Great Lakes Ship Travel in 1800s

Steamship Traveling on Saginaw Bay

The Birth of “Going Up North”

Prior to the railroads and highways being built in Michigan’s Thumb region the only quick way to travel between the Upper Thumb and Detroit and Bay City was by steamer. By the late 1800’s travel by steamship has gotten luxiousious. Michigan’s tourist and resort areas began to grow because steamships could take a businessman from Chicago or Detroit to join families in northern Michigan Friday afternoon and return him Monday morning rested and refreshed.

Steamer Charles W. Liken
Steamer Charles W. Liken

Service on Saginaw Bay

The steamer Charles W Liken was built as a tug in 1880 in Bay City by the West Bay City Shipbuilding Company. It was listed 63 foot long, 38 ton 36 horsepower ship. It lists its home port at Bay City, Michigan in 1881 then Sebewaing in 1883. With a draft of only 5 feet it was an ideal craft for the shallow ports along Saginaw Bay. It was transformed from a tug to a passenger steamer in 1898. It had two decks and carried passengers and mail.

The End of the C.W. Liken

The Liken for sale in 1904 for $1,800

While details are sketchy, the C.W. Liken operated for seven years as a passenger and mail courier. In 1904 it was rebuilt and listed for sale.

Times Herald (Port Huron) Aug 15, 1905

On August 13, 1905 the C.W. Liken burned to the water line in the Saginaw River in Bay City and declared a total loss. The ship was officially removed from registered service on August 15, 1905

Ships Serving Saginaw Bay and Michigan’s Thumb

Jacob Bertschy – Credit Institute for Great Lakes Research – Central Michigan University

Between 1830 and 1910 there were hundreds of ships plying the Great Lakes hauling passengers and freight. Here are some notable transport Lines and the ships that served the Saginaw Bay and Thumb region.

The Star Line

The Star Line had been in operation since the 1870s. In 1883, A. N. Moffat brought a 55% controlling interest in the tug line and took over established passenger service between Detroit and Port Huron. This was a competitive route. During one season, a rate war commenced between the Star Line and its competitor, the Cole & Grummond Line. One-way fares dropped from 75 to 15 cents and the competition extended to how fast each could complete the river run. The “river war” lasted until a truce called between the companies and rates returned to normal for the rest of the season. Ultimately the Star Line hit hard times forcing its general manager and majority owner, A.N. Moffat into retirement. Declining revenues enabled Moffat’s company to be taken over by the White Star Line.

Star Line Ships

  • Milton D. Ward – Built 1870 in Marine City. 182 feet, 500 hp.
  • Robert J. Holland – Built 1872 Marine City. 156 feet.
  • Evening Star – Built 1866 East Saginaw. 168 feet.
  • Saginaw Valley – Built 1881. Saginaw. 181 feet.

Cleveland & Saginaw Transportation Co.

Headquartered in East Saginaw this line offered transport of passengers and freight from Bay City/ Saginaw to Goodrich Ontario, Sand Beach, Port Hope, Grindstone City, Port Austin, Caseville, East Tawas, Tawas City and Alabaster. The ships offered upper deck sleeper cabins.

Cleveland & Saginaw Transportation Ships

  • Jacob Bertschy
  • Keewenaw
  • Benton
  • St. Joeseph


  • Merchant Vessels of the United States, By United States. Bureau of Customs June 30 1881
  • Great Lakes Vessels Online Index
  • Marine Review, Volume 30, 1904
  • Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library
  • Detroit Free Press
  • Maritime History of the Great Lakes

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Mike Hardy

Author of a fun loving and event blog covering topics of the Upper Thumb of Michigan , the wind energy capital of the Great Lakes. Offering great trove of information on Wind Energy, Cheeseburger in Caseville, Saginaw Bay, Sailing.

2 Responses

  1. Chris Miller says:

    According to History of the Great Lakes (1899) the John N Stewart, built by and named after it’s Captain, was the first steamer to Sebewaing in 1869.

    • Mike Hardy says:

      That is excellent information. We will have to track that resource down. That for stopping by and the info….Mike

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