CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES
glory days—1914 to 1967—the SS South American left Chicago every
Saturday in season for a cruise to the upper Great Lakes. One of the
romantic stops on the 2200 mile cruise was at Mackinac Island in Lake Huron.
Mackinac Island, is a beautiful, scenic island with historic sites and a
“time stands still” charm. Automobiles aren’t allowed on the island, so the
horse and carriage transportation takes you back in time.
Passengers could, if they wished, stay a few more days on the island or any
of the other ports and continue their cruise on the next passenger ship.
Other stops for the South American were the old lumber town of Munising,
Houghton, Duluth, and scenic Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
These ports looked forward to the weekly visit of the cruise ships. Often
the high-school band would march out to greet passengers. And passengers had
time to stroll through town purchasing souvenirs as reminders of their
cruise adventure. Everyone seemed to enjoy the passage through the Soo Locks
at Sault Ste Marie where the ship was lowered 20 feet in the lock to the
level of the St. Mary’s river to continue the journeyonward on Lake Huron.
How did the crew like their shipboard jobs? One of the college waitresses
exudes, “To wake up every morning in a different port…I loved that. And the
food was really high class.” There were ship’s rules against boy-girl
relationships—but the magic of moonlight cruises led to 56 known marriages
between crew mates who served on these liners.
Changes in American social and travel habits contributed to the downfall of
these cruise ships. After WWII, people started traveling and vacationing by
car. And the advent of cheaper and faster airlines was tough competition.
But the final nail in the coffin was the Coast Guard’s ruling in 1966 that
banned any steamship with a wood superