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A new shortcut across the lake
Lake Michigan waves were running 1 to 2 feet, not unusual but not mirror smooth. So the new Lake Express ferry, which has a top speed of 34 knots, or 40 m.p.h., slowed to about 31 knots (35-36 m.p.h.). Even so, the craft rolled a bit with the waves, and so did those of us aboard.
The first run that morning out of Muskegon, a 10:30 a.m. departure, arrived in Milwaukee a tad late; the ferry's ideal-conditions crossing time of 2 1/2 hours took an extra 20 minutes. But after a wait of 34 years, what are a few minutes' delay?
Yes, the coal-powered S.S. Badger has faithfully ferried cars and passengers between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich., since 1953 (except for a 1 1/2-year hiatus), and continues to do so. But Lake Express, a high-speed diesel catamaran, is the first passenger and car ferry to operate between Milwaukee and Muskegon since the Milwaukee Clipper bowed out in 1970. Lake Express' maiden voyage on June 1 was open only to VIPs and a few winners of tickets that were sold lottery-style. Sailings opened to the general public June 2, when I took the first smooth-as-glass crossing from Milwaukee at 6:30 a.m. to spend a day and a night in Muskegon with a return on June 3.
Residents of the Milwaukee and Muskegon areas probably stand to benefit most from the new service. From downtown Milwaukee, it's 286 miles and at least five hours to Muskegon by way of Chicago and Gary, Ind., a transit they could make for $50 per person and $59 per car in less than three hours on Lake Express.
Chicagoans considering either Lake Express or the Badger may fall into one of two camps: Those like myself, who are headed to Michigan's central west coast or the Traverse and Mackinaw areas and who'd rather kick back on a boat than do bumper-to-bumper combat through the traffic snarls around Gary; and those who'd take a ferry to experience the vastness of Lake Michigan itself and perhaps make that part of a circle drive.
A faster crossing
At 192 feet long, Lake Express is less than half the length of the 410-foot S.S. Badger. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in speed. Lake Express closes the 80 miles between Milwaukee and Muskegon in as little as 2 1/2 hours. The Badger takes about 4 hours to cover the 60 miles between Manitowoc and Ludington.
Lake Express is even shorter on history. It has none, in fact, because it was built new specifically for this route. It does, however, continue the tradition of many ships that have gone before it.
There was a time when as many as 10 steamer companies ferried passengers on Lake Michigan, according to an exhibit at the Muskegon County Museum. The first to arrive in Muskegon was the 167-foot-long Huron, a wooden-hulled paddlewheeler that began regular service from Chicago in 1859.
An old newspaper advertisement in the exhibit shows that, before the turn of the 20th Century, a round-trip fare from Muskegon to Milwaukee or Chicago ranged $1-$3. The higher fare got the ticket holder a stateroom, desirable because passengers came aboard in Muskegon at 7 p.m. and arrived in Chicago at 5 the next morning.
It wasn't long before paddlewheelers were being replaced by propeller-driven ships such as the 269-foot-long, steel-hulled Virginia. It arrived in 1891 and offered electric lights, thick carpet, bars, restaurants and speeds of 16 to 20 m.p.h. Later ships would include more luxuries. The 1909 Alabama, for instance, sported double beds, built-in sofas, private baths--and ice-breaking strength, thanks to its double-steel hull and a bow filled with concrete.
Separate Business Class
Lake Express isn't as luxurious as those ships. But it doesn't really need to be. Its 250 cushioned, airline-style seats, grouped in sets of four or six around laminated table tops, are comfortable enough for the transit. Some of those seats are in a separate Business-Class section, recline slightly, are more cushioned and a tad wider. Several of my fellow passengers spread roadmaps across the tables and consulted tour materials during the ride. Others read the paper or dozed or climbed the stairs to the open-air upper deck for a panoramic view of the lake. Many took their turn in line at the on-board snack bar that serves catered fare: boxed salads and sandwiches, quiche, yogurt-and-granola cups. Beer and wine are sold by the bottle.
The car deck can hold up to 46 vehicles, although when it's fully loaded it can present problems. Those who brought a car, as I did, found it a challenge to open their car doors wide enough to exit their vehicles. And once extricated, there remained the challenge of squeezing our way between the closely packed autos, pickups, trailers and motorcycles to reach the stairs up to the passenger deck. One woman who was transporting a car to an auto show was worried that the paint would get scratched by belt buckles, purses and baby carriers as passengers struggled past.
Several cross-lake ferries--the Huron and the Alabama among them--have become the stuff of legends among die-hard lake buffs, who keep ship statistics the way baseball fans memorize batting averages. And certainly the 620-passenger, 180-vehicle Badger, with its 42 staterooms, has just such a loyal following.
But if ferry lore has a holy grail, then it surely must be the Milwaukee Clipper, perhaps because so many people can still remember riding on it. The 346-foot-long, propeller-driven Milwaukee Clipper was built in 1904 as the Juniata, sailing between Buffalo and Duluth, Minn., according to SS Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc.
When government regulations outlawed its wooden superstructure, the Juniata was refitted as an all-steel vessel and began service as the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper in 1941. Although it wasn't plush, it did have air-conditioned staterooms, a movie theater, a dance floor and a children's playroom. Each passage took six hours and could carry 900 passengers and 100 cars. A ticket between Muskegon and Milwaukee cost $12.50, stateroom not included, when the Milwaukee Clipper made its farewell crossing.
The legendary ship, now 100 years old, is permanently at anchor in Lake Muskegon, within sight of the Lake Express pier. It's open for tours on the weekends and is one of Muskegon's attractions.
Silversides a big attraction
Another of Muskegon's maritime exhibits is the U.S.S. Silversides, a World War II submarine that's the biggest draw at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum. The Silversides is adjacent to the beaches of Pere Marquette Park, on the south side of the Muskegon Ship Channel that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Muskegon. More Michigan beaches are in Muskegon State Park, on the north side of the ship channel.
Muskegon's lakefront becomes an arena for outdoor concerts at Heritage Landing, where performers such as Crosby, Stills and Nash; ZZ Top; Kool & The Gang and Isaac Hayes are scheduled to appear later this summer. Downtown, the Muskegon County Museum doesn't offer much to the casual visitor; even the cross-lake ferry history I found there filled only one window.
But there is a restored theater, the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, where the Muskegon Civic Theatre stages Broadway fare and welcomes the occasional headliner. And there's a pair of Victorian-era homes, the Hackley and the Hume, that are open for tours.
Charles Hackley and Thomas Hume were lumber barons, but even they figured briefly in the history of cross-lake shipping. In the 1890s, the Goodrich Steamboat Co. dominated freight service and set the rates, in the area. According to materials in the Muskegon County Museum, Hackley and Hume were part of a Muskegon group that wanted to bring freight prices down by setting up a rival company. They convinced a local tugboat operator to begin a freight line, and later passenger service, to Chicago. The resulting Barry Line drove prices so low that both companies were in danger of failing. And the Barry Line did, surviving only from 1900-1906.
In their heyday, cross-lake passenger ships carried more than a million passengers a year. In 1911 alone, more than 1.6 million people boarded at Chicago and another 137,000 boarded at Milwaukee. But eventually, cheap gasoline and the novelty of driving on better roads were among the dynamics that drew people away from ferries.
Now, rising gas prices paired with the novelty of crossing Lake Michigan may combine to attract a new generation to ferry travel. Whether that will be enough to support two rival companies these days remains to be seen.
E-mail Toni Stroud: email@example.com