which owned it. Contractors tore down the restaurant and built a modern log cabin-style Post House bus terminal adjacent to the Mackinaw City railroad depot and the State Ferry terminal. The back of this postcard reads, "It's really beautiful on the inside." (L.L. Cook Postcard, Author's Collection) In early 1945, the Greyhound Bus Company bought the land under Teyson's Mackinaw City Restaurant and Gift Shop from the railroad, which owned it. Contractors tore down the restaurant and built a modern log cabin-style Post House bus terminal adjacent to the Mackinaw City railroad depot and the State Ferry terminal. The back of this postcard reads, "It's really beautiful on the inside." (L.L. Cook Postcard, Author's Collection) To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Mackinac Bridge, The St. Ignace News is serializing Les Bagley's unpublished history of Michigan State Ferries, which carried automobiles across the Straits from 1924 until the bridge opened in 1957. In last week's installment, Northern Michigan welcomed the brand new Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw at the end of 1944.

With a key to the city and a check to pay for recreation facilities at their disposal, the crew of the new Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw found they had little time to enjoy their new home port in Cheboygan. Almost before all the decorations from the December 30 welcoming ceremony and the next night's New Year's celebration were cleaned up, the Mackinaw was called to duty. She left January 3, 1945, for the St. Marys River, where she easily broke 10-inch-thick ice to open a channel for four brand new freighters, which were making their way from Duluth. Later, she towed a minesweeper to Chicago, through ice windrows more than 20 feet thick. An almost unqualified success, Mackinaw would serve on the Great Lakes for more than six decades.

The person who sent the previous postcard was right. One of the features inside the Greyhound terminal was a modern, comfortable "Post House" restaurant where travelers could dine while awaiting their bus connections. The 1945-built terminal has gone through several uses since Greyhound buses stopped using it. For many years it was a Traverse Bay Woolens store, and today it houses a number of gift and specialty shops. (L.L. Cook Postcard, Author's Collection) The person who sent the previous postcard was right. One of the features inside the Greyhound terminal was a modern, comfortable "Post House" restaurant where travelers could dine while awaiting their bus connections. The 1945-built terminal has gone through several uses since Greyhound buses stopped using it. For many years it was a Traverse Bay Woolens store, and today it houses a number of gift and specialty shops. (L.L. Cook Postcard, Author's Collection) In Europe, the Battle of the Bulge raged across the Belgian countryside. In the Pacific, General Douglas McArthur waded to the shore at the Philippines. And in Hollywood, 16-year-old actress Shirley Temple bestowed her first screen kiss on a former marine, working part time as an extra on the set. That same day, President Roosevelt and his new vice-president, Harry Truman, were sworn in during inaugural ceremonies in the South Portico of the White House.

As World War II gasoline rationing ended, tourism returned to the Straits of Mackinac and Upper Michigan. By the end of the summer of 1945, motorists were finding lines waiting to board the ferries for the first time since the war began. Hunting season that year saw the largest rush of automobiles ever to cross the ferries, with more than 14,000 vehicles transported across the Straits, nearly 4,000 more than the last hunting season before the war began. As World War II gasoline rationing ended, tourism returned to the Straits of Mackinac and Upper Michigan. By the end of the summer of 1945, motorists were finding lines waiting to board the ferries for the first time since the war began. Hunting season that year saw the largest rush of automobiles ever to cross the ferries, with more than 14,000 vehicles transported across the Straits, nearly 4,000 more than the last hunting season before the war began. In Lansing, Highway Department officials tabulated ticket sales for the ferry fleet in 1944. By early February, Commissioner Charles Ziegler announced that traffic had improved 15.6% for the year. While it was still below pre-war levels, it was obvious that things were beginning to improve.

One of the most impressive features of the new Willow Run Freeway was the tri-level bridges designed to quickly get workers in and out of the bomber plant during shift changes. This modern MDOT photo shows one of them. At the time, only one other similar set of bridges existed in the country. That set was under wartime construction to move workers to the Pentagon, near Washington, DC. Within months of the expressway's completion, the war ended and production at the Willow Run bomber plant ended. (Michigan Department of Transportation) One of the most impressive features of the new Willow Run Freeway was the tri-level bridges designed to quickly get workers in and out of the bomber plant during shift changes. This modern MDOT photo shows one of them. At the time, only one other similar set of bridges existed in the country. That set was under wartime construction to move workers to the Pentagon, near Washington, DC. Within months of the expressway's completion, the war ended and production at the Willow Run bomber plant ended. (Michigan Department of Transportation) Also in February, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of Captain Andrew Coleman, who had been fighting to get his job back since resigning from Truckers Steamship Company nearly two years before. Ziegler had maintained that Coleman had abandoned his post, and he refused to accept the captain back into the ferry fleet. But he was probably needed. Traffic was obviously increasing, and all the boats would likely be needed in the summer rush. Also, Coleman's replacement on the Petoskey, Captain Louis Strahan, had announced he would retire the first of the year.

