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Lake Michigan’s Only Ferry Sails Over Troubled Waters

May 29, 1986

ABOARD THE MIDLAND (AP) _ Lake Michigan may not be the Caribbean and the 1941-vintage City of Midland may not be the Love Boat, but they were good enough to lure 80,000 people last year.

The triple-tiered Midland is the last passenger-carrying survivor of a fleet once nine-strong, plying its way from Ludington, Mich., across Lake Michigan to the port of Kewaunee, Wis.

All year, the Midland carries rail cars. In spring and summer it carries people and their cars as well.

The ship is a boon for Wisconsin-bound travelers who just can’t face the prospect of driving around the lake and through Chicago’s traffic.

″They need a bar and entertainment and the food is really bad,″ says passenger Sherry Van Conant, 25, of Midland, Mich. ″But it’s better than driving all the way around the lake.″

On the Saturday before Memorial Day, Bernie Kerwin, 54, of Utica, N.Y., was taking a friend to visit relatives in Manitowoc, Wis. He figured it would have taken him more than five hours extra to skirt Lake Michigan.

Although two-thirds of his business comes from hauling rail cars, Glen Bowden of the Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Co., which operates the ferry, is counting on a good tourist season this year to help tow the struggling service out of the red.

A one-way ride on the ferry costs $50 for car and driver, plus $19 for each adult passenger. Passage for two adults, two children under 15 and a car costs $88.

Bowden says the Midland carried 80,000 people across the lake in 1985, but it costs $18,000 a week to operate the ferry and he’s losing money. He won’t say how much.

″We’re losing enough to be concerned about, but we’re optimistic we can work it out,″ he said. ″I’ve made it a personal commitment. The economy of Ludington has been built around this. It would be a very drastic blow if we were to ever be put out of business.

″A lot of people said every year that this was going to be our last year. We went into this with a long-range plan knowing that we would have a series of bad years. We’re hoping this summer will be the springboard to recovery.″

The 406-foot-long Midland occasionally will reach capacity of 508 people in summer, but usually averages around 300 per trip, Bowden said. It can carry 150 automobiles or 23 railroad cars.

It was commissioned in 1941 and still has its original steam engines, Bowden said. Forty-nine crew members work year round; 60 during summer.

The Midland may face competition next year. Investors, communities and the states of Michigan and Wisconsin have committed $7.1 million to a ferry service linking Muskegon to Milwaukee.

Nearly $6 million is to be spent on upgrading the old steamship Viking, with much of the money going toward passenger amenities.

″I guess there’s a competitive factor. There’s no way of knowing what the effect will be,″ Bowden said. ″They’re doing their thing and, of course, we’re going to do ours.″

Railroads ran ferries between Michigan and Wisconsin since the 1870s. At one time, nine ferries operated out of Ludington alone. But the system eventually became too costly, despite state subsidies.

The Chessie System, which used to run three boats out of Ludington, was the last railroad to bail out. Bowden, a Ludington hotel owner, bought what was left of the service and has been operating without state subsidy since 1983.

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