Ferry-tale: Could a Chicago-to-Michigan Ferry Return from Extinction?

Ferry-tale: Could a Chicago-to-Michigan Ferry Return from Extinction?

Barbara Laing is a vibrant, five-cups-of-coffee-a-day kind of person. And that caffeine does not go to waste; Barbara owns and operates a small photography and framing shop in Chicago’s West Andersonville neighborhood, and she has to hustle to keep all the balls in the air.

Come summertime, Barbara needs a breather. An escape. So, occasionally she’ll set aside a weekend and venture to Southwestern Michigan to get away from the stress of her business and to-do lists: “I just love to kind of poke around. I love to relax ... take walks down by the lake. There’s lots of beautiful rocks that you find on Lake Michigan over there on the sands.”

But when Barbara gets in her car to head back to Chicago on Sunday, I-94 looks more like a parking lot than a freeway. That’s when her internal dialogue begins: “I'm just like, take yourself out of this moment, keep your eyes on the road, but just remember that walk you took on the lake. Remember that nice meal you had ... and remember it will be over in, oh, I don't know, three or four hours.”

One day while strolling along Lake Michigan, Barbara dreamed of an alternate way to make the trip, and asked us to investigate:  

Has there ever been a ferry between Chicago and Michigan, and why isn't there one now?

Barbara has always had a certain reverence for Lake Michigan (“It's kind of poetic to be out on the water,” she says), but even if you don’t share her feelings, you’ve probably been stuck in a horrible car trip at some point and can relate to rooting for an alternative.

So could a lake ferry be that alternative — a waterborne savior, if you will? Are your finger’s crossed?

When Lake Michigan was Chicago’s superhighway

Turns out, there was an alternative! It’s just that, at the time, people called them steamers, not ferries.

In the mid-19th century, back before cars or trucks paved roads, the Great Lakes were the region’s superhighways. Grand steamships darted from harbor to harbor, making money by moving products and people.

Ted Karamanski, a public historian at Loyola University, emphasizes that both revenue streams were vital to the profitability of the steamship industry.

“These were steamships that carried excursionists out for a day of fun on Lake Michigan, or they would carry light manufacturing goods and then, of course … fresh fruit from Southwest Michigan to the Chicago produce markets,” he says.

In the 1880’s, passenger traffic was thriving. There were two different kinds of tourists on the lake: the daytrippers and the overnighters.

Daytrippers went from “Chicago to Michigan City, or Chicago to St. Joseph, relatively short three, four, five hour trips” across the lake, says Karamanski. St. Joseph, Michigan, even became known as Chicago’s Coney Island. People would picnic and lounge and splash about and then jump on the boat at 5:00 p.m. and be back in Chicago by nightfall.

The overnighters took 12-hour trips up to Northwest Michigan, bringing tourists to destinations like Grand Traverse Bay, Little Traverse Bay, even some to Mackinac Island for longer stays, Karamanski says. These were usually wealthy travelers who could afford to spend weeks or even months away from the city.  

But not all of the region’s tourists traveled simply to unwind. Before antihistamines, many Chicagoans escaped their allergies in the crisp air of Northern Michigan. Little tent cities popped up along the shore; they were called “achoo clubs.”

“They would usually be organized by different religious denominations,” Karamanski explains. “So the Methodists would have a club where people could go, and the Presbyterians would be in another place, the Baptists somewhere else.” That way, husbands who stayed in the city for the summer to work could rest assured that their wives and children were escaping the heat and histamines in a safe, morally righteous place. Over time the small tent colonies developed into clusters of cottages, and eventually those cottages became enormous Victorian manors.

At the turn of the last century, Petoskey was just one of the many popular destinations that catered to Chicago tourists along the northern shoreline of Michigan. (Fun fact: In 1882 the Western Hay Fever Association christened Petoskey as its official headquarters.)

Jane Garver, Co-Executive Director of the Little Traverse Bay Historical Museum in Petoskey, imagines the area offered a literal breath of fresh air to jaded Chicagoans: “If I got off the boat from Chicago … I would be so relieved to arrive here on Little Traverse Bay: cool breezes, a beautiful area, million-dollar sunsets, and plenty to do without being so overwhelming that you wouldn't know what to do.”

There was an opera house and dance halls and tea rooms — you name it.

“People might be surprised to know that there were so many well-known names that visited here,” Garver says. “In fact, I'm surprised when I go through records and see ... ‘Oh yes, Amelia Earhart, she came here and spoke here.’” Mark Twain gave a lecture, and Ernest Hemingway wiled away his childhood summers at his family’s cottage. The list goes on.

The decline of steamships

But, you should know, a voyage on a steamship was not all fun and games. Karamanski noted that, in high winds, it could get a little bouncy on the lake, “which could make this nice little cruise ship what sometimes they used to call a vomit comet.”

And sometimes, the boats were just plain unsafe. Like the S.S. Eastland. You may have heard about this: On July 24, 1915, about 2,500 people boarded the Eastland for Western Electric Company’s annual employee picnic when the boat tipped into the murky Chicago River.

844 people died in the accident, 20 feet from dry land. “You would think that this might be sort of the death knell of steamships,” Karamanski explains. “But it wasn't.”

Cars were.

Steamships took a huge hit after the introduction of the automobile. People and products — the two legs that the steamship industry stood upon — were no longer bound to the waterways. Karamanski emphasizes that not everyone defected from the steamers right away: “Steamers were still very popular through the early ‘20s, but beginning in about 1925, we see a steep decline in the number of people traveling by steamship, and this is tied to the improvement of roads, particularly in Michigan. Since Michigan was the center for the automotive business, they invested a lot of money in good, modern roads.”

