The Water Highway
The commercial transportation of people and freight over water routes is an industry that has existed on Chequamegon Bay for over a century and a half. Although ferry boats were once the primary means of travel between local communities, today they run only between Bayfield, on the mainland, and La Pointe, on Madeline Island. Even so, these specialized boats make thousands of lake crossings each year; providing a unique method of transportation and serving as a reminder of the area’s rich cultural history.
For hundreds of years, water routes have been the highways of travel for the people who call Chequamegon Bay, “home.” In early times — before roads were carved across the landscape — Native Americans living in this area on the southern shore of Lake Superior, preferred the relative ease of travel by water, rather than by land. The Apostle Islands that sheltered the bay on the northeast could only be reached by water.
European explorers, traders and missionaries who came here beginning in the 17th-century, met the Ojibwa people who used birch bark canoes to cross the bay when fishing, hunting and gathering food. The settlement of La Pointe on Madeline Island, was established as a center of fur trade operations and as a stop-over site. Ojibwa paddlers frequently provided ferry service to newcomers, carrying them and their belongings over the lake.
But as westward expansion continued across North America, and Chequamegon Bay became part of the United States, things changed. Construction of locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1855, opened up the Lake Superior country to settlement and speculation.
With the establishment of communities at Red Cliff, Bayfield, Odanah, Houghton Point, Ashland, and later Washburn, enterprising mariners started commercial ferry services. Boats began to criss-cross Chequamegon Bay, providing regular transportation between towns. Like the Native Americans before them, these new settlers found waterways to be most convenient. Although trails and stagecoach roads existed by 1870, boats were faster and more comfortable than horse-drawn vehicles bumping over rough ground, or travel by foot.
Though little record remains of the earliest ferry boats which were small sail and rowing craft, there are about 40 mechanically-propelled ferries that can be documented. These boats have all served to ferry freight and passengers on a regular schedule between locations on Chequamegon Bay.
In 1870, a small steam yacht called the Minnie V. logged a remarkable work record. From her home port of Bayfield she made 305 trips, traveling some 5,000 miles to local destinations such as La Pointe, Ashland, Red Cliff; and island lightstations, quarries and wood yards. Built at Black Rock, New York in 1869, she was 38 feet in length. With seats forward and aft of engine, she could comfortably seat 25 passengers. When she steamed up from New York to Bayfield in 1869, she was the smallest steam craft that had ever passed through the Sault Ste. Marie canal.
In 1872, the tugs J.C. Keyes and Frank C. Fero provided regular ferry service between Ashland and Bayfield. The tug Fero, under the command of S.W. Tanner, ran from Bayfield to Ashland in the morning, returning in the afternoon. The fare was one dollar.
The first point on Chequamegon Bay to be reached by rail connections was Ashland in 1876. The residents of Bayfield had to wait another 7 years until the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha line finally reached the town. The business community saw the railroad as a key to building up industries by bringing in goods and transporting out products such as lumber and brownstone. Unlike vessels using the Great Lakes routes, the railroad offered the possibility of shipping goods in and out from the west and south. Despite the arrival of the railroad on Chequamegon Bay, ferry boats continued to be in great demand for local transportation, and adjusted their schedules to coordinate with train service.
The Wisconsin Central Railway ran a train into Ashland daily and offered a connecting link from Ashland to Bayfield in the form of the elegant steam ferry S.B. Barker. The 100-foot Barker was built at Grand Haven, Michigan in 1882, and could carry 350 passengers. She was an extremely successful venture, and was said to make her scheduled rounds “through wind and weather, [and] never misses a trip.” She also carried the mail. The S.B. Barker worked on the Bay for some 30 years.
Running passengers and freight between Ashland and Bayfield in the mid-1880′s was the tug Cora Fuller. Owned and managed by Captain E.B. Fuller, the 62-foot vessel had been built in Muskegon, Michigan in 1882. She was a powerful little boat: her keel and keelson being constructed of one piece, adding to her stability.
