2007-08-18 / Columnists

A Look at History

Algomah II Shuttled Thousands of Visitors to Mackinac Island
BY FRANK STRAUS

A vessel built in Maine became one of the best-loved ferryboats in the history of Mackinac Island. She was the Arnold Line's Algomah II.

Every Mackinac Islander whose memory goes back farther than 50 years will remember the Algomah II, the 450- passenger workhorse on the Arnold Line's Mackinaw City-Mackinac Island run. From 1936 until 1960, this coal-fired ferryboat carried travelers from their cars in Mackinaw City to the Island's Arnold Dock.

The Algomah II was originally built in East Boothbay, Maine, in 1922. Her original name was the Arnold T. Rice, and she was planned as a small package freighter designed to carry mixed freight and passengers along the coast of Maine. While the vessel was in the course of being built, she was sold to a new Michigan owner based in Benton Harbor, on the southwestern shore of the Lower Peninsula. Her new name was the Bainbridge, and her construction was altered so that she could carry passengers and fresh fruit from the lower Michigan shoreline to Chicago.

Every Mackinac Islander whose memory goes back farther than 50 years will remember the Algomah II, the 450-passenger workhorse on the Arnold Line's Mackinaw City-Mackinac Island run. From 1936 until 1960, this coal-fired ferryboat carried travelers from their cars in Mackinaw City to the Island's Arnold Dock. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Every Mackinac Islander whose memory goes back farther than 50 years will remember the Algomah II, the 450-passenger workhorse on the Arnold Line's Mackinaw City-Mackinac Island run. From 1936 until 1960, this coal-fired ferryboat carried travelers from their cars in Mackinaw City to the Island's Arnold Dock. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) The lower Lake Michigan freight-boat business went bankrupt during the Great Depression in 1933, and the Bainbridge was laid up. After a short period of time working as a ferryboat to and from Beaver Island, the Island Transportation Company acquired the used vessel for Mackinac Island use. James M. Keightley, the owner of Island Transportation, had the vessel altered for ferryboat use. The boat's staterooms were torn out and replaced with more space for passengers. The renamed Algomah II wound up with three separate decks for standing and sitting.

When the vessel came to the Straits of Mackinac in 1936, it marked a key point in the changing character of Mackinac Island tourist trade. An increasing number of autoborne travelers were coming to the Straits of Mackinac and hoping to see the Island on a day visit; they were replacing many of the cruise-vessel and multi-night hotel guests of the period before the Great Depression.

When the vessel came to the Straits of Mackinac in 1936, it marked a key point in the changing character of Mackinac Island tourist trade. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) When the vessel came to the Straits of Mackinac in 1936, it marked a key point in the changing character of Mackinac Island tourist trade. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) The Algomah II fitted into this new role by shuttling back and forth between Mackinaw City and the Island as fast as she could. The coal-fired boat took more than 45 minutes to travel back and forth. Every so often, the boat would steam over from the main dock to the Coal Dock to pick up more fuel. There was an open coal pile on the Coal Dock in those days, and the men aboard the Algomah II would scoop some up and place it in their coal bunker, ready for use.

The Algomah II was very much a Mackinaw City boat. She rarely, if ever, carried freight or passengers to or from St. Ignace. Her master for many years was Captain Bill Shepler, the patriarch of the well-known Mackinaw City family. Captain Shepler would always blow the Algomah II's steam whistle twice on each trip: once when leaving the dock of departure, and once when approaching the dock of arrival. Getting to Mackinac Island and approaching the Island and its Arnold Dock was such a special experience that it was worth hearing the steam whistle blow as a sign that one was really almost there.

The Algomah II, although 152 feet long (much smaller than an ocean liner), was very much a boat from the classic age of steam. Her spacious pilothouse, where the captain controlled the ship's wheel, contained cabins for the captain and first officer. A tall stack amidships vented coal smoke away from the boat and its passengers. Her trim, straight stem, curved hull lines, tall masts, and overhung stern gave her a nautical appearance.

After World War II, things began to change. The Arnold Line acquired the Algomah II in 1946. Tourism increased sharply, while the Algomah II continued to operate faithfully using prewar technology. "Coal passers" and "firemen" were still needed to move coal from the Algomah II's coal bunker to its two Scotch boilers. The vessel required a crew of 20 men to operate. Diesel-powered motor vessels such as the Ottawa and the Chippewa, with much smaller crew sizes, were becoming the Arnold Line norm. At the end of the 1960 summer season, the Algomah II was laid up.

After a year of retirement, the old ferryboat was again sold. It entered in 1962 into what its admirers hoped would be a new life as an entertainment and excursion vessel in Cleveland. Renamed the Erie Queen, the coal-fired vessel

was an almost immediate failure.

The rest of the story is a dismal chronicle. The old boat was shuttled to Ashtabula, New York City, and finally to Boston, as a sequence of owners tried to figure out some way of converting the classic hull into some sort of profitmaking business as a permanently berthed hulk. The boat's triple-expansion boilers went cold and useless as the hull was refurbished to serve as a New York City nightclub and restaurant. In this role, she was successively renamed the Riveredge Restaurant and Caspar's Riverfront Café.

Sophisticated Manhattanites did not find a worn-out Great Lakes vessel to be their idea of a good place for a café-society nightspot. The old Caspar's Riverfront Café, also known as the Riveredge Restaurant, also known as Erie Queen, also known as Algomah II, also known as Bainbridge, also known as Arnold T. Rice, was scrapped in Boston in 1993.

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