The history of commercial passenger shipping on the Great Lakes is long but uneven. It reached its zenith between the mid-19th century and the 1950s. As early as 1844, palace steamers carried passengers and cargo around the Great Lakes. By 1900, fleets of relatively luxurious passenger steamers plied the waters of the lower lakes, especially the major industrial centers of Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto.

The first steamboat on the Great Lakes was the passenger carrying Walk-In-The-Water, built in 1818 to navigate Lake Erie. It was a success and more vessels like it followed. Steamboats on the lakes grew in size and number, and additional decks were built on the superstructure to allow more capacity. This inexpensive method of adding capacity was adapted from river steamboats and successfully applied to lake-going craft.

The screw propeller was introduced to the Great Lakes by Vandalia in 1842 and allowed the building of a new class of combination passenger and freight carrier. The first of these “package and passenger freighters,” Hercules, was built in Buffalo, New York, in 1843. Hercules displayed all the features that defined the type, a screw propelled the vessel, passengers were accommodated in staterooms on the upper deck, and package freight below on the large main deck and in the holds.

Engines developed as well. Compound engines, in which steam was expanded twice for greater efficiency, were first used on the Great Lakes in 1869. Triple-expansion engines, for even greater efficiency, were introduced in 1887 and quadruple-expansion engines, the ultimate type of reciprocating engine for speed, power and efficiency, appeared on the lakes in 1894.


Steamboat lines were established by railroads on the Great lakes to join railheads in the 1850s. This service carried goods and passengers from railroads in the East across the length of the lakes to railroads for the journey West. Railroads bought and built steamship lines to compliment railroad services. One such railroad-owned steamship line was formed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1865 to connect their terminals at Buffalo to those of the Northern Pacific Railroad at Duluth, Minnesota. This new line, owned by the Erie and Western Transportation Co., became the well-known Anchor Line.

A significant industry in leisure cruising arose beginning in the late 19th century, often providing large passenger vessels for charter for day trips. Infamous among these are the Eastland, which capsized in the Chicago River in 1914 with the loss of hundreds of lives, and the Noronic, which burned at the wharf in Toronto in September 1949 with the loss of 119 lives. While the ship had been known as the ‘Queen of the Great Lakes’ it is now also a symbol of the end of passenger cruises on the Great Lakes.

In 1915, the anti-monopoly provisions of section 11 of the Panama Canal Act of 1912, ch. 390, 37 Stat. 560, 566 (August 24, 1912), which prohibited railroads under most circumstances from owning steamships, went into effect. As a result, railroad-owned company fleets were sold to buyers with no ownership interest in railways because under the new law railroads had to divest themselves of their marine divisions on the lakes. Under this divestiture law, The Milwaukee Clipper, for instance, was sold by the Anchor Line along with four other railroad-owned company fleets to the newly formed Great Lakes Transit Corporation. Under this flag, the Clipper carried passengers along her old route until retired in 1970.

Before trains and, later, cars became prevalent, summer vacation areas in more remote areas around the Great Lakes were accessible primarily only by steamer. Northern Michigan’s tourist and resort areas began to grow in this manner in the late 1890s.

In the late 19th century, many early tourists arrived at Northern Michigan resort areas via a Lake Michigan steamship. Chicago to Harbor Springs, Michigan, was a popular trip for many passengers. An elegant ship named the Manitou would make the trip in 24 hours. In 1898, the fare was $5.00, with meals and berth extra. Another popular but less elegant ship was the North Land (Northland). Two other popular ships were the Petoskey and the Charlevoix; their time to Harbor Springs was 40 hours. The cost to take these boats in 1898 was $7.00, with meals and berth included. Early steamships stopped at Harbor Springs due to its naturally protected and very deep harbor; later, they added a stop in Petoskey.

During the period between 1910 and 1931, crowds would gather at the Glen Haven docks on Saturdays and Sundays. Motorcoaches awaited newly arriving resort guests while many summer home residents rode to the docks to meet husbands or fathers arriving from the Chicago area. “They leave Chicago Friday night,” explained a tourist publication, “and get here the next morning; first stop. They’re with their families until Sunday night when the boat takes ’em back again, ready for the job. Great for ’em!”[1]

The author Ernest Hemingway spent the majority of his first 22 summers in Northern Michigan, around Petoskey. He often traveled by steamer from Chicago to Harbor Springs, a voyage that would take 32 hours.


Major lines on the Great Lakes included the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company in the U.S., and in Canada, the Northern Navigation Company (later absorbed by Canada Steamship Lines). Some were affiliated with railway companies such as the Ann Arbor Railroad, the Grand Trunk Railway, and the Pere Marquette Railway (absorbed in 1947 into the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway). On Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, the ships of the Owen Sound Transportation Company Limited have shuttled passengers since 1921.

SS SOUTH AMERICAN was a Great Lakes steamboat built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works at Ecorse, Michigan. It was built in 1913 for the Chicago, Duluth & Georgian Bay Transit Company. The vessel was launched on February 21, 1914 and was the newer of two sister ships, the older one being the SS North American.  The South American was 314 feet (96 m) in length, had a 47-foot (14 m) beam, and drew 18 feet (5.5 m). She was equipped with a 2,200 indicated horsepower quadruple-expansion steam engine and three coal-burning Scotch marine boilers.  She caught fire on September 9, 1924 in winter lay-up at Holland, Michigan. Her upper works were rebuilt that winter. Also at the time, a second smokestack was added and her coal-fired boilers were converted to oil-burning.  Retired from regular passenger service in 1967, the South American initiated a run the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal.  In 1968, she was sold to Seafarers International Union in Piney Point, Maryland as a replacement for the North American which sank a year prior while in tow there. Failing Coast Guard inspection, she was moved to Camden, New Jersey where she rotted before being scrapped in 1992.

Since the 1950s, leisure cruises have given way to ferry services on the Great Lakes, transporting people and vehicles to and from various islands. These include Isle Royale, Pelée Island, Mackinac Island, Beaver Island, Bois Blanc Island (Michigan), Bois Blanc Island (Ontario), Kelleys Island, South Bass Island, North Manitou Island, South Manitou Island, Harsens Island, the Toronto Islands. Well-known among these is the Chi-Cheemaun linking Tobermory (Ontario) with the largest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin Island.

Car ferry services also link Ludington, Michigan with Manitowoc, Wisconsin and a high-speed catamaran running between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan.

An international ferry ran on Lake Ontario from Rochester, New York to Toronto from 2004 to 2005, but it was plagued with high operating costs and low demand. Although the privately-owned company was taken over by the City of Rochester, it is no longer in operation.

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