The Beardless Voyager – Summer 1975

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

By Ernest H. Rankin

Late in June 1907, the Marquette Daily Mining Journal carried an advertisement—a round trip from Marquette to Detroit for $7.00. This included transportation via the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic Railway to St. Ignace, as well as the cost of the boat trip from there to Detroit, including a berth. Two persons of the same sex— as well as married couples— could share the same stateroom, but meals were extra.

Although school was not as yet out for the summer vacation I, the writer, persuaded Mother to let me visit relatives in Detroit. United States Postal Service was fast and frequent at that time and in a very few days the matter was resolved with a Detroit aunt who would welcome me as a guest for two weeks. (And the postage rate in 1907 was only two cents an ounce for a first class letter!)

Dressed in my best, with a straw suitcase containing spare clothing, and a large shoebox heavily laden with food, I was up and ready in plenty of time to catch the eastbound train which departed around 5 o’clock in the morning. Mother had arisen early, provided me with a substantial breakfast and packed the lunch. She was an expert at this—a lunch which would have to suffice for three meals!

On the train I was but one of many, for the excursion had been well advertised, not only in Marquette, but as far away as Calumet in the Copper Country. Some of the passengers would have boarded the train around midnight. Extra coaches had been added to the train’s usual, consisting of headend mail and express cars, a couple of coaches, two or three sleepers and a diner. This was the through night train between Duluth and St. Ignace. I had ridden it several times previously— from Marquette to Soo Junction—and then to Sault Ste. Marie on a shuttle train. Although designated as a through train it did stop at most of the larger towns and villages to discharge and pick up passengers, mail and express. It would also make “flag stops” as occasion might require.

Sidewheel steamer CITY OF ST. IGNACE. Image from National Museum of the Great Lakes photo collection.

The long, dusty train pulled into the St. Ignace Depot around 2 o’clock in the afternoon to unload local passengers, etc. It then moved out onto the long dock, alongside the steamer waiting to take aboard the excursionists— at least a couple hundred or more. As I recall, it was the City of St. Ignace, a side wheeler, one of the several sister “City” ships which were in service on the Great Lakes for many years as passenger carriers and package freighters.

Along with the others I took my turn and checked in at the purser’s window on the lower deck. I was assigned to an inner stateroom, my roommate was a gentleman of possibly forty years. He was from some now forgotten place “up the road,” as the towns west of Marquette were called. Needless to say, he got the lower, and I got the upper berth where I deposited my suitcase and box of food. I had very little spending money— a dollar or two at best—so could not afford to join the more opulent in the spacious dining salon at the stern of the boat.

By the time I had got settled and had become acquainted with a new friend the ship was getting underway, ready to back out into the Straits, but I was in time to rush to the deck and observe the mooring lines being cast off and splash down into the water. I didn’t want to miss anything!

Sailing on a “large” vessel was by no means new to me. I had in my younger days enjoyed two trips on the famous excursion whaleback steamer, the Christopher Columbus. This vessel was unique for it was the only passenger ship of the whaleback type ever to be built. For a number of years she ran excursions out of Marquette, as well as from other Lake Superior ports—to Stannard Rock Lighthouse, Pictured Rocks and other points of interest.

As I had done on those previous voyages I spent much time below on the St. Ignace (if that was my ship) standing on the steel, openwork balcony, watching the great engine turn the sidewheels. I was fascinated by the machinery and an oiler, as he skillfully lubricated the moving parts, using an oil can with an extra long spout. But that wasn’t my only interest. When it was time to enter a port, from hearing the engineroom bell, I could know it was time for me to rush to the open deck and “supervise” the docking, unloading, and loading of passengers, mail bags and cargo.

The first stop was at Mackinac Island in the Straits, and then on to Cheboygan and out onto Lake Huron and to Rogers City. The Lake remained as flat as a mill pond throughout the afternoon and night. If there were any mal de mer among the passengers it would have been from fright, not because of any motion from an unruly sea.

