Madeline Island Ferry Line
Madeline Island, Come Over.

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 crisscross 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 the 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 travelers 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 diminution 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.

NEXT: The Bayfield to La Pointe Connection