The little steam yacht Waubun began running the same route in 1884, and was said to be “without doubt, the handsomest finished little steamer on the lake.” Her name meant “dawn” in the Ojibwa language.
Operating out of Ashland, on the Chequamegon Bay Line in 1888, were the steamers Daisy and Emerald. The Daisy began her day in Bayfield and ran to Washburn and Ashland. Passengers could take the Daisy from Bayfield to Ashland for 50 cents. The sidewheeler, Emerald ran between the same stops, but started from Ashland. She worked on the Bay for many years, finally rotting away on the Ashland waterfront, where she was salvaged for materials during World War I.
The 66-foot steamer Tourist was launched on the Bay in 1888. At the time, she was the finest steamer ever built in Bayfield. Her engine and boiler were set in place by the quarry derrick on Basswood Island. Built for speed and safety, the Tourist was made of 2 x 4 oak spiked together, with all joints held by both bolts and spikes. Her outer planking was of two-inch thick oak, secured by screw bolts to her timbers.
In the 1890′s and early 20th century, Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands region experienced tremendous growth in an industry that was destined to provide on-going sustenance for the area: that was tourism. Another host of vessels entered into ferry service on the bay, in order to meet the growing demands of summer visitors.
In 1896, the newspaper reported that “…the popular steamer Plowboy, with Captain Fred Bishoff as a master, is doing a thriving business nowadays, and is carrying hundreds of tired and weary travellers to Bayfield and Madeline Island…” In fact, the Plowboy made two trips daily between Ashland and Bayfield, stopping at La Pointe each way. It was asserted that, “One of the many reasons why the Plowboy has always been so popular as a means of travel is that she can always be depended upon. Capt. Bishoff does not change his time card with the wind, nor for the many whims of the public.”
Steaming up the lakes from Ludington, Michigan in 1895, was the steamer Mary Scott. Her services were secured by the management of the 72-room Island View Hotel in Bayfield, in response to the need for more convenient connections with Ashland trains. She left Bayfield at 6 A.M., carrying passengers from Bayfield and Washburn to Ashland in time to catch the morning train. This gave the people of these communities the opportunity of going to Duluth and back in the same day, with a 4-hour layover. The Mary Scott’s complete schedule included mid-day island excursions, a repeat of her morning Ashland run each evening, and a moonlight excursion complete with music. She was owned and operated by Captain John Doherty of Ashland.
Other 19th-century ferry boats included the Edna, Lucille and Stella B. These ferries carried passengers and small cargo, and periodically towed barges in order to transport large freight loads. They also functioned as excursion boats.
In 1902, the Chequamegon Bay Transportation Company launched the Chequamegon. The newspaper proclaimed her arrival: “…the Chequamegon was launched last Saturday afternoon at Manitowoc and christened by the captain’s daughter, Miss Eva Turgeon. The steamer is said to cost $30,000 and will be a beautiful addition to the Chequamegon Bay fleet…The Chequamegon will go into the passenger and excursion business among the Apostle islands and will ply on the waters of Chequamegon Bay between Ashland and Bayfield, touching at Washburn and Madeline Island.” The boat was large: at 113 feet she could carry several hundred people. She was also luxurious. Her two cabins and dining room were outfitted in upholstered furniture, oak woodwork and electric lights. The ladies cabin on the upper deck even had a piano. She was said to “glide through the water like a swan.”
But the extravagant Chequamegon only worked for a couple of seasons, before the company replaced her with another well-appointed but smaller boat, the Skater. She was built especially for passenger traffic and was the last large vessel to operate out of Ashland on regular ferry runs.
The steamer Bruce ran on the Ashland to Bayfield route, with stops at Washburn, La Pointe and the other islands. She was rebuilt by the Woods family of Madeline Island, and renamed the Madeline. In 1932, she was leased to the Isle Royale Transit Company to make regular trips between Houghton and Isle Royale.