Other crewmen were rehired. As men returned from active duty, they reported to the Ferry Office in St. Ignace and were put back on the call list for when the fleet returned to service in the spring.

Waiting for spring had little effect on the railroad ferries, as they continued to move trains, autos, and passengers across the Straits. By mid-March, the ice had begun to break up, but that didn't stop an ambitious trio of fishermen who moved their shanty onto a patch of ice near Mackinaw City. As the Sainte Marie (II) approached her slip, a crewman noticed the men waving frantically. Winds were causing the ice to break up and the men were in extreme danger of being blown out into the lake. The ferry came about and nosed her bow up to the ice patch. The men climbed aboard, cold and shaken, but uninjured. By mid-afternoon, ice in the bay was completely gone.

With the breakup, the Lake Carriers Association announced plans to commence full-scale navigation on April 1. With a fleet of 16 ships, including the Mackinaw, two spotter planes to monitor channel conditions, and a railroad ferry icebreaker in reserve, the Coast Guard felt it would be well up to the task.

March 9 saw the culmination of one of the Highway Department's biggest wartime projects as Commissioner Ziegler took center stage at the dedication of the Willow Run Expressway. He then began an exhaustive schedule meeting with various road builders across the state. While much of it was business, much of it also was political. Ziegler was up for reelection April 2, the first time he'd been challenged since taking office in 1943.

Although he'd been accused of not taking part in the 1944 fall Republican campaign, Ziegler quickly gathered support for his campaign against George A. Dingman, the Wayne County drain commissioner. The Soo News lauded him, editorializing, "One thing that argues well for the reelection of Charles M. Ziegler . . . is the former Saginaw man's utter reliance on fact and truth. When Charlie Ziegler is confronted with facts that such a thing cannot be, he tells you so, without apple-polishing or procrastination. We know. We have tried to make him see the light in the matter of a Straits of Mackinac bridge. He is still hesitant to go all out for it. In many ways, that's a good sign. The passion for truth and facts that makes him hesitant now may well make him the greatest friend the Mackinac Bridge ever had, once he is convinced the bridge is feasible, desirable, and financially possible."

The bridge comments were timely. Just before the election, Governor Harry Kelly, apparently thinking Ziegler's reelection was assured, appointed him to a sixyear term on the Mackinac Bridge Commission. He took over the seat formerly held by his predecessor, G. Donald Kennedy. The commission was to investigate and determine the feasibility of bridging the Straits of Mackinac.

The Sault Ste. Marie editorial went on to outline the commissioner's accomplishments, including keeping highways in relatively good shape, despite loss of funds and manpower, and his efforts to economize, including the reduction of operating costs for the state ferries. With that kind of support from all over the state, Ziegler won reelection by a two-to-one margin, even carrying his opponent's home, Wayne County.

But the joy of the political victory was short. Just 10 days later the world was saddened when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Arkansas. Although only vice-president for about three months, Harry Truman took over the reins of the federal government as the nation's president. America mourned FDR, and, almost unnoticed, the spring ferry schedule began at the straits, offering six round trips a day, starting on April 16. The next day, in an unrelated item, President Truman amazed the limousine-infested nation's capitol by walking to work, from Blair House, where he'd been staying, to the White House.

In Europe, Allied armies had been moving toward Berlin. As Adolph Hitler passed his 56th birthday in a bunker, his troops surrendered Italy, Holland, Denmark, and, finally, Berlin. Within days of VE or Victory in Europe Day, the government announced that the $100 million Willow Run bomber plant would soon be abandoned. On May 8, the armistice was signed, ending European hostilities.

The European peace brought quick changes to Michigan and America. An increased gas allowance was announced, to take effect in June, meaning summer auto travel would be much easier. Rationing windshield stickers would no longer be needed.

