A haughty steamer on her maiden trip is a rare sight. A glistening day of blue sky and bluer water greeted the F. & P. M. No. I in the early autumn of 1882 when she sailed for the first time into her home port, the little lumber town of Ludington, on the east shore of Lake Michigan. The resinous fragrance of freshly cut pine hung in the air, long black scarfs of slab wood smoke floated over the water, and soaring gulls dived into the wake of the ship. Grandly No. I steamed through the narrow channel into Pere Marquette Lake, her throaty voice responding blast for blast to all saluting whistles in the harbor. It was a gala day on the water front.
Many of the townspeople were on the dock to greet the newcomer. They were invited aboard to look her over from stem to stern, to inspect her engines and admire the sumptuous furnishings of her cabin— the body brussels carpet, red plush chairs, polished mirrors and brass stair rails. In the fashionable adjective of the decade she was simply "elegant." But none who admired and boasted of her that momentous day realized that marine history was in the making—that the wooden steam propelled No. I (she had auxiliary sails) was the fore runner of the largest fleet of steel oil burning car ferries in the world.
The Flint and Pere Marquette Railway had entered Ludington late in the winter of 1874. With nearly 300 miles of tracks extending into the hinterland, the road picked up freight and passengers as far back as the southern and the eastern boundaries of Michigan and hauled them to Ludington in wooden cars drawn by tiny engines fueled by slabs from lumber mills along its route. Much of the freight and many of the passengers were carried across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee or to Manitowoc where other railroads were building into the fast filling prairies of the Middle West. The great Scandinavian migration was in full swing. Farms were in the making, industries were building, towns were growing, and immigrants were seeking the shortest route to the new country. They must be assured building materials, farm implements, and a supply of food until they could become established.
For many years these sturdy home seekers had followed the route from Buffalo to Detroit by water, then across the lower part of Michigan on the Michigan Central Railroad to Jackson. From there they rode a stage nine hours to reach St. Joseph from which point they crossed Lake Michigan to Chicago on one of the Eber B. Ward steamboats. With the completion of the Michigan Central around the southern end of Lake Michigan, the Ward ships were sold to eleven of his employee, among them Captain A. E. Goodrich, who with several others formed the nucleus of the Goodrich Transportation Company.
In 1875 following the year in which the old side wheeler, the JOHN SHERMAN, was chartered by the Flint and Pere Marquette, the railroad turned to the Goodrich Transportation Company for ships to handle their lake traffic. The historic DePere, the side wheeler, JOHN A. DIX. and later the newly built City of LUDINGTON?, solved the road's trans lake transportation problem until 1882 when the road put into commission their own ships. The F. &P. M. No. I was followed later the same year by her sister ship the F. &P. M. No. 2.
For many years the evening sailing of these ships was the climax of the day in the little lumber port. Passengers came down early in the horse drawn yellow omnibus, plodding through sandy, sawdust covered streets. Tickets were secured from the purser and staterooms assigned, after which the passengers often sat on deck to watch the loading. Giant wooden drygoods boxes initialed in black paint were hand trucked aboard and stowed under the watchful eye of an expert who understood how the ship should be trimmed. In season thousands of baskets of Michigan peaches covered with pink mosquito netting to enhance the blush of the fruit, redcheeked apples in barrels, and potatoes, the brown earth still clinging to them, went into the holds of these boats. When the loading was completed the gang plank was hauled in, a voice from the pilot house called, "Hold on to your breast line," engine bells rang, and the ship was underway. A ride on deck under star studded velvet skies, then into the cabin where a piano invited. There would be singing, sometimes dancing. Several hours remained for sleep in the freshly painted state rooms before the Wisconsin shore loomed through the pink mists of morning. The No. I could cross the lake in eight or nine hours with a favorable wind and her canvas out.
In the years following the launching of the first Flint and Pere Marquette boats three more wooden ships were built to share in this trans lake traffic and the No. I and No. 2 were sent back to the shipyards to be lengthened. Besides those built by the railroad three more ships were acquired from other owners. Because of their color the Flint and Pere Marquette steamers became known as the Black Boats.
The depression of the early nineties brought serious problems to the Black Boats. Freight handling at the terminal points attracted men in need of work. Eventually there were more men available than could be employed. Tension and bickerings led to serious labor difficulties, and costly strikes stalled the traffic. Wooden carferries designed to carry the loaded car, thus avoiding the transfer of freight, were proving satisfactory at other points on the Great Lakes. The Flint and Pere Marquette turned to the carferry as a solution of their problem.
In 1896 the first steel carferry in the world, the Pere Marquette, was built for the Flint and Pere Marquette Railway Company. This event was the beginning of the end for the No. I and her kin. The Pere Marquette, later named the Pere Marquette No. 15, was followed by other carferries in rapid succession. In the early years of the new century the railroad changed from steamboat to carferry service entirely and the Black Boats became an independent line owned and operated by the Kitzengers of Manistee. Then one by one the Black Boats were withdrawn from freight and passenger service on the Great Lakes.
June 14, 1911 the following appeared in the Ludington Daily News:
The steamer WISCONSIN was towed to Manistee this week from Chicago by the lumber steamer HELEN C. The WISCONSIN plied out of Ludington for a number of years when she was known as the F. &P. M. No. 1. Last year she was owned by Northern Michigan Transportation Company and ran between Milwaukee and Chicago. She will be changed to fit her for lumber carrying by Manistee Iron Works. Archie Hitchcock of Chicago and Captain Larson of the steamer Christie have bought her.
Just as the wooden steamboat conquered the silver winged sailing ship, so the giant carferry, capable of swallowing an entire freight train besides carrying numerous passengers and their automobiles, has triumphed over the once haughty steamboat. Such is progress