The ferry boat industry flourished in the early 20th century. In 1911, the Ashland City Directory listed three ferry lines: the Ashland and Washburn Ferry, the Chequamegon Bay Transportation Company, and the Peoples Ferry Line. During World War I, Captain John Doherty had to have help from his first mate in order to carry the daily silver money to the bank, from receipts on the Ashland to Washburn passenger route. During the season of 1917, over 68,000 passengers were carried between Ashland, Washburn, Bayfield and the Apostle Islands.
The 20th-century also brought something new that changed the way people lived their lives and moved themselves and things from one place to another. It was the automobile, and it affected the direction and appearance of the ferry boat industry on Chequamegon Bay.
The growth of the automobile industry led to the construction of road systems and dependable, affordable cars became the preferred means of transportation between the mainland towns of Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield. After centuries of use as primary transportation highways, the Chequamegon Bay water routes began to yield to land routes. Their diminuation brought a decline in the ferry boat industry, until by 1940, only Bayfield and Madeline Island were linked by ferry service. The remaining ferry boats had changed in appearance because of the automobile. They were built not just to carry passengers, but to easily on and off-load motorized vehicles. Today, car ferries still run from Bayfield to La Pointe on the last of the area water routes.
Not every location offers the possibility of travel by water. However, on Chequamegon Bay, people have been able to “take the ferry” for nearly 150 years. When taking a ferry boat from Bayfield to La Pointe today, passengers become a part of the rich cultural history here: they share in the legacy of ferry boat service on Chequamegon Bay.
The Bayfield to La Pointe Connection
Ferry boat transportation has a rich history in the Chequamegon Bay region on Lake Superior’s south shore. Although travel by water routes was once the predominant method of area transportation, today only one route is still maintained by ferry boat connections. This route between La Pointe on Madeline Island, and Bayfield on the mainland, has a long, and rich history. Ferries have transported people and freight between these two locations on a regular basis for nearly 150 years.
An early settlement on Chequamegon Bay, La Pointe was established as a result of fur trade and missionary activity in the region. European explorers, like Native American inhabitants before them, found the island to be a convenient site to locate during this era when the lakes and rivers of North America were the major routes of travel.
An influx of settlers and entrepreneurs to the area in the mid-1800′s, gave rise to several town sites around the shores of Chequamegon Bay. Travel between the old settlement at La Pointe, and Bayfield, on the adjacent mainland, was frequent after the latter was founded in 1856. La Pointe, then the county seat, was the center of business and port of call for ships traveling up and down the lake. People crossed for supplies, to carry mail, register deeds, and even to go dancing. Sailboats crossed between the sites almost every hour in the day.
But Bayfield’s steamship docks soon stole La Pointe’s lake traffic and business. La Pointe residents began to cross to Bayfield for supplies and services. The establishment of commercial transportation service between these points was immediate. The enterprising Morrin brothers of La Pointe, ferried people and freight across the channel in their bateau — a large, flat-bottomed rowboat. Captain John Angus operated his sailboat, the Jane, between Ashland, Bayfield and La Pointe as early as 1857.
By the 1890′s, the Chequamegon Bay and Apostle Islands region had become a popular summer vacation destination. And although La Pointe was no longer the center of government, commerce and shipping that it had been half a century earlier, people were travelling to it in ever-increasing numbers. They were drawn to its healthy climate, natural beauty and rich Ojibwa and fur trade history. The island epitomized the charm and romance of the Lake Superior region.
In 1898, Edward P. Salmon renovated the buildings of the old Protestant Mission, and opened a retreat for congregational ministers and their families. The “Old Mission” eventually became a popular resort. Cottages were built, and visitors stayed for the entire summer. Historic Treaty Hall was opened as a restaurant, catering to the “summer people.”
It was during these years that Madeline Island served as the location for some spectacular picnics and outings, and area ferry boats were out in force to transport the crowds to and from the island.
