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 moved 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 four-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. Over half 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.
In November of 1999, the Madeline Island Ferry Line purchased a fourth ferry from Lake Champlain Transportation, Burlington VT. Re-christened the Bayfield, the vessel was a welcome addition to the ferry fleet.
Today, the Madeline Island Ferry Line corporation operates 5 car ferries. Its boats make nearly 6,000 crossings on the Bayfield to La Pointe route each year.
NEXT: Winter Crossings