A tribute to the train ferry “Chief Wawatam” which served the Straits of Mackinac in Northern Michigan from 1911 through 1984.

Original Song – “Last of the Hand-Bombers” by Rob Kneisler



Last of the Hand-Bombers Lyrics by Rob Kneisler


Long ago there was a boat they called the “Chief Wawatam”

She sailed the straits of Mackinac in Northern Michigan

   She ferried cars and trains across

   Through winter ice and Great Lake squalls

We’ll never see the likes of her again


The Chief Wawatam was brand new in Nineteen and Eleven

A product of the Toledo Shipbuilding Company

   My great-grandfather John McLaughlin

   Oversaw her maiden voyage

That makes the ‘Chief’ a special boat to me


They built the bridge at Mackinac to cross that great divide

No need to fight the ice, the shoals, the current and the tide

   No need to shovel coal by hand

   And run the freight from side to side

And no more ships, the bridge is how they’ll ride


Through two world wars and far beyond they sailed the Chief Wawatam

Ferrier of automobile, passenger and train

  For seventy three years and more

  Her whistle was beloved by all

We’ll never see the likes of her again


They built the bridge at Mackinac in Nineteen Fifty Seven

A product of the American Bridge-building Company

   The railroad traffic slowly died

   Away as trucks took on the load

The ‘Chief’ was last to go eventually



By Nineteen Eighty Four they had retired the Chief Wawatam

She was the last hand-bomber on the Great Lakes to remain

   The last boat left that weathered through

   The Great Storm of Nineteen Thirteen

We’ll never see the likes of her again

As time goes by I often feel much like the Chief Wawatam

A relic of a gentler age, the last one of my kind

   The freight goes rushing faster, across

   Bridges I can’t recognize

And leaving me forgotten far behind



And no more ships, the bridge is how they’ll ride



“Rob Kneisler’s song, “Common Jeans” won Second Prize and took the “Peoples’ Choice Award” at the 2011 Tumbleweed Music Festival Song-Writing Contest in Richland, Washington and his song “About Robert Frost” was a finalist at last year’s festival.

Originally from the state of Michigan, Rob’s mother was born in the Soo. His Grandmother was Mabel Elliott, nee McLaughlin, and her father John McLaughlin oversaw the Chief Wawatam’s maiden voyage from the Toledo shipyards in 1911. John’s son, Rob’s great uncle Richard served aboard her as oiler for that trip. Rob was born and raised in the greater Detroit area and attended Michigan Tech  in the 1980’s, during which time he played in area taverns. That was a good time for him: in 1986 he founded a short-lived music festival they called the Copper Country Folk ‘n Food Festival which ran for several years after he graduated.

Rob was extremely active musically in his earlier years, performing in venues all around the Great Lakes Region. But then there was a relatively quiet decade or two where Rob didn’t get out much and could frequently be found hunkered over a guitar in a dark room trying to figure out how guys like Bruce Cockburn, Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges managed to do what they did. Now that this is mostly out of his system, Rob is back out in public again doing what comes naturally: learning, writing, laughing and accurately playing far more Bruce Cockburn tunes than one would ordinarily expect an individual to know. About Rob’s fingerstyle technique, J. W. McClure says that, “archeologists many years from now will find that thumb and wonder what it was used for.”


Origins of the Chief’s Song by Rob Kneisler

So the way that “The Last of the Hand-Bombers” came about was a continuation of my goal to write a song for the Tumbleweed Music Festival Songwriting Contest and make the finals for the third year running. This year’s topic for the contest was “Bridges”, and at first I really didn’t know how to attack that until I remembered my family history with the Wawatam and how the Mackinac Bridge changed things forever in that region. And after recently facing being surplussed myself in my own chosen profession due to outsourcing, I became very much entwined in my subject matter for this song. The Chief Wawatam was very much a viable ship, as were the railroad lines that fed her up until the time she was retired – and whether this was for right or wrong I can tell you for certain that I very much know how this feels: to be cast aside and cut up before your time.



One Response to CHIEF’S SONG

  1. Susan Elliott says:

    Thank you for publishing the lyrics and link to this evocative song. I’m just copying them out for our Uncle John Elliott, another descendant of John McLaughlin. Bravo, Rob Kneisler!

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