On May 10, Commissioner Ziegler traveled by special train to a road commissioner's meeting in Cheboygan and later went on to Ft. William, Ontario. In both cases, he was asked to present his department's plans for post-war improvements and highway construction. Officials reserved Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel for an Independence Day meeting of 44 of the nation's governors and President Truman to discuss post war programs, and Ziegler was invited to be Governor Kelly's special guest. The War Production Board announced that, beginning July 1, automakers could again begin producing cars and trucks under a strict quota program, although most manufacturers agreed it would take longer than that to retool. Congress reluctantly approved a one year extension to the Office of Price Administration, but then cut it back to only six months to see if any rationing would then still be needed.

So relieved Americans began to move again. On June 16, the state ferries shifted to their summer schedule, again, using two boats to make 14 departures from each side. For the first time since the war began, the ferries operated on a 24-hour schedule. To celebrate, more than a half-dozen Mackinaw City ferry dock employees treated themselves to an evening of dinner and entertainment at Cheboygan's Ottawa Hotel. But there was sadness as well. Irving LaChapelle, a St. Ignace warehouse employee, was strickened with severe pain while at work and was rushed to the hospital, where he died two days later, following surgery.

A few weeks later, the 8,685th and final bomber rolled off the Willow Run assembly line, and the new Detroit-area freeway suddenly became nearly devoid of traffic.

But Independence Day saw a healthy increase in Straits region tourist travel for the first time since the war began. Celebrations with fireworks, parades, and pageants were staged all over the area, although a "misunderstanding" between technicians and their union resulted in a dead microphone at what was supposed to be a round table discussion, broadcast live from the Governor's Conference on Mackinac Island that weekend. Despite the glitch, Governor Kelly forged an agreement for joint tourism promotion with representatives from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario. The newly formed Northern Great Lakes Tourist Association would meet to develop more plans in late August. But by then, Governor Kelly would be a lameduck office holder. On July 12 he announced he wouldn't seek another term.

There was also bad news for travelers that July. On the 17th, a gasoline fire on her Sarnia dock spread to the 30-year-old liner Harmonic, and with frantic passengers diving overboard and sliding down ropes to escape the intense flames, the vessel burned to a total loss. While several people were seriously injured, there were, fortunately, no fatalities among the 342 people on board

In New York, a bomber accidentally flew into the side of the world's tallest building, the Empire State Building, and in England, Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister, after his party suffered a reelection loss. But the big news happened in August, when American forces dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Under such intense weaponry, the Japanese surrendered on September 2, and World War II came to a long-awaited end.

Even before the actual surrender, the government declared a nearly immediate end to most rationing. Women could suddenly find nylon stockings. Meat, sugar, and radio receivers appeared in stores, and suddenly, there was a plentiful supply of gasoline at the pumps. Tourism officials declared the end to gas rationing as a $50,000 windfall to touristdependent Michigan businesses and projected that the season might even be extended by a month to six weeks longer than normal.

In Lower Michigan, traffic increased 25% the first weekend without rationing. In the North it nearly tripled, and the figures rose continually for the next several weeks. For the ferries, it was suddenly like hunting season had happened in August. Nearly 10,000 vehicles crossed, compared to 4,873 in 1944, and only 3,307 the same weekend in 1943. By comparison, 26,901 cars had crossed the corresponding week in 1941, before the war began.

Commissioner Ziegler and his staff were prepared, and it seemed as though months and years of wartime planning paid off. At the straits, extra boats were immediately ordered into service, and Ziegler assured Michiganders that his department was ready to leap into a post-war construction program the moment funds became available. There were already rumors of upcoming Congressional reconstruction appropriations.

But with peace came a dramatic inflationary spiral. Seamen demanded pay raises, coal miners struck for higher wages, and, all across Michigan and America, people found prices rising almost faster than they could comprehend. By Labor Day, much of organized labor was involved in labor actions in many parts of the country.

Labor Day at the ferries saw 11,300 cars and more than 24,000 people cross the Straits, a huge increase from wartime levels, but still below 1941, when more than 17,000 cars and 36,000 people had crossed.

The tourist boom continued after the holiday. On September 16, the fall ferry schedule began. While two boats offered sailings every 90 minutes, Commissioner Ziegler announced that additional service would be provided, including all night sailings, if needed. Still, Captain Bill Shepler sailed the Algomah II to winter quarters in Cheboygan and moved his family back to Wyandotte for the winter. The following Wednesday, September 19, actress Shirley Temple, now age 17 and married Sgt. John Agar in Hollywood.

