Although spring officially began two weeks ago, the Straits of Mackinac are still very much in the grips of winter. The bright sun and series of consistently warmer days have had a marked impact on the banks and drifts along the roadside, but the waters of the straits are not yet devoid of ice. Still, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have started breaking ice in the region, preparing for the shipping season.
The difficulties posed by ice today are nothing new. When the railroads arrived in Mackinaw City in 1881, they initially used an open barge to carry rail cars across the straits. Continued problems with ice prompted the Mackinac Transportation Company to commission a new icebreaking rail ferry, the St. Ignace, in 1888.
Constructed with many revolutionary new design features to be more efficient at breaking ice, the St. Ignace was just the first in a series of ever more powerful rail ferries used to keep the Straits of Mackinac open year round. The largest, the Chief Wawatam, operated from 1911 to 1984, carrying as many as 26 railcars per trip between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. The Chief Wawatam and her sister ferries also served as traditional icebreakers, occasionally operating under contract with shipping companies to open shipping lanes and ice-bound ports. The rail ferries were among the only icebreaking vessels on the Great Lakes until the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the icebreaker Mackinaw in December 1944.
Today, visitors to Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City can view many original artifacts from the Chief Wawatam, including the ship’s wheel. The complete story of the icebreaking rail ferries can be found in Wood, Steel, and Ice: The History of the Straits of Mackinac Railway Ferries, a short publication available for purchase from Mackinac State Historic Parks. The Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw, retired in 2006, is also available for tours as a museum in Mackinaw City.