Put-in-Bay: Just cruising along on moonlight bay

River queen:When she was launched, the Put-in-Bay was the largest excursion boat built for cruising the Detroit River.

It was never-to-be-forgotten time on the river — June 17, 1911 – the day set for the maiden voyage of the Steamer Put-in-Bay, hailed as the biggest excursion boat yet built for Detroit River service.

Despite an early drizzle, the Ashley & Dustin Line dock at the foot of first Street was crowded with spectators as invited guests began to arrive for the trip. Detroit Mayor William B. Thompson headed a large delegation of civic leaders.

From the vessel’s bridge, high above the dock, Capt. A.J. Fox saluted the arriving VIP’s. George Finzel, a longtime favorite band leader among pleasure-seekers on the river, rapped his baton and the ship’s orchestra blared forth a gay rendition of “On Moonlight Bay.”

Music master: Orchestra leader George Finzel never missed a sailing of the Put-in-Bay — except the last.

Over the years, the tune became the ship’s trademark.Most of the nearly 1,000 passengers who trooped aboard paid 75 cents for the round trip, but some smart travelers made it on soap wrappers. The Queen Anne Soap Co. advertised in The Detroit News that customers could exchange 75 queen’s heads cut from the soap wrappers for a ticket.

Before the Put-in-Bay left the dock, excursionists swarmed over the decks, exploring accommodations that were unique on a day cruise ship in 1911.

On the main deck, murals in the cabins and dining room were much admired. But the biggest attraction was the ballroom on the promenade deck.

America was dance-mad in 1911. Oldsters shook heads when young folks jilted the stately waltz, but in 1911 there was something even newer — ragtime. And it wasn’t just the teen-agers who seemingly had gone crazy. As the No. 1 hit tune of the year put it, “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now.”

Oliver S. Dustin, general manager of the Ashley & Dustin Line, saw the way the winds of the new decade were blowing. He wanted a dancing ship. He got it too, in the Put-in-Bay.The central portion of the promenade deck was devoted to the ballroom. On a ship that measured 240 feet from bow to stern and 60 feet across the beam, that was a lot of dance floor. Dustin also arranged for sliding glass doors around the dance area. It could be shut off from stormy winds without impairing the dancers’ view.

Many passengers went no further than the ballroom, but those who climbed higher were well rewarded. The observation deck had a luxurious cabin and private parlors. The hurricane deck offered steamer chairs, and just as on ocean liners passengers could reserve chairs for use throughout the voyage.

As Put-in-Bay, Ohio, the greeting for the town’s namesake ship was tumultuous. Most of the island’s population came aboard to see the steamer’s wonders. They crowded into the ballroom for a ceremony at which the island board of trade presented colors for the vessel.

The rival:The Tashmoo went into service 10 years before Put-in-Bay and competed for its passengers.

      On the return trip, another innovation kept passengers from being bored. This was a giant search-light which made objects along the shore stand out “plain as sunlight.”

As the Put-in-Bay gathered coronation-week plaudits in this brave new world, one grand lady of Detroit noticeably was silent. The flagship of the rival White Star Line, the Tashmoo, had reigned as queen of the river for 10 years, and she was not disposed to lightly give up her crown to the newer and larger steamer.

Their regular runs kept them apart. The Tashmoo headed upstream to the St. Clair Flats and Port Huron, while the Put-in-Bay was going down to Lake Erie. But the craze for dancing soon made moonlight trips popular, and the big excursion boats began sailing nightly on dancing cruises up into Lake St. Clair and back.

Fiery end: The Put-in-Bay was sold for scrap in 1953, towed into Lake St. Clair and burned so its steel hull could be recycled.

      Whenever the Put-in-Bay and the Tashmoo found themselves on the river together there would be a competitive sprint. They never had a formal race to a decision, however.

Among the day excursion boats, the Put-in-Bay never was surpassed. Nor was the record set by the bandmaster of the maiden voyage, George Finzel, ever surpassed. He continued as the orchestra leader on the Put-in-Bay throughout the ship’s career on the river, and he never missed a sailing.

Never, that is, until Oct. 3, 1952, when he kept a last rendezvous with the Put-in-Bay. This time he had to stay on shore, but he watched with a lump in his throat as the superstructure was set on fire in Lake St. Clair and the once-proud steamer went up in 150-foot flames, in preparation for the steel hull being dismantled for junk.

Finzel provided the requiem for the Put-in-Bay’s last trip, too. He didn’t have an orchestra handy, but he still could whistle. The tune he whistled, of course, was “On Moonlight Bay.”

The task of setting the torch to the old steamer fell to a veteran of the Detroit River, Capt. Frank Becker. As his tug picked up the Put-in-Bay at the foot of Mt. Elliot and brought her to Lake St. Clair, Capt. Becker reviewed many memories.

“My phone rang at 4 a.m. on the day before I was supposed to do the job,” Becker later recalled. “It was a woman, not anyone I knew, and she was crying.

“She said, ‘Are you really going to burn the Put-in-Bay?’ I remembered George Finzel playing the piano and all those kids dancing and having a good time.

“I really felt sad about the job I had to do, and soon I was crying too.”

Doomed boat: Capt. Frank Becker tows the Put-in-Bay out into Lake St. Clair on Oct. 3, 1952.

Fast burn: The flames spread quickly once the fire was set. This photo was taken less than two minutes after the fire started.

Blaze of glory: Flames from the Put-in-Bay lit up evening sky over Lake St. Clair.

Voyage to the scrapyard: Becker tows the burned-out hulk back to shore where the remains were cut up for scrap.

By Don Lochbiler