Crossing Lake Michigan – Fall 1965

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Herbert A. Rehfeld

Back in the “Roaring Twenties” a steamship company known as the Pere Marquette Line Steamers, ran two ships across Lake Michigan between Milwaukee, Ludington and Manistee. One was the wooden steamer Virginia; her sistership was advertised as the “all-steel” steamer         Nevada.

During the summer travel season, one of these ships would leave each side of the Lake every evening and arrive at the opposite shore early the next morning. When winter came, only the Nevada sailed on a limited schedule.

As far back as I can remember, ships of all kinds always fascinated me. I would walk a couple of miles down to the lakefront just for a chance look at a ship either leaving or entering Milwaukee harbor. So you can imagine my disappointment, way back in July 1927, when my father, who had no stomach for anything that floats, decided I would not accompany my mother on a trip across the Lake for a two-weeks stay in Manistee.


Mother sailed on the Virginia one beautiful Saturday evening — an evening not so beautiful for me. For the next few days, I must have been a very difficult person to live with, because father arranged for my passage on the Nevada the Saturday following.

Waiting out the hours until sailing time was an eternity, I could not believe I was going alone! Time for me to leave finally arrived. As we left home, some rather ominous-looking clouds were darkening the northern sky as a sequel to a very hot day. My only fear was that the approaching storm would cause my father to decide against my leaving, for, after all, he had some qualms over me — a lad going on fifteen sailing alone — without the addition of a storm.

I believe I was rather rude in the way I bid father good-bye, but then I was overwhelmed with excitement.

The part where you boarded the ship was a foyer-like affair at the stern quarter of the freight deck. It was done up in shiny mahogany paneling, with a tile floor, purser’s window and several doors leading to offices and things. In the center was a wide, carpeted stairway with huge balusters leading to the main lounge above.


As I stood gazing about the foyer, a strange combination of odors puzzled me. I recognized the smell of ladies’ perfume, tobacco smoke and cooking food, but mixed with these was something I had never smelled before.

I passed a door partly ajar on my way to the stairs, and, of course, I had to peek in. There were steel steps leading down to a giant engine with its massive connecting rods lazily dancing up and down around an enormous crankshaft. It was here that I found the source of the strange odor. Just about the time my eyes were ready to pop, a man smiled up at me with his sweat-lined face and beckoned for me to come down, but being a little frightened, I made for the stairs instead.

The lounge was quite crowded with people and several white-coated waiters were hurrying about with trays of soda and ice. (I learned later that all this soda and ice was used to temper the prohibition whiskey drunk in the staterooms surrounding the main lounge.) The very ornate chandelier attracted my attention, possibly because of the slight flicker to the lights.

Everyone was talking, laughing and some even weeping as they bid their people good-bye. All this activity did not impress me too much, so I roamed about until I finally ended up on the stern top deck.

The storm was much closer now, with violent flashes of lightning and an almost constant rumble from thunder. The wind had increased considerably and, according to the surface ripples on the river, blew in gusts from different directions.

Two ship’s officers dressed in navy blue jackets, embellished in gold, with white slacks and shoes, hurried past me. I heard one remark to the other, “I hope we get out before it hits!”

I roamed the deck for a time, examining the lifeboats and other equipment, when a few large drops of rain made me decide to go below to the lounge. It was here I learned that our departure was being delayed by a passenger who decided not to sail when he found there were no more staterooms available. His car, which had been put on earlier in the day, was well up forward, consequently many others had to be moved to get it out.

As I walked about, I heard some of the more experienced lake travelers speculating as to whether the approaching storm would cause the captain to order a tug, because at times the Milwaukee River is tricky to navigate even with the best conditions. Walking forward from the lounge I entered the dining area where a few couples were attempting to dance to the music of a small orchestra, which had just started to play.