On an incredible Sunday in 1895, some 2,000 people from local communities attended a picnic at La Pointe, organized by the Catholic Order of Foresters. The newspaper reported: “…The immense crowd was transferred to the island by the Plowboy, Fashion, Liberty and the large Keystone [lumber company] scow, and a pretty sight it was as the boat left the commercial dock with three bands playing sweet music and 2,000 delighted excursionists shouting their approval…The World’s Fair band came in on the Northwestern [train], and the Norrie band on the Central [line], and the Ashland City band [was there]…”
In August, 1901, a picnic sponsored by the Lake Superior Retail Butcher’s Association was attended by one thousand people. That summer season concluded with a huge Sunday School picnic on the Old Mission grounds. It was advertised as “the cleanest time possible for one to get in this life.” The steamer Plowboy and Charlie Russell’s big sailboat Madeline ferried the picnickers over and back, landing them at the Old Mission dock. Just as the Plowboy hove into sight at the end of the day, all the delegates joined hands and sang together, “Blest be the tie that binds.”
Captain John Pasque of Bayfield, commanded a 35-passenger steam yacht called the Sylph that was often used as a ferry for special events. For a picnic at La Pointe in 1894, it was noted that “Captain Pasque, with his swift little steamer Sylph, was kept busy from early in the morning until late in the evening carrying passengers back and forth between Bayfield and La Pointe…” The fare was 25 cents round trip.
In 1901, Captain Pasque purchased a 35-foot naptha launch in St. Paul and brought her home to run on the La Pointe to Bayfield ferry route. Christened the Eva after his daughter, the ferry could carry 30-40 passengers. Pasque usually made four runs daily between the two communities, timing them to make connections with all trains running on the Omaha line. In addition, the Eva took excursion parties out among the islands and up the shore, and also carried the mail.
A new ferry line started up in 1902, when Jack Hadlund put his gasoline launch, the Sea Gull on the run between Bayfield and La Pointe, making four round trips daily. When Hadlund installed a new and larger engine in the Sea Gull, Charles Russell put the old engine in his sailboat, the Madeline. Now he could take out excursion parties among the islands whenever he liked, instead of having to rely solely upon wind power.
In fact, Charles Russell himself announced that his boat the Madeline would make regular trips between Bayfield and La Pointe in the season of 1903. The following year, Russell put his new gasoline launch, the Idora into service. Keeping the Madeline on the regular daily ferry route, the Idora made excursion trips and helped out the Madeline on the weekend ferry runs. Russell’s schedule also was designed to meet passenger needs and coordinate with rail traffic. An Ashland businessman could actually visit his vacationing family on the island every evening by taking the Omaha train to Bayfield and then cross on Captain Russell’s launch.
Ferry boat service near the turn-of-the-century was a booming business during the summer months. The papers noted: “The ferry boats are crowded every day with people who are anxious to get out and spend the day where they can keep cool.” For the captains, it was an intense job, with long, busy days. For example, in addition to his regular LaPointe to Bayfield ferry runs, Charles Russell might transport islanders to the circus in Ashland, take excursionists up the Kakagon slough for Ojibwa-made baskets and souvenirs, take moonlight cruises on the Bay, and even compete in friendly races back at La Pointe, against other boaters such as Colonel Woods in the Nebraska. Captain Russell rarely got to bed before midnight.
The Corsair, was another small ferry that ran from LaPointe to Bayfield in the early 20th-century. Owned and operated by William Johnson, the boat was built at La Pointe by Ed Valley. Not every crossing was an easy one. While en route to the Old Mission in 1913, the Corsair was struck by a northeast gale and driven into Pike’s Bay, nearly hitting the rocks. Six passengers fainted; but otherwise there was no harm done.
