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The Luxury of Great Lakes Ship Travel in 1800s

Prior to the railroads and highways being built in Michigan’s Thumb region the only quick way to travel between any major Michigan port town town or Chicago, Detroit and Bay City was by steamer.


The Birth of “Going Up North”

By the late 1800s travel by steamship has gotten luxurious. Michigan’s tourism 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 and ready to work. Ship traffic was at its peak in the 1870s with what one historian described as a freeway of passenger and freighter traffic moving in and out of Saginaw Bay.


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 homeport 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. The craft 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.


Steamship Companies


Great Lakes Ship Travel with 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 firm offered Great Lakes ship travel with modern ships with upper deck sleeper cabins.

Cleveland & Saginaw Transportation Ships

  • Jacob Bertschy
  • Keweenaw
  • Benton
  • St. Joeseph

Passenger Steamer c 1905 “Second Class” Cabin from Army Corp Engineers Museum- Duluth

Accommodations Aboard a Great Lakes Steamship

About fifty cruise steamers sailed on the Great Lakes before World War II. These large, luxurious ships have about eight elegant “parlors” or staterooms with double beds and private baths, all finished in paneling and gingerbread trim. The remaining seventy to one hundred rooms were like this cabin. Those with windows or portholes corresponded with the “second class.“ Inside cabins without portholes might be described as “third-class” although these designations were not used. This reconstruction is based on the accommodations in the Canadian steamer Keewatin.


Great Lakes Steamship Video

Steamers and Freighters of the Great Lakes

Information Sources Great Lakes Ship Travel

  • 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

Related Reading


Michigan's Thumb ThumbWind
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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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