2011 and Earlier / Life in Leelanau

County’s former U.P. link far from forgotten

"You can’t get there from here."

That's the punch-line from an old Fred Allen joke, but it has some truth for two communities that were once better connected than they are today – Northport and the Upper Peninsula town of Manistique.


The two towns are about 230 miles apart if one crosses the Mackinac Bridge.

And much, much further apart if you travel the other way around Lake Michigan.

The communities were once linked by a car-ferry with the cumbersome name of Manistique, Marquette and Northern No. 1. Since there was never a No. 2 or 3 (although original plans called for it) the ship was generally simply referred to as the Manistique.THE COUNTY-WIDE advisory committee  on the proposed:  Northport ferry route gathered for a photo published in the March 25, 1948 issue of the Enterprise. Members of the committee who were pictured included H.M. Carmichael, Omena; Owen Bahle, Suttons Bay; Elmer Warner, Bingham; General Royce, Charles Noonan, Kasson; Karl Detzer, Leland; Charles Bloom, Maple City; Albert Kelsch, Lake Leelanau; Elmer Billman, Cedar; Ralph Cordes, Leland; L. E. Anderson, Northport; Henry Parsons, Northport; Arthur Huey, GlenArbor; and Paul Smith, Northport.THE COUNTY-WIDE advisory committee on the proposed: Northport ferry route gathered for a photo published in the March 25, 1948 issue of the Enterprise. Members of the committee who were pictured included H.M. Carmichael, Omena; Owen Bahle, Suttons Bay; Elmer Warner, Bingham; General Royce, Charles Noonan, Kasson; Karl Detzer, Leland; Charles Bloom, Maple City; Albert Kelsch, Lake Leelanau; Elmer Billman, Cedar; Ralph Cordes, Leland; L. E. Anderson, Northport; Henry Parsons, Northport; Arthur Huey, GlenArbor; and Paul Smith, Northport.

The ship began operating in the summer of 1903, after the completion of the Traverse City, Leelanau and Manistique Railroad to Northport.

The distance between the two ports was 75 miles.

“Fares to Northport were $2.50 one way and $4.50 round trip, plus a berth at $.75 and meals at $.50,” marine historian George Hilton tells us.

Although other Lake Michigan car-ferry routes were active for decades, the one out of Northport proved to be short-lived.

“The year 1908 saw the end of the Manistique-Northport service, only five years after it was instituted,” Hilton writes. “The slip at Northport was sold to the Ann Arbor (Railroad), dismantled and re-erected as the west slip at Frankfort (harbor).”

Although the railroad’s marine service had been permanently discontinued, Leelanau’s one-time connection with the Upper Peninsula was far from forgotten.

Robert Burton, in an article (“Car ferry from Northport: Broken Link to the Upper Peninsula”) published in 1967 in Michigan History quarterly, summed up what had taken place:

“The stories of the Traverse City, Leelanau and Manistique Railroad, and the Manistique, Marquette and Northern Railroad represent the story of many small U.S. railroads established near the end of the great period of railroad expansion. It was conceived with high hopes, but some caution; it was beaten by inadequate support and strong competition; it was abandoned by its parents when it became a liability; it continues to lead a precarious existence only because it fills a marginal economic need.”

And, indeed, the rail line, originally built for the Northport car ferry, continued to operate for better than another decade before the Chesapeake and Ohio finally abandoned it.

As the Michigan State Highway Department’s ferry service at the Straits of Mackinac became busier and busier in the 1930s and 1940s, there was increased agitation for alternate service to the Upper Peninsula.

During peak traffic times – such as deer hunting season – motorists frequently had to wait hours to catch a boat across the Straits.

The agitation for an alternate route reached a peak 60 years ago, in 1948, and culminated in Michigan State Highway Department (Planning and Traffic Division) studies at Lansing.

A summation released April 9, 1948, concluded “there is no indication that additional ferry facilities are required between other upper and lower peninsula termini” and the Mackinac crossing “has a definite advantage in both total travel time and total travel cost over any other proposed ferry route.”

Economics figured in heavily, as the state was already losing money (up to $400,000 annually) and “an alternate route would substantially increase this deficit of the Straits ferries while still presenting a second annual deficit of nearly a like amount from an alternate facility.”

The Enterprise carried numerous stories about the “carboat plans” in various issues that year. A local committee had been formed and Rep. Louis Anderson, of Northport, went to bat in Lansing for Leelanau and his own “home port.”

Local committee members included well-known local personalities such as Arthur Huey of The Leelanau Schools.

But it was all for naught.

After completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957, there was some briefly some local hope that the boats no longer needed at the Straits might be “re-assigned” – perhaps to some place like Northport.

But the state wanted out of the boat business. And although bids made on the ships were termed “ridiculous” they were nevertheless sold, and that was that.

There were no more articles in the Enterprise about “carboats.”

You can “get there from here” at least an hour quicker than 60 years ago, thanks to the bridge.

But it’s still a long, 230-mile drive to Manistique.

And you won’t find any 50-cent meals enroute.

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