Ferry routes began to disappear, until by 1940, only Bayfield and Madeline Island were linked by ferry service. There was just no way to drive a car to La Pointe in the summer months. Although flying was an option — an airport was dedicated on the island in 1947 — this method was not for everyone. But a second generation of ferry boats on this route were taking on a new look, as they were remodeled or designed specifically for onloading and offloading automobiles and other self-propelled vehicles.
La Pointe residents Leonard Seeberger, Sr. and Frank Albright built a 39-foot ferry called the Lusitania, that operated until about 1920. In the early 1920′s, Captain Seeberger began operating the first ferry boat built specifically for carrying an automobile — one per trip. Christened the Chinook, the 47-foot boat was built by John Peterson.
About the same time, Jim Fuller operated a wooden passenger ferry called the Byng. She had an open cabin, canvas storm curtains, and could pull a small barge behind her when needed. Not long after the appearance of the Chinook, Jim Fuller had the Byng II built by Ed Valley. When Fuller died, the boat was purchased by the Russell Brothers–Charle’s Russell’s sons. They fitted the boat with a ramp, so that it, like the Chinook, could carry automobiles — this time, two of them.
During the winter of 1928-29, Seeberger and Valley built a 52-foot wooden ferry boat christened Nichevo –a Russian word for “no matter.” With a 14-foot beam, she was powered by a 45-horse power Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine. She made 10 miles per hour, and like the Byng II, could carry two cars at a time. This first Nichevo was sold to Frank Koors of Minneapolis in 1942.
Thus began what would be a long-standing rivalry between the Seeberger and Russell Brothers ferry lines. They became the only two ferry lines in existence on Chequamegon Bay, both running the route from Bayfield to LaPointe. Regular La Pointe visitors had their preferred ferry line, and made advance reservations for crossing. Visitors unaccustomed to the system, often waited hours to board a ferry. Docking space at La Pointe and Bayfield was unregulated and on a first-come, first-serve basis. It was not until the 1960′s, that docking space was designated, and use fees instituted.
In 1937, the Faithful, a 64 1/2-foot vessel was put into service by the Russell Brothers, James and Howard. This boat was used to assist the Byng II in ferry service during periods of heavy traffic. The Faithful was powered by a four-cylinder Kahlenberg diesel engine, and the rear deck had been rebuilt to accommodate an automobile. She was used as a ferry until 1939, when she went to work in a logging operation on Bear Island, hauling logs. The Faithful was later sold to the Lullabye Furniture Company and during World War II was put to work in logging operations on Outer Island, harvesting wood for veneer on government war planes. The Faithful was eventually scuttled on the Outer Island sandspit where she gradually filled with sand and disintegrated.
In 1939, the Russell Brothers also acquired a ferry with two-car capacity. Named the GarHow after Howard Russell’s sons, Gary and Howard, the boat was built at LaPointe by Emil Erickson and August Wick. The GarHow spent her last days in the Reiten boatyard, in Bayfield.
Leonard Seeberger, Sr. died in 1937, after a sudden illness. His son, Leonard, Jr., carried on the business. He pioneered the change to steel-hulled ferry boats in 1946, when he had a new, 57-foot boat built at the Knutson Brothers shipyard in Superior. Also named Nichevo, like its wooden predecessor, this new ferry could carry four cars and 80 passengers. The Nichevo later cruised on the Keweenaw waterway. She was eventually rebuilt, and renamed the Islander, and worked in the excursion business in the Apostle Islands Cruise Service fleet.
In 1954, the Russells acquired their first steel-hulled ferry, designed to carry 7-8 cars. The GarHow II was built by Schwartz Marine in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
In 1958, just five years before his life ended, Leonard Seeberger, Jr., sold his ferry line; thus ending the long chapter of Seeberger family ferry service. When asked about his thoughts on the ferry boat business, Seeberger replied: “I’ve got no complaints,…It’s been an interesting life and it’s been good to me. But I must admit I’m getting a little tired of 16 hour days during the summer rush, when we run from early morning to late at night, making ten or twelve trips a day.”
