The Miller Boat Line – Winter 1982


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

By Andy Sykora

One of the more successful and colorful vessel companies on the Great Lakes operates three ferryboats with a new vessel scheduled to be en route come Spring of 1983. Seemingly oblivious to present economic conditions, The Miller Boat Line, Inc. is thriving, and thriving on a high volume route merely 2.8 miles in length where passengers enjoy a seventeen-minute trip from Catawba Point on Catawba Island, Ohio, to South Bass Island, in the western island region of Lake Erie. The Miller ferryboats are 65-feet by 30-feet and relatively small by any comparison; however, their size has been designed for maximum efficiency and they float plenty of cargo, with eighteen trips a day during the peak of the midsummer months, providing a highly generated mass of business. Their primary cargo: people and more people, and they come to a beautiful island and harbor that can only be realized for its attractiveness by visiting it. Miller Boat Line advertises to everyone, “Put an island in your life.”

The Miller Boat Line, Inc. and other transportation companies that locally service Put-In-Bay, Ohio, owe their existence to a geological phenomena. Sixteen thousand years ago, a giant glacier, one-mile thick, pushed rock upwards as it gouged out Lake Erie while moving slowly with a weight of millions of tons. The movement stopped and finally leveled its strata to form flat land. The glacier gradually melted, water filled in and the Lake Erie Islands were formed. While described very simply, the result became a beautiful archipelagic wonder, and the mode of transportation to get there today is simply – by boat.

The Miller Boat Line, Inc., headquartered at Put-In-Bay, owes its success to this great attraction while yearly, hundreds of thousands of tourists have found the Island a “wonderful place to get away to.” Also, not unlike ferry- boat operations anywhere for a populous island, comparable service is required to complete a communicative commitment. The Miller Boat Line sustained this commitment through three generations of astute operators.

Miller Boat Line passenger ferry SOUTH SHORE in transit. Image from the Bowling Green State University Archives.

The little boat line initiated modem ferry service with a 65-foot vessel designed with a soft sheer configuration that was both efficient and attractive. Appropriately named, the Motor Vessel South Shore earned her keep by creating cash reserves for a period of two years but she has since been sold out of the fleet to sail for the Beaver Island Boat Company, initially located at St. James, Michigan and now located at Charlevoix in northern Lake Michigan.

The successful history of the Company is based on a firm foundation, for the Millers built it and forged its survival on hard work, dreams, and the resultant experience that indeed fulfilled a necessity. It is a story of the struggle to provide a service, and the development of an opportunity: thus The Miller Boat Livery was born. Its founder, William M. Miller, his son, William Lee, and grandson, Bill, worked hard over a period of thirty-three years before that first ferryboat South Shore was constructed. “Daddy Bill,” as he was known and beloved by the islanders, started his business in 1912 with a few old rowboats, and supplemented his income in the winter by cutting ice to provide supplies for his fellow islanders. He progressed to an 18-foot, flat-bottomed rig, powered by a one-cylinder, two-cycle, three-horsepower Relacco gas engine. This thrust his big venture into the serious boat business and, although the ice business flourished, spring inevitably would arrive, so William Miller created a passenger taxi service to complement it by a charter fishing service, along with a freight-hauling enterprise. Soon the operation expanded into a fleet of 35-foot vessels specifically designed as head boats which became a familiar sight for years amongst the Bass Islands. When Daddy Bill retired from active management of the company, the vessels, with a high sheer design for the often troubled and cantankerously angry waters of Lake Erie, had produced a good living for the family-owned company. Lee Miller took over, and achieved a new era of prosperity from the initial base of good service developed by his father. Lee also held the contract to transport mail and parcels year-round to the three Bass Islands prior to the advent of the airplane. In the winter he attached skids to his ironclad, flat-bottomed boats and laboriously trudged across the open wilderness of ice to fulfill his inborn commitment to service.

Transportation of thousands of visitors also had been provided by the old steamer Erie Isle and then in 1941 by M/V Mystic Isle from Catawba Point, along with the smaller wooden Messenger, Mascot and steel Commuter of the Neuman Boat Line of Sandusky. However, the Catawba Island dock facility, already an established business location, had been secured by Miller through purchase of owner’s shares of the Co-op Dock Company. Thus, Miller had his dock on the mainland and an opportunity again was cemented, The year was 1945. It was then that Lee Miller’s first ferryboat South Shore was put into service. Building a vessel in those war years was a task. Equipment necessary for a fitout was extremely difficult to procure, such as seating benches that had to be purchased from a Cleveland shoe store that was going out of business. The steel South Shore, official number 247657, of 67 gross tons, was built following an extensive program of wood-hulled mine sweeper production for the United States Government at the Stadium Boat Works adjacent to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. It was built by Messrs. Hank Luebbert, a major owner and Ted Zickes, the yard manager, former members of Put-In-Bay Yacht Club and both special helpers to Lee Miller.