It was now a half hour past our sailing time and my impatience was beginning to weigh on me, so I decided to try the top deck again. Just as I reached the top of the stairs, the wind sent my cap sailing down the deck to a cleat near a lifeboat where I was able to retrieve it. The rain had stopped, it was hardly enough to wet the deck.

While standing at the stern rail watching the whirlpools made by the propeller as the engine was marking time, a blast from the whistle nearly raised me out of my shoes!

The stern line went slack and then dropped into the water. As it was being snaked into the side of the ship, a bell jangled and at the same time I heard the water making a noise like a rapids at the stern of the ship. A glance at the dock buildings told me that we were backing ever so slowly.

Just then it occurred to me that I had not been up in the bow of the ship. I started up the deck and as I was passing the stack, three blasts from the whistle not only shook me up again, but gave me a misty shower from the steam!

In good weather, a passenger ship going down-river usually has its decks filled with people, but on this trip I was just about the only one out. I found a sheltered place just ahead of the wheelhouse where I could hear the men inside talking, as the windows were down.

Some more jangling of bells started us moving forward towards mid-stream and a bridge which seemed would never open in time for us to pass. We went south down the river, through a few more bridges to a point where the Milwaukee and Menominee rivers meet. Here we had to go east in order to reach the Lake.

Menomonee River Railroad Swing Bridge

As we started to make this turn, I sensed something was wrong when the quietness of the wheelhouse was broken by voices and sudden activity. Bells jangled, and at the same time a blast came from the whistle. The anchor plunged into the river with the chain rattling out after it. The deck began to throb quite severely. The high wind had caused the ship to swing too far as we were making our turn. The measures taken were successful and so we continued eastward, dragging our anchor through some more bridges up to our last obstacle, a railroad swing bridge which refused to open on our signal. Holding the ship in midstream as the wind did its best to blow us against the dock, was a real test of the captain’s skill. The bridge opened after a passenger train went through and we were finally on our way to the Lake. A crew member came up in the bow and started pulling a fire hose from the rack. I wondered “What now!” He used it to play a stream of water on the chain and anchor as it was being taken in.

The wind struck us with all its fury as we left the shelter of the river and started across the harbor to the breakwater opening. I was forced to wrap my arm around the rail to keep from being blown down the deck. For the first time I saw Lake Michigan at its meanest. The waves constantly flung themselves over the breakwater so that it had the appearance of a waterfall. Out beyond, the water looked black in spite of the illumination from almost constant flashes of lightning. Three miles ahead of us the feeble glow from the lightship was not very reassuring as it beckoned us.

My spirit was finally daunted by the wind, forcing me to struggle back to where the deck was sheltered by the cabins. It was then that I was treated to an awesome sight. The city behind us looked eerie with its yellow lights and ghostlike buildings under the low black rolling clouds with just a thin blood-orange sky peeking through on the horizon.

I can still remember the tingling feeling I had in my stomach when we left the protection of the breakwater and the ship made its first roll — it seemed she would never come back again! This rolling continued until we reached the lightship, at which point our heading was changed to northeast. The rolling lessened considerably, but now we were plunging into seas that sent spray down the deck and I was obliged to go below to stay dry.

NEVADA under full steam

It was while down in the lounge that I became acquainted with a boy about my own age who was traveling to Canada with his parents. On a promise to stay out of trouble, his mother gave him permission to roam the ship with me. For a while the two of us found some excitement at the stern rail, where we could feel ourselves go up and then plunge down again as the ship drove through each wave.

Having told my friend of my experience in peeking down into the engine room when first boarding the ship, we decided to try our nerve on going down there.    The same man was still on watch and proved to be a very interesting guide as he showed us the mechanics of the ship. We were shown a steam steering engine, a dynamo and a condenser which was not in use. Last, but not least, was a very detailed discourse on the operation of a triple-expansion engine whose connecting rods were swinging up and down in earnest now, as compared to the first time I had seen them. We thanked the engineer and found our way to the freight deck where the autos were stored. It rather amused us to watch the cars jerk back and forth as they danced on their springs in response to the motion of the deck. When leaving the freight deck, I looked back to see a sign over the doorway. It read, “Passengers Not Allowed!” We explored the ship until one o’clock in the morning, when my friend’s mother finally caught up with us and insisted that he retire.