The new owner was Harry Nelson from LaPointe, a former captain on the Seeberger boats. The steel Nichevo continued to run on the Nelson Line. In 1962, Nelson commissioned the first drive-through vessel for his Nichevo Ferry Line. Built at Frazier Shipyards in Superior, it was called Nichevo II, and could carry 9 cars, 150 people, and accommodate unusually large loads. A third of a century later, the Nichevo II is still in service on the Bayfield to LaPointe route.
The Russell line increased its carrying capacity in 1966, with a ferry built at Frazier Shipyards. Able to carry fifteen cars and 150 passengers, the boat was named the Island Queen, after the Russell brothers’ mother. The widow of Charles Russell, Emma Johnson was usually called “Gram” Johnson, and lovingly nicknamed the “Island Queen.” This ferry is also still in operation.
In 1970, the long, dual existence of the Bayfield to LaPointe ferry lines came to an end. The merger of Nelson’s Nichevo Ferry Line and the Russell’s Apostle Island Ferry Service, was negotiated by island attorney and friend of both parties, William O’Brien. The result was the Madeline Island Ferry Line. At the opening of the season of 1970, the Island Queen made the first crossing through the ice from La Pointe to Bayfield. Aboard were Captains Howard and Gary Russell, Charles Nelson and Joe Newago, Jr. Captain Harry Nelson escorted the ferry across on his windsled.
In May of 1984, the Madeline Island Ferry Line christened its brand new ferry boat, the Madeline. At 90 feet, it was the largest ferry, and one of the largest vessels ever built and launched on Chequamegon Bay. Over 100 people contributed to its construction at Washburn Marine.
Today, the Madeline Island Ferry Line corporation operates 3 car ferries and employs approximately 30 people. Its boats make nearly 6,000 crossings on the Bayfield to La Pointe route each year.
No account of Chequamegon Bay ferry boat history would be complete without discussing winter crossings. Although Lake Superior rarely freezes over entirely, Chequamegon Bay generally does, at least between the mainland and closest of the Apostle Islands. The annual “freeze-up” and “break-up” of ice have long been significant events for area residents, because of their impact on the way of life.
Freeze-up marks the changeover from lake transportation by boats to various means of travel over ice. The original and unusual have long characterized the methods employed by Chequamegon Bay residents to cross the ice. Long winters and the challenges of ice and snow, have, and continue to lead to experiments in transportation and travel. For instance, it was on a day in March of 1871, when Jim Brown traveled all the way from the Sioux River to Bayfield on a hand sled, with a double blanket for a sail and a stiff breeze from the south. And an ice boat owned by some La Pointe residents was said to come over and back to the island like a “red hot locomotive.”
A century ago, there was often no choice but to walk across the ice. Father John Chebul tried it in 1871, and almost didn’t make it, as reported in the newspaper:
On Monday last, Rev. Father Chebul started from La Pointe to fulfill his engagement to lecture before the Lyceum of [Bayfield], but owing to the high wind, drifting snow and his near-sightedness, lost his way on the ice and wandered about for some hours up and down the harbor, at one time returning to La Pointe while thinking he was traveling in this direction. He at last reached this shore, below Vaughn’s mill, some distance from the proper road leading from La Pointe to this place. Had the weather been very cold we think Father Chebul would have suffered severely.
Sometimes people didn’t make it. In February of 1858, a man was found frozen to death on the ice between Bayfield and La Pointe. His six year-old son was with him, wrapped in blankets on a handsled and suffering from frostbite. The incident was blamed on “Sunday rum selling and drinking.”
Mail had to be delivered to the island come rain or shine, and was a factor in the establishment of year ’round commercial transportation to the island. Mail was generally carried by dog sled in winter, and by boat in summer. But the intervals between seasons were often eventful. In January, 1891, the mail carrier crossed over by boat on a Monday. The lake froze over so quickly, that by the next day people were crossing on foot. And in 1896, the mail carrier had quite an exciting experience. He started from Bayfield in a boat Sunday morning and when about a mile from La Pointe the opening in the ice closed up on him. He got the boat onto the ice and dragged it ashore, arriving back home late Sunday evening.