The sleek, weather protected, 35-foot fishing vessels were skippered at one time or another by islanders Cotton Dugan, Jake Market, Bud Parker, Alfred Parker, Ethan Fox, Art Market, Ralph Morgan, Sid Webster and his son, Stewart Webster, aboard the gas-engined Turk, Always, All Hours, Laura W., Envoy, Envoy II, East Sister, and William Lee. Accompanying these vessels was the larger Avon II, skippered by Bob Schmidt and Kenny Chapman. The full forecastle of the Avon II was later cut off and opened, forward of the pilothouse. The Avon II was utilized to push and tow an automobile and supplies barge and she could carry one car. This distinctive vessel was ultimately sold to Zane Hooper who operated her from his Pelee Island dock to the Canadian mainland. Mr. Hooper sold her to Sarnian interests and on her delivery voyage up the Detroit River during a lonely and cold November day, her cranky Kahlenberg diesel overheated by reason of a failure to adjust her engine’s cool water intake valve, which had not been manually adjusted to allow for the colder fall lake temperature. She broke down. As the Avon II disappeared, so did the fleet of head boats; but, not before those distinctive vessels had created a legend for the Miller name. They were needed to ferry yachtsmen to the Island from their Put-In-Bay harbor anchorages. The human voice became the medium of communication to hail the Miller boats including the two Lyman speedsters, 26-feet in length. Yelling “Millllerrrr” became a tradition!

Yachtsmen had frequented beautiful Put-In-Bay harbor from before the turn of the century. Literally hundreds of large and small yachts sailed from Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Sandusky, Port Clinton and the many other ports of Lake Erie. The Inter-Lake Yachting Association had been founded as a representative organization of the many yacht club members who converged in early August of every year for their celebrated regatta. They anchored in the Bay and they believed that they should “occasionally come ashore.” Again, an opportunity was present for Miller, and the Miller Boat Livery developed into a local supply source and an institution for the visiting clientele. Yes, the yachtsman’s dingy was part of their equipment for a purpose; yet, it was Miller’s handy vessels which were more readily and conveniently available. The yelling of “Millllerrrr” became synonymous with Put-In-Bay and the call became identified with one man; a solid, auditory trademark of service for fresh ice, water taxi or even help. Soon, however, this would disappear. So would the great passenger steamers and, coincidentally, both at about the same time.

Although the big steamers had plied Lake Erie to South Bass and its township of Put-In-Bay since the late 1800s, the final era was concluded with the steamers Chippewa, Goodtime, Eastern States, Western States, Alabama, and occasionally the large Canadian Motor Ship Erie Isle. Service by the venerable steamer Put-In-Bay ended it all forever, with her final departure amidst whistles and sobs from the thousands who bid farewell to their friend during the late afternoon of September 3, 1951.

The new Miller Boat Line was now in existence. Business excelled and the South Shore plied from Catawba Point to the newly constructed Squaw Harbor Dock in Put-In-Bay harbor and the Avon II was utilized for special assistance. The old steamer Erie Isle had been sold and reduced to a half- barge. Her replacement, the new but “uneconomical” Mystic Isle had been sold out of her trade from Port Clinton to the Fox’s Dock facility in the Bay. The Miller Boat Line, was now firmly entrenched, and with new business exceeded the capabilities of the South Shore. It was then that Lee Miller contracted for the construction in 1947 of the Motor Vessel West Shore, official number 252256, of 94 gross registered tons, built by the Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. At that time a decision was made to enlarge the Catawba Dock facility since the relatively narrow pier configuration used for so many years proved unsuitable for safe berthing on the west side of the pier. Further, more surface area was required for the business.

There was another phenomena related to the formation of Lake Erie. The projection of Catawba Island created a weather condition that is defined as a “split winds” air movement force, whereby wind and rain conditions would hit both the east and west ends of Catawba Island. Along with this peculiarity were the normal forces of natural and heavy northwesterly and northerly winds that created seas which would virtually roll onto the Catawba Point dock. Thus it was that Lee Miller constructed an extension to the pier to the northeast, whereby docking would be eased as a result of generally “northerlee” winds since the small, but protective Mouse Island provided a lee from East of north and east. Also, land at the top of the dock, including the Cottage Inn Hotel was purchased from the J.P. Cagney estate. The hotel was razed and a much needed parking lot was excavated. A small snack bar and restaurant was built and, although not used as such today, the building stands as a rest facility.

In 1954, Lee Miller contracted with Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding and Dry- dock Company for construction of the Wm. M. Miller, official number 267685, of 96 gross registered tons. Continuing to comply with T Boat Regulations which dictated that a vessel 65 feet or under may operate with only two crew members, the M/V Wm. M. Miller was designed with an almost two to one length/width ratio and was considered one of the largest “little boats” on Lake Erie.

