SS Chief Wawatam

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SS Chief Wawatam
SS Chief Wawatam loading a passenger train at Mackinaw City
Name: SS Chief Wawatam
Namesake: Chief Wawatam
Operator: Mackinac Transportation Company
Route: Mackinaw City to St. Ignace, Michigan
Builder: Toledo Shipbuilding Company
Yard number: Hull number 119
Launched: August 26, 1911
In service: October 1911
Out of service: 1984
Identification: Official No. 209235
IMO number: 5070115
Fate: Cut down to barge in 1989; scrapped 2009 by Purvis Marine
General characteristics
Tonnage: 2,990 tons
Length: 338 ft (103.02 m)
Beam: 62 ft (18.90 m)
Installed power: Six hand-fired, coal-burning steam boilers,
Propulsion: three triple-expansion steam engines, total 4,500 hp (3.36 MW). Three propellors: one forward, two aft
Capacity: 26 freight cars on three tracks

SS Chief Wawatam was a coal-fired train ferry and icebreaker that operated in the Straits of Mackinac between 1911–1984. Her home port was St. Ignace, Michigan, and she shuttled back and forth during her entire working life between that port and Mackinaw City, Michigan.




Railroad ferry

The Chief Wawatam was designed by Great Lakes marine architect Frank E. Kirby. She was launched in Toledo, Ohio by the Toledo Shipbuilding Company on 26 August 1911, and went into service for the Mackinac Transportation Company on 18 October 1911. The Mackinac Transportation Company was a joint venture of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and the Michigan Central Railroad, the three railroads that serviced the Straits of Mackinac.

Year-round train ferry service in the Straits of Mackinac was a significant challenge because of the heavy ice buildup experienced by these straits in winter. The Chief Wawatam was designed to break ice floes with her bow propeller, which could both maneuver the boat and suck water out from underneath the ice to enable it to be broken through force of gravity.

The Chief Wawatam was 338 feet in length and had a beam of 62 feet. Her three propellers, two in the stern and one on the bow, were driven by coal-fired triple-expansion steam engines. The Chief is believed to have been the last hand-fired, coal-burning boat in commercial service on the Great Lakes. Other coal-burning vessels that survived longer in revenue service, such as the SS Badger, had automatic stokers.


Need by shippers for the Straits of Mackinac train ferry service provided by the Mackinac Transportation Company declined following construction of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957. After cross-Straits of Mackinac railroad car ferry service ended in 1984, the Chief lay in mothballs for several years in Mackinaw City. She was towed to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1989 and cut down at that port to serve as a barge. In November 2009 it was reported that barge Chief Wawatam was being scrapped.[1] At the time of this final scrappage she was one of the last survivors of the Great Storm of 1913.

One of the Chief’s triple-expansion engines was withheld from salvage and, after being restored to operating condition, was placed on display in 2005 at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Other artifacts from the ferry, including the whistle, wheel, telegraphs, and furniture, are preserved by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in Mackinaw City.

Mackinac Transportation Company



Designed by Frank Kirby and built by Toledo Ship Building Co. of Toledo, OH in 1911, hull # 119. Launched as CHIEF WAWATAM for Mackinac Transportation Co. of St. Ignace, MI for use as a railroad ferry link crossing the Straits of Mackinac. Keel laid on June 1, 1911, launched on August 26, 1911, sailed on maiden voyage October 16, 1911 and arrived at St. Ignace, MI for the first time on October 18, 1911. Dimensions: 351′ 00″ loa x 62′ 00″ beam x 20′ 06″ depth; 2,990 GRT, 1,793 NRT.  Cargo capacity: 22 railcars with a combined weight of up to 2,990 tons. Power: 3 triple expansion engines for a total of  4,500 hp. The CHIEF WAWATAM had one propeller forward for ice breaking and 2 propellers aft. On February 2, 1039 the CHIEF WAWATAM had the forward shaft and propeller replaced. Vessel was inactive in 1965 to have the boilers renovated by Manitowoc Ship Building of Manitowoc, WI. Sailed under her own power for the last time in August of 1984 and was laid up in Mackinaw City, MI till 1988. The CHIEF WAWATAM was the last “hand bomber”, hand fed coal burning boiler ship, to operate on the Great Lakes. Sold to Purvis Marine LTD. of Sault Ste. Marie, ONT. and was cut down to a non-powered deck barge, retaining her name CHIEF WAWATAM. In 2005 one of the triple expansion engines was restored to operating condition and placed on display at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, WI.

DSS&A Freight Yard St. Ignace and PRR Mackinac City


Click Below to Hear the Chief’s Whistle:

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