City of Milwaukee carferry history book review

SS City of Milwaukee

Images of America

SS City of Milwaukee

Art Chavez and Bob Strauss

128 pages, soft cover

Arcadia Publishing


The latest offering from the popular Images of America series of Arcadia Publising features the grand old carferry the SS City of Milwaukee, now docked on Manistee Lake in Manistee, Michigan, where its 80th birthday was recently celebrated at its berth.

Longtime carferry historian Art Chavez co-authored the book with Bob Strauss and it is done in the templated manner of the series, heavy on photos and captions with only a one-page text introduction. It’s proven a popular format and the authors have assembled 200 photographs that trace the history of the Grand Trunk carferry that Chavez said “is the last of the classic, twin-stacked Great Lake carferries. The City of Milwaukee’s profile is not far removed from the 1897-built Pere Marquette, the first steel-hulled cross-lake carferry. The City of Milwaukee also retains her original pair of triple-expansion steam engines and four Scotch boilers. This was for years the typical powerplant for most of the Lake Michigan carferries.”

Now a museum ship and a National Historic Landmark, the SS City of Milwaukee is serving a different purpose both to keep alive memory of what it once was and as a host for entertainment events from the now annual “Haunted Ship” at Halloween to use even as a movie set.

“With my background of concentrating on historical detail, I found it difficult to write about the City of Milwaukee’s current status,” Chavez admitted. “Coauthor Bob Strauss saved the day in that area. Without his help and diligence, this book would not exist as a tool to promote the ship and museum efforts.”

For carferry buffs, this book will be a welcomed addition to their collection. The black and white photos trace its history right up to today, with scenes from the efforts to save and reopen it in its current use.

“She remains virtually unchanged from a plan conceived in 1924, with a direct lineage to the Robert Logan-designed ferries from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries,” Chavez said. “(The book) contains the complete history, including its use today as a ghost ship and film set.”

The historian sees saving grace in the carferry’s new role.

“I think the ship is doing well in her role as an educational tool to interpret Great Lakes carferry history,” he said. “It’s a far better fate than being scrapped.”

The book furthers that role, too, with interior scenes, drawings, photos of the ports it served and a retelling of its history in the captions.

Chavez previously produced Images of America titles on the Ludington-based SS Badger and the former SS City of Midland. (Ludington historian David Petersen also did an Images of America book on the Ludington carferries as a whole.)

Chavez says he continues to work on his overall history book of the Lake Michigan carferries. He’s accumulated 25 years worth of research into the topic. He’s also working on books on the shipwrecked carferries and a PowerPoint presentation on carferry history.

“I stay busy,” he said.

SS City of Milwaukee

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