An “economy route operational decision” was made by Lee and he redesigned his route whereby he could reduce running time and costs from 40 minutes to 20 minutes by landing at the south end of South Bass Island. This provided an approximate three-mile run from Catawba Point to the Island. In doing so he complied with the Ohio P.U.C.O. decree that stated service to Middle Bass Island must continue, and he put a boat on this run. In 1957 a parcel of the former Lay Bros. Fish Company property was pur- chased from Kenny Black of Port Clinton, Ohio and a dock was built in 1958 known as the Lime Kiln Dock, named because it was the site of a former lime kiln which still stands.

Miller Boat Line ferry PUT-IN-BAY. Image from the Bowling Green State University Archives.

As business increased, so the little fleet expanded, and in 1959 Lee contracted and built his fourth ferryboat, and again from the Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding Company. He named her Put-In-Bay. She was official number 279083, with gross registered tons of 92. The M/V Put-In-Bay was a design departure since she was of a “flat top” style incorporating the ability to load larger trucks, high vans and semitrucks as well as plenty of passengers, although seating was at a premium. Superstructure was placed starboard with a compensating weight given to the port side by the use of heavy chain in her ballast.

Then, tragedy befell the Miller family, which was to affect the entire population of the Bass Islands. On a July evening in 1958, Bill Miller lost his life in a boating accident at the age of 29. He was the only child of Lee and Mary Miller.

In 1960 the Miller oil and barge business was sold to Robert Ladd, owner of Ladd’s Sales and Service at Put-In-Bay. The South Shore was sold and an update was achieved for fleet efficiency. Lee Miller had purchased the Doller Dock which later was sold out of the company.

On the death of Lee Miller in 1973 the viability and strength of the Miller Boat Line, Inc. was sustained when William E. Market III, a native of the Island and a Miller employee from 1956, took over management of the Line, and in 1978 Bill and Maryann Market purchased the Miller Boat Line, Inc. from Mrs. Mary Miller. From their years of experience and with a continuation of the torch of progress and opportunity, the Markets and their three children, Julene, Bill and Scott, now endeavor to cement the needs of the future along with the needs of the Islanders. In 1981, the Lambert and Heidorf Property, which is contiguous to the Miller Boat Line property on Catawba Island, was purchased as a further needed parking facility and the Heidi Gift Shop was opened for ferryboat information along with a new gift shop.

The keel was laid for a new vessel in August of 1982 following a lengthy study for a maximum efficient hull and superstructure design for the service already provided by the new vessel’s sister ships which have now attained a combined average age of some twenty-nine years. Bill and Maryann Market’s Islander was designed by the naval architectural firm of John W. Gilbert Associates of Boston, Massachusetts and is being constructed by G & W Industries, Inc., of Cleveland, Ohio and very close to the site of the first motor vessel built for the Miller Boat Line. The Islander is 90 feet-3¼ inches overall with a beam of 38 feet and a draft of 4 feet 3 inches. With all super-structure aft, and with increased capabilities, the new vessel will also have a high ratio of passenger to vehicular capacity since passenger traffic has increased over the years. Much has been learned from experience and the Islander will incorporate all those features which have been developed from her four predecessors. Likewise, all present skippers will alternate the responsibility of operating the Islander on one of the tightest of ship schedules and will be a reflection of an efficiently managed boat line.

The Miller Boat Line, Inc. is undoubtedly projected to continue the strong heritage of William M. Miller, Lee Miller and Bill Miller. Opportunities will also continue to unfold. Guidance of the small, but prosperous fleet of ferry- boats is being undertaken by an able owner and friend, Bill Market, who also has the unbelievably clear vision of his predecessors – to cast the lines, on schedule, and make the thing GO!

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About the Author: Thomas A. (Andy) Sykora, Charter Member No. 23 of our Great Lakes Historical Society, has always attributed his fascination for the Great Lakes to his grandfather, Clarence S. Metcalf, Director of the Cleveland Public Library, where our Society was founded in 1944. Mr. Sykora is now Secre- tary of GLHS, also a Trustee, and has written earlier articles for Inland Seas®.

Beginning at age sixteen, he fulfilled his devotion to the Great Lakes by sailing aboard various lake freighters for five summers. After graduating from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and earning an advanced degree in transportation, he began an association of twenty-seven years with Great Lakes fleet operations out of Cleveland.

In addition to his Great Lakes activities he is currently President of the

Board of Trustees of Old Stone Church, and President of the First Presbyte- rian Society, in Cleveland. With an interest in music he has been a double Bass player with Cleveland’s Hermit Club orchestra, and several jazz bands for twenty-six years. He and his wife, Mary Jane, their daughter, Leslie, now a freshman at Ohio University, and son, Phil, a sophomore at Rocky River High School, are residents of Rocky River, Ohio.


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