Ice conditions contributed to one of the area’s major lake disasters of the 20th century. In April, 1915, five men from La Pointe took a small rowboat over to Bayfield to transact business and purchase supplies. They were Charles Russell, Captain Angus, William Johnson, Chauncey Wright and Nels Teigen. At three o’clock in the afternoon, they headed back to Madeline Island, with six hundred pounds of mail and provisions. Though the bay had been practically clear of ice when they had come over in the morning, shifting winds had blown it back to almost completely cover the channel. However, the men made their way through the ice field until they reached a clear area about ten minutes out from La Pointe. Suddenly, Charles Russell was struck by a heart spasm, and his shift of weight caused the heavily-loaded boat to take on water. Realizing their only chance to save the boat, the men quickly over-turned it completely, so that it would remain afloat.
The icy water revived Charles Russell, and he joined the other four men clinging to the hull of the boat. The group finally succeeded in attracting attention on shore, but rescuers had great difficulty maneuvering through the ice field. By the time they reached the stranded boaters three and a half hours later, Russell, Teigen and Wright had slipped to their deaths in the cold waters. Miraculously, Angus manned the oars of the rescue vessel and rowed the boat into La Pointe. The accident was a tremendous tragedy for the small island community.
Dog teams were a practical and popular means of crossing over the lake. While area sled dogs were renowned for their abilities, and most trips went without incident, there were exceptions. The Bayfield newspaper reported one such trip in 1883:
Nelson Cadrant, of La Pointe, visited this village Tuesday with his dog team and before leaving for home took on board a liberal supply of the beverage that causeth one’s heels to fly upwards and his tongue to take on thickness. In this condition he left for Nome in the afternoon in the face of the blinding storm, and nothing further was heard from him until the following afternoon, when he was picked up near Houghton Point by the stage on the way from Ashland to this place. Whiskey had so confused his brain that he had lost his bearing and wandered about all night, and when found was completely exhausted and would soon have been where whiskey would not have saved his bacon.
The account of Father Chebul losing his way on the ice in 1871, is probably the earliest reference to the winter “ice road” between La Pointe and Bayfield. Indeed, weather did not slow the traffic between the two towns as recounted in the Bayfield Press:
January, 1872: The travel on the ice between [Bayfield] and La Pointe is quite extensive. Men and teams can be seen at all hours of the day passing to and from this place.
Horse teams commonly traveled all the way from Ashland to Bayfield on the ice. Ice roads existed between most Chequamegon Bay communities and this led to a truly unique concept in drinking houses in the winter of 1898. A saloon was established on the ice road in the middle of bay, about half way between Ashland and Washburn. Since it was situated beyond harbor boundaries, the enterprising owners could avoid paying a $500 city license fee.
In the 20th-century, the ice road has been plowed and maintained as a winter road; making it possible to drive a car across the lake to Madeline Island. The road is a seasonal extension of County Highway “H.”
In the 1940′s, some wild, new, motorized contraptions began crossing the ice. Called “windsleds,” they were combinations of airplane and boat parts. Both Harry Nelson and the Russell brothers of La Pointe pioneered these inventions, that were capable of safely crossing thin or dangerous ice.
Today, the windsled operated by Arnie Nelson, provides scheduled, winter ferry service. “Reading” the condition of the ice is an art in itself, and Nelson, like many La Pointe residents before him, is gifted in this unique skill. The windsled is operated twenty days per year, on average. When the ice is safe, a van makes scheduled runs between Bayfield and La Pointe.
While these unusual methods of winter transportation on Chequamegon Bay are intriguing to the outside world, they are part of everyday life for local residents, and part of the on-going history of ferry service on Chequamegon Bay.