Despite the booming tourism economy in the U.P., the nation's labor problems continued. In the wake of mushrooming petroleum industry strikes, Michigan gas stations closed, or imposed severe rationing to their customers the last week of September, and in October, 90,000 coal miners went out on strike. With dwindling supplies of fuel for manufacturing and transportation, Governor Kelly warned the State Conservation and Tourist councils that Michigan residents needed to be sold on the idea of taking vacations in Michigan. Representatives of both agencies agreed that much of the state's tourism promotion budget should be spent at home in the coming years.

To help tourism, Michigan State College began offering counsel and guidance for present and potential state resort owners, and October 11, Greyhound lines announced construction of a series of new bus stations, including one to be built in Mackinaw City. The large log cabin-styled structure would take over the spot near the ferry terminal and train stations, previously leased by Teysen's Restaurant and Gift Shop.

Just when things looked bad for the nation's economy, Coal Miners' union boss John L. Lewis announced that he was ordering miners back to work, even though the government seemed incapable of settling the strikes. People breathed a sigh of relief, and U.P. travel continued its upsurge.

By mid-October, Commissioner Ziegler released figures that ferry travel had risen 74% in 1945. Traffic was still off 50% compared to pre-war years, however. He also released a new version of the State Highway Map. The 1946 version could be picked up at many local newspaper offices.

Hunters rushing northward for the November deer season would pick up many of those maps. Ziegler ordered the ferries to run wild 24 hours a day to accommodate the crowds expected early in the month. But northward travel was delayed by a severe October 30 windstorm that whipped through the Straits, toppling trees and downing power lines. Crews worked all night to clean up the mess and restore light and phone services.

To avoid the bad feelings experienced with area restaurateurs in 1944, the Highway Department again asked local food services to supply hunter lineups with food and coffee along roads leading to the ferry docks, and this time they agreed. Ziegler also asked hunters to head north early to avoid jamming facilities near the Straits beyond capacity.

With four ferries ready to run wild, the Chief on standby to help, and 275 game wardens patrolling the woods, officials thought they were well prepared for whatever hunters came their way.

They weren't.

Hunters began streaming north around November 10. While the ferries were able to handle most traffic early, by the November 12 the autos began to back up along roads leading to Mackinaw City. A gale, which delayed the boats in docking, caused a backup. Commissioner Ziegler said that a new all-time record had been set: Almost 11,000 cars with 15,500 passengers had moved northward, with more yet to come.

When it was all over, the ferries had transported nearly 14,000 cars, 4,000 more than in 1941. Some cars towed house trailers, while still more carried bales of straw, tents, and camping equipment. Tourist cabins, restaurants, groceries and liquor stores, all reported doing "land office" business.

As the incredible season wound down, the ferries moved to an "early winter" schedule with two boats operating every 90 minutes from each side for the first two weeks of December, and then one boat every three hours for the rest of the winter.

Indian River Representative Hugo Nelson feted Commissioner Ziegler at a party in his honor and, again, Ziegler was asked to provide scheduled state ferry service to Mackinaw Island. Again, Ziegler refused, noting that the Sainte Marie (II) was needed full time on the Straits run and that the Chief Wawatam had to be available to haul railroad cars. So instead, islanders contracted with the SS Mackinaw Islander to provide service as long as it could get through the ice. The Highway Commissioner assured them that should the Islander not be able to make it, he'd redirect a state ferry to help so they wouldn't be left for a prolonged period without help or supplies.

As December came to an end, Americans, for the first time since the war, moved about the country for the holiday season, jamming bus depots, train stations, and airports. But at the Straits, icy roads halted bus service and made automobile travel treacherous. The Mackinaw was called out to break ice on the lakes, and once again, the Civil Service Commission ruled that Captain Andrew Coleman had to be reinstated, this time ordering that the ferries give him back pay to 1943.

It was not Charles Ziegler's only run-in with the commission that year, nor would it be his last. The troubles between the Highway Department and the Michigan Civil Service Commission would only escalate in the years ahead.

Next Week: Labor, management, and the Civil Service Commission.

Copyright 2007 by Les Bagley. All Rights Reserved.

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