Of course, as time and opportunity permitted, I inspected my ship from stem to stern, and from the lower to the upper decks. But all too frequently it was frustrating. There were signs everywhere: KEEP OUT—CREW ONLY—NO ADMITTANCE—they were legion. I would have liked to climb the steep, narrow, ladder-like stairway to the pilothouse, but I dared not risk it. The set, stern face of the wheelsman and the serious mien of the uniformed officers were by no means encouraging. One had to be a friend of the captain or of a top officer to invade the privacy of that sanctuary.

I watched through a scuttle the firemen far below at the bottom of the ship tossing shovels full of coal through the open firebox doors. The brilliant glow from the flames reflected on the streaking sweat of their blackened bodies for they were bare from the waist up. A vertical steel ladder led down to the fireroom. To me the KEEP OUT sign was unnecessary. I had no desire to make a close inspection of that part of the vessel, where devils were adding fuel to the fires of hell. I was reminded of the lurid illustrations in Dante’s Inferno. As a youngster of five or six years I had experienced a delightful horror in looking at them—too young to understand. I desired none of that part of the ship, and besides, the boiler might blow up!

I missed nothing and the afternoon passed all too rapidly. Before my ship had reached Alpena I had turned over to others the navigation of the staunch vessel for the night, and taken to my upper bunk above my already snoring companion. We had seen little of each other during the daylight hours. I laid down fully dressed, except for my shoes, as I wished to be ready for any emergency which might occur during the night. I was completely exhausted from my demanding duties, and the thump, thump, thump of the engine, and the constant swash of the paddle wheels quickly lulled me into a deep, restful sleep. I slept so soundly that the boiler, deep in the hold under me, could have exploded and sent me skyward as had happened to my maternal grandfather, Jonas W. Watson, many years previously.

At the time he was the clerk on the propeller independence, the first ship of its type on Lake Superior. The accident occurred just after midnight on November 22, 1853, during the first few minutes of the new day. The Independence had backed out from her dock at Sault Ste. Marie, and when about a mile out and turning, the engine stalled and created a head of steam, the pressure beyond the capacity of the boiler. Grandfather’s stateroom was right over the boiler and when it exploded he rode his mattress high into the sky. He recovered his senses while scratching gravel in eighteen feet of water! When he surfaced he bumped into a bale of hay. He held on to this until rescued by a small boat from the nearby steamer Baltimore which picked up the survivors.

The next morning—returning to the narrative of my far lesser adventure— we were up reasonably early. I shared the remnants of my lunch-a few sandwiches—with the gentleman. He was extremely grateful, and I do not believe that he had eaten to any great extent on the previous day. I had eaten off and on as I rushed between the engine-room and decks. My “duties” in the operation of the vessel had been too demanding to allow any time other than to devour a sandwich as I scurried from deck to deck.

My friend gave me a moment of amazement as he dressed. His white, detachable collar had become badly soiled during the trip. It was the only one he had: it was of celluloid. They were more or less common in those days, but new and strange to me. He turned it inside out and again had—on the outside— a clean, white collar!

This was the last I saw of him, for as quickly as possible I had to rush to the deck to pilot my ship down the St. Clair River, across Lake St. Clair and down the Detroit River, tooting our whistle with the proper signals as we passed the upbound vessels. They were many in the year 1907.

As the ship approached close to its Detroit dock it was with great regret that I had to leave her mooring to others. I rushed to my stateroom and recovered my suitcase: I don’t recall that I had even opened it during the voyage. Then I became just another one of the crowd as we passed over the wide gangplank to the dock—my voyage ended.

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About the Author: Mr. Ernest H. Rankin, Sr., a Charter Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, has contributed many articles to INLAND SEAS and other journals and newspapers regarding personal experiences and special research into Great Lakes history. Prior to October 1969 he was Executive Vice President of the Marquette County Historical Society for several years, and Editor of Harlow’s Wooden Man, quarterly publication of the Society. Mr. Rankin now resides in Novato, California, but still maintains his interest in history pertaining to the Great Lakes.

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