The Last Ferry Line
The year 1995 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Madeline Island Ferry Line: a quarter of a century since the merger of two rival ferry lines operating on the Bayfield to La Pointe route formed a single carrier. Today’s ferry line continues the long legacy of commercial transportation over water routes on Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior’s south shore.
The first crossing of the 1995 season took place on March 23rd. The steel car ferries Island Queen and Nichevo II made the trip: the Island Queen starting from Bayfield, and the Nichevo II from La Pointe. Cutting through up to 18 inches of ice with some difficulty, the ferries met and passed each other while crowds yelled and waved. Both boats once worked on the earlier, competing lines.
The Madeline Island Ferry Line retains strong ties to its heritage. It is managed by Gary Russell, grandson of turn-of-the-century ferryboat operator, Charles Russell. Among corporate owners are members of both the Russell and Nelson families associated with the earlier island ferry lines.
But today’s ferry boat transportation has changed immensely from the services that operated here 150 years earlier. Sail and hand-powered wooden boats have been replaced by steel, diesel-engine vessels. And today’s ferries are designed to carry automobiles — a type of vehicle never dreamed of when the communities of Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield were rustic settlements on the Lake Superior frontier. Modern ferry boats operate nearly exclusively for transporting people and freight between terminals on a set route. But during the boom in tourism at the turn-of-the-century, Chequamegon Bay ferry boats did dual work as excursion boats among the adjacent Apostle Islands.
Though freight, as well as passengers, has always been carried by local ferries, large loads used to be towed behind on barges. But today, the 90-foot, drive-through ferry Madeline is capable of loading many large shipments. These include fuel trucks, construction equipment, and even an occasional house.
Employees of the Madeline Island Ferry Line are skilled in a task unheard of by ferry boat captains of a century ago: they can size up a line of waiting vehicles and load them aboard a boat according to size and weight, in the most efficient manner possible. But with nearly 6,000 crossings made annually, they have had a lot of practice.
An industry long-dominated by men, Madeline Island Ferry Line has taken a new turn. Women of the past, participated in this work by managing home and family, enabling captains to put in long days on the lake. Today women work in many aspects of the business: from ticket sales, to deck handing, and to piloting the vessels. There are five Coast Guard Licensed female captains who run the ferries between Bayfield and La Pointe, often there will be an all female crew.
The millions of passengers that have stepped aboard area ferry boats over the decades, have placed their trust in the skill and knowledge of vessel captains to take them safely to the other shore. And they have not been let down. A century-and-a-half of ferry boat crossings have a virtually disaster-free history. Though Lake Superior can change within minutes from a placid pond to a raging sea, area mariners knowingly read the skies and safely maneuver their boats between ports. Today’s ferries carry regulation Coast Guard safety equipment, radar and marine radios. Crews are trained in man-overboard and disaster procedures.
Once a common form of transportation for residents in all Chequamegon Bay communities, taking a ferry ride is an unusual experience for most people in the late 20th-century. But not so for the year-round and summer residents of Madeline Island. Here, the ferry is part of the local culture. These individuals plan their activities by the ferry schedule, and it even affects their conversation. Upon arriving at La Pointe for the summer season, it is common to hear a person report that they “arrived last night on the 8 o’clock boat.”
The Madeline Island Ferry Line management respects its significance in area history and its location in the unique Apostle Islands region. The corporation’s Mission Statement includes the aim to “provide positive cultural, environmental and economic impact to the Island and Bayfield communities,” in addition to providing quality transportation to meet the present and future needs of residents and visitors.
Though the great steamers and festive pleasure yachts that graced the bay in an earlier century have been replaced with fiberglass sailing craft and trolling boats, ferry boats still ply the waters. In an endless journey they cross and re-cross the bay, just as they have done for nearly 150 years. They are part of the unique cultural heritage of the Chequamegon Bay region.