I went back to the top deck where I found the storm had blown itself out, and realized for the first time that the motion of the ship was a good deal easier. I took a steamer chair from the racks and sat in the shelter of the cabins where I fell asleep.

The eastern sky had a pink glow when I was awakened by the whistle. We were coming upon another ship. After standing at the rail for a time to watch the lights on the other vessel, I decided to see what was happening in the lounge.

Everything was quiet now, with some people unable to get berths sleeping in easy chairs. Because of the odor from the people who had been sick, I went to the dining area where the air was better.

A crewman, quietly moving chairs about as he mopped the floor, asked me if it was not a little early for me to be up. I told him of my adventures aboard ship, whereupon he remarked that a good sailor deserves some reward, and offered to get some bakery and a glass of milk for me.

We had a quiet little conversation in which he told me of his years on the Lakes. After about half an hour of talk and his job being finished, I thanked him and went back up on the top deck.

Ludington with a Pere Marquette passenger steamer and car ferry

The sun was just above the horizon, holding a promise for a beautiful new day. Although it was daylight, the Ludington light could be seen winking at us from some miles up ahead.

It was not long before we docked at Ludington, only a half hour late in spite of everything. After the autos were driven off the freight deck, a group of men with wheelbarrows marched back and forth like an army of ants, carrying coal up the large gangplank to the bunkers.

Two hours after leaving Ludington, we arrived at Manistee. As we approached the dock in the Manistee River, I spotted my mother and her friends, who had come down to the dock that fine Sunday morning just to watch the ship come in. It was quite a shock for her to see me standing at the ship’s rail, since she had no idea I would be on that boat. It was also a stroke of luck for me because, in my excitement when leaving home, I had forgotten the slip of paper on which was written the address of the place where I would find my mother. In view of the shortage of sleeping space, it was rather ironic that I should reach in my pocket just before leaving ship to find the key to a stateroom which I had never used!

After my experiences on the  Nevada, the trip home on the Virginia was quite uneventful, since the weather was perfect and mother was there to keep me in check.

Assuming that some readers are not familiar with the history of these two ships, I will attempt to relate briefly what happened to them.

NEVADA with stern cabins cut off for semi-trucks

One of the fine books on Great Lakes ships by Dana T. Bowen, reports that the Virginia left the Lakes to ply the Catalina Island waters. The Nevada suffered an ignominious end by having her cabins cut off from the stack aft, so she could carry semi-trailers across the Lake to Muskegon. At the start of World War II, she went into service along the Atlantic coast and, I believe, foundered in a gale or hurricane.

Today, the C&O carferries provide excellent passenger service from Milwaukee to Ludington. The Milwaukee Clipper, sailing during the summer months to Muskegon, is the last passenger ship, as such, providing fine accommodations for tourists as well as one-day excursionists.

Some people may think my memory is phenomenal to remember this trip in detail after so many years! I must confess I found some old notes used to write a story on this adventure while in high school.

In all fairness to my father, I should mention that he made a crossing on C&O’s SS Spartan a few years ago and thought it was wonderful!


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About the Author: Mr. Herbert A. Rehfeld was born on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Milwaukee, where be once again resides, after living in Mequon, Wisconsin, for several years. He started sailing at an early age, and, becoming interested in shallow water diving in his teens, developed a helmet for the amateur diver. Mr. Rehfeld worked one season as an oiler on a coal boat during the Depression, has frequently participated in sail boat races, and has sailed across Lake Michigan at least two dozen times. Many trips were also taken on Pere Marquette car ferries. For thirty years he has been associated with the Johnson Service Company, manufacturers of temperature controls used on most ocean-going vessels.  Mr. Rehfeld is a Sustaining Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society. 

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