Probably the last hand fired steamer on the Great Lakes was the railroad car ferry CHIEF WAWATAM.
This ice breaking vessel, capable of carrying 22 fully loaded freight cars, was designed by Frank E. Kirby, builder of many other Great Lakes vessels including the TASHMOO and PUT-IN-BAY. The CHIEF'S keel was laid in Toledo, Ohio on June 1, 1911. Its hull was launched on August 26. The completed vessel headed for St. Ignace, Michigan October 16, 1911. It arrived there at noon, October 18.
Now cut down to a heavy duty freight carrying barge, the CHIEF once boasted a classic old fashioned deep throated steam whistle. You can hear the CHIEF'S whistle as it used to sound if you CLICK HERE . Please be patient. It may take awhile for the sound to load. This is a Real Audio file. If you don't already have Real Player on your computer, check GOOGLE to find a free Real Player download site.
Luckily, before the CHIEF was taken out of service, I had the privilege of riding aboard in the Pilot House during a pea soup fog as a guest of the last Captain, Roderick Graham.
Our family often referred to New York Central Engine No. 7885 as little chuff-chuff. It could be heard all over Mackinaw City during the night as it loaded and unloaded the CHIEF. It would move a couple of car lengths going chuff-chuff-chuff and then stop and wait for switches to be thrown so that it could couple onto cars on another track aboard the CHIEF. This kept the weight distributed fairly evenly on the ferry and prevented it from listing or tilting too much during the loading and unloading process. The above photo of 7885 was also taken on August 11, 1951 at Mackinaw City. The two flatcars ahead of the engine were idlers which could go onto the CHIEF without overloading the boat, as might happen if the heavy locomotive, itself, went aboard the vessel.
Unless it was heading to the shipyard in Manitowoc, Wisconsin for maintenance, The CHIEF spent most of its days shuttling freight and passenger cars between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. The PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD and NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD both served Mackinaw City. The DULUTH, SOUTH SHORE AND ATLANTIC and later the SOO LINE served St. Ignace.
A very effective ice breaker, the CHIEF ran year 'round between these two rail terminals.
© 2003, Jack Tiggleman
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