The Detroit River ferryboats

The luxurious ferryboat SS City of Detroit III offered elegance usually found only in long-distance ocean liners.

Long before  modern superhighways crisscrossed the continent and long before  railroads tied the nation together, ferryboats constituted  the major form of transportation through the New World wilderness.

When settlers began arriving during the 1600s they built their small colonies along bodies of water. With no system of roads to rely on, the water itself provided the most efficient means of travel. The first ferryboat in America was launched by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 and for nearly 300 years the ferry was one of the most important means of transportation in the new world.

During the 1700s settlers along the Detroit River traveled in birchbark canoes or French bateaux. The bateau, with its flat bottom, raked bow and stern and flared sides, could carry heavy loads of furs and other goods, including passengers, and could be poled or sailed.

The dining room on the City of Detroit is set up for a cruise to the Chicago World’s Fair.

Francois Labalaine operated a ferry service based at the Jeanette farm on the Windsor side, which later became the site of the Canadian Pacific Railway station. A four-foot-long tin horn hung on his front door and was used by his wife to alert him when passengers waited to cross the river.

The bateaux that plied the Detroit River were eventually replaced by the steamship. Ships like the Ottawa and the Windsor carried freight and passengers up and down the Detroit River. Once in 1860, Britain’s Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, crossed in the Windsor to land in Detroit at Woodward Avenue.

Other ferries joined the traffic. The screw wheeler, Fortune, the steamers Detroit, Hope, Victoria, Essex, and Excelsior all vied for the 10-cent-per-passenger fares.

The steamer City of Detroit III offered elegance in its trips between Detroit and Windsor and also offered longer luxury cruises. In 1933 The Detroit News sponsored a trip on the luxurious vessel to the Chicago World’s Fair.

The elaborate interior of the ship featured candelabras, balustraded staircases and museum quality paintings. The ship plied the waters of the Great Lakes for 50 years until it was retired in 1940. After a few failed attempts to rescue it, the ship was demolished in 1956. Parts of the ship’s interior is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

Two small ferrys, the Mascot and the Belle Isle, carried passengers to Belle Isle from docks near the Belle Isle Bridge. Passengers sat around the sides of the boat while the mate walked around with a little machine that accepted the dimes and nickles with a ching sound. He made change with a silver coin changer on his belt and by the time he circled the tiny ship it was time to dock and tie up.

The ferry Mascot carried passengers carried passengers back and forth to ielle Isle for 10 cents a trip.

Small ferries served Belle Isle on and off from 1882 until the service was discontinued in 1957. The early price of 10 cents did not go up until 1951, whenn it was raised to 15 cents.

The Mascot took 100 passengers on its first ferry trip to the island in 1931. The Belle Isle debuted in 1949 and worked the route until the service was discontinued in 1957.

Two larger ferries, the steamers Promise and Tashmoo, combined ferry services with longer party excursions on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair.

The Tashmoo took parties to the popular Tashmoo Park in the St. Clair Flats at Harsens Island, about a three-hour cruise from downtown Detroit. In December 1927 severe winter winds blew the Tashmoo loose from its downtown mooring, slamming it against the Belle Isle Bridge.. The ship survived but a few years later in 1936 it began to sink during a Hamtramck Social Club dance cruise on the river and limped to the Canadian shore where it went aground partly submerged. Passengers refused to leave the ship and convinced the orchestra to play on. All had to be coaxed off the vessel.

The Promise also offered cruises and entertainment. It later became a restautant ship docked near Harsens Island.

Another of the lakes steamers, the Put-in-Bay suffered an ignominious end after a long career curising up and down the lakes. The vessel was sold for scrap and towed out to Lake St. Clair where it was burned in a spectacular display.

The Cadillac went into service in 1928 ferrying passengers between Detroit and Windsor, but steadily lost traffic to the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and ended service in 1952. During World War II the ship was taken over by the Coast Guard.

The ferry Tecumseh carried took day-trippers to Bob Lo from docks at Gibraltar on the Michigan side of the Detroit River.

Despite the railroad tunnel under the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, ferries continued to carry railroad cars across the river as late as the 1980s.

The old paddle-wheeled steamer, the Lansdowne, which by its retirement in 1956 was one of the oldest vessels still operating on the lakes, once carried passenger train cars across the Detroit River. It was resurrected briefly during the 1980s as a floating restaurant off downtown Detroit.

Less romantic workhorses like the Windsor, the Detroit, and the Manitowoc served the railways between Detroit and Windsor.

More mundane ferries like those at Harsens Island are essential for residents who live on the island. The ferries operate year round, carrying islanders to mainland jobs, and bringing fishermen and hunters to enjoy the island’s nature areas.

Other ferries that worked on the Great Lakes include the Badger, which carried railroad cars from Michigan to Wisconsin across Lake Michigan. At one time 15 railroad ferries crossed the lake Michigan.

Another was the City of Midland, which carried passengers on a four hour trip from Ludington, Mich., to Kewaunee, Wis.

A passenger steamer, the SS South American offered vacation cruises on the Great Lakes during the 1940s. It Isle Royale. It carried tourists from Buffalo, NY, to Duluth, Minn., with stops at Cleveland, Detroit, the Soo and Houghton enroute to Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

At one time the National Park Service carried visitors to Isle Royale on the ferry Ranger II. Ferries still carry hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to Mackinac Island.

A Harsen’s Island ferry docks at Algonac.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News