A Michigan Boyhood

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Railroads were all very well, and I was always glad to ride on them, but there was excitement of an entirely different order when we travelled by steamboat, as we sometimes did. To do this we took the cars to Frankfort instead of to Thompsonville. There was a tidy little harbor at Frankfort, where the mouth of the Betsie River broadened to make a modest lake, and although the town was not large, it was most active and a good many vessels called there. Originally it had been a great port of call for schooners, taking lumber from the Frankfort mills down to Chicago, and although this business was just about gone when I was born, plenty of steamboats still came and went because the western shore of Michigan was becoming a substantial summer resort area and people from Chicago liked to come north and escape the Illinois heat. There was a line of passenger steamers that cruised north from Chicago from early summer until well along into autumn, putting in at any number of little port towns and going on to the straits, and sometimes we took this way to go to Petoskey; two or three times we went down to Chicago on one of these boats instead of taking the sleeper from Thompsonville, and this twenty-four-hour trip on the lake beat even the Pullmans. Here again the moment of departure was the big thing. To wait on the beach and watch the boat come over the horizon from the southwest, to scamper back to the dock while the vessel came in past the pier heads, to stand there while it came alongside—so silent, so unhurried, so purposeful, coming so close that you could read the name on the bow and see the words “U.S. Mail” just below—and to watch while the heaving lines came spinning through the air, and the dock hands drew in the hawsers and made them fast: this was even more exciting than watching the night train come in, because it was touched with the mystery and terror of the open water.

 

For there was always something faintly scary (to me, anyway) in going aboard a boat for an overnight passage. We went up the gangplank through an open port in the side, aft, and found ourselves in a lobby on the lower deck, purser’s office on one side, stairway to the upper decks on the other, and between the two the slanting column of a mast came up through the deck and disappeared through the overhead. It was usually fluted, painted white, sometimes with gilt trimmings, but it was obviously a mast—if I asked, reliable adults told me so—and that was certain proof that we were leaving the certainty of dry land behind us and entrusting ourselves to a ship . In Great Lakes parlance, to be sure, it was a boat, because the word “ship” was never used, but I had read books about journeys at sea and I knew that masts went with ships. I also knew that ships were subject to unpredictable perils, including one that was incomprehensible and apparently beyond remedy—if nothing else happened, a ship could always spring a leak and go to the bottom before anyone realized that anything special was wrong. That might happen to us. I did not really think it would, and once the boat got under way and steamed out into the lake I forgot all about it, but the faint tinge of unease that it created gave a special flavor to the excitement of the occasion.

People who lived near the Great Lakes had plenty of reason to know that these seas were dangerous. In the summer months, when all this vacation travel took place, they were usually harmless enough, but at other times they were definitely to be respected. Literally hundreds of commercial craft have been lost in Lake Michigan during the past century, and some of them were passenger liners—like the side-wheeler Alpena , which disappeared mysteriously in an unexpected storm on the run from Grand Haven to Chicago, and the Chicora , lost with all hands somewhere between Milwaukee and Benton Harbor. My own family’s history had a case in point; Uncle John went to the bottom of the lake when his boat went down in the nineties.