And, over time, it only got worse. During the 1950s, the interstate highway system began to zigzag across the nation. As infrastructure improved, more and more people abandoned lake ferries in favor of their cars.

There were consequences for people and communities on both sides of the lake.

Karamanski believes Chicagoans lost a historic, intimate connection to the lake, which had helped the city develop in the first place.

“Just steps away from the pavement of Chicago, we got three-hundred miles of wilderness, an alien environment, which if you don't take care, it will kill you,” he says. “Most Chicagoans just don't appreciate that. It's just taken for granted like the water in our taps.”

On the Michigan side of the equation, Garver says that the highways drastically changed the face of Petoskey. Back in the day, “when travelers arrived by steamship or by train here ... they had their choice of 15 different luxury hotels,” all centrally located in the heart of downtown. Since the age of the automobile, all but one of the those 15 hotels either went out of business or burned down and was never rebuilt. Today, plenty of hotels dot the interstate on the way into town, hoping to be the first place you see well before you reach Petoskey’s historic city center.

The ferry-less fate of the Chicago region was sealed in 1958 with the completion of the Chicago Skyway. As Karmanski explains, the Skyway was “designed specifically to get people, fast, from downtown Chicago via the Dan Ryan Expressway to Southwest Michigan. So why take a boat when you can do it in an hour and a half?”

But these days, in bad traffic, that same trip might take closer to three hours. Which leads one to wonder: Could ferries make a comeback?

Is there a case to be made for a Chicago lake ferry revival?

Remember: Questioner Barbara Laing’s interest in the history of lake ferries is not simply nostalgic. She’s a business woman and she knows a money-making opportunity when she sees one.

“Here's the thing,” she says. “As a small business owner, you look for business ventures, and you think well what else could I do?”

A Chicago ferry came to mind, she says, but, “I don't have a captain's license, so it's not within my realm of experience. But somebody should do it.”

After all, there are two ferries that operate on the lake today. Lake Express runs from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Muskegon, Michigan. The S.S. Badger operates between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan. It stands to reason that Chicago, with its lakeside location and enormous metropolitan population, brimming with potential customers, could have a modern ferry service, too.


Wrong, says Ken Szallai, president and founder of Lake Express. His professional opinion: “Running a ferry parallel to the interstate highway system is not a feasible ferry operation.”

Szallai explains that a Chicago ferry would compete with the interstate and Amtrak’s Pere Marquette line. Milwaukee’s ferry doesn’t have that problem; the Lake Express’ route is a straight shot across the water, which helps customers cut out hundreds of miles of travel around the lake.

Szallai says when you factor in the fierce competition, plus operating expenses and the short operating season thanks to the region’s fierce winter … Well, he’s not going to invest in a Chicago ferry anytime soon.

But that hasn’t stopped other people from trying. Douglas Callaghan of Grand Rapids, Michigan, chuckles when asked about a business venture he pioneered over a decade ago: “Oh yes, the infamous ferry.”

Why was it infamous, you might be wondering? “Well, because it never made it into the water,” Callaghan retorts.

In 2003 and 2004, Callaghan’s small company, LEF Corp (Lake Express Ferry), attempted to reinstate a ferry service between Chicago’s Navy Pier and Benton Harbor in St. Joseph, Michigan. They conducted a feasibility study, analyzing travel demand and what type of boat would be best suited to the project. And, as Callaghan puts it, “there were about five super-rich lovers of catamarans — not all American — who invested in our proposal.”

Kim Gallagher of the Southwestern Michigan Planning Commission was a consultant on LEF Corp’s proposal at the time. She remembers that the local community was delighted when investors were brought in for a tour of the port: “The Benton Harbor, St. Joseph area was very supportive of the project because it offered an additional mode of transportation to get around the lake in two and half hours.”

Both Gallagher and Callaghan agree that the primary reason for the proposal’s failure originated on the other side of the lake. “I think somewhere along the line, a message came down from on high in Chicago that said we’re not going to do it,” Callaghan recalls. “Every time we turned around, another issue would come up.”

After awhile, it became clear to Callaghan that the proposal was dead in the water and LEF Corp disbanded.

When asked to comment on the reasons that Callaghan’s proposal fell through, Nick Shields, Director of Communications for Navy Pier, Inc., has this to say: “It is our understanding that the company went out of business in 2004 and we did not receive a final proposal before then.”

Still, Shields affirms that Navy Pier remains open to the idea of a ferry revival: “Yes, Navy Pier, Inc. would consider a future investor’s proposal. We view the idea as a unique opportunity to bring new visitors to Chicago.”

Who knows? If maritime technology improves and ferries get faster while Chicago-area traffic gets worse, and global warming heats up the planet and eliminates our icy winters, maybe, just maybe, someone will revive a Chicago-Michigan ferry.

Should that day come, Barbara Laing will be the first in line to go out on the water and float all the way to Michigan, just like the generations of Chicagoans before her: “It's something that people long to do, I think. If there's water there, you want to go out in it.”

Chloe Prasinos is an independent reporter and producer based in Chicago. Follow her @chloeprasinos.

Notes on map:

Ferry travel times for 1947 were calculated with an average speed of 19 mph and based on the routes depicted in a related infographic from Chicago Tribune archives. Ferry travel times for 2015 were calculated with an average speed of 35 mph and informed by our interview with Ken Szallai, president and founder of the Lake Express ferry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Car travel routes from Chicago (Navy Pier) to St. Joseph and South Haven, Michigan, depict general directions, not exact directions over specific streets, highways and interstates. The 1947 route includes US 41 and Red Arrow Highway, with an average speed of 45 mph established in consultation with Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. The 2015 car travel time was suggested by Google Maps with a route via I-90/94.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the timeframe during which the U.S. Interstate Highway System affected transportation options and habits. The correct decade for delineating the start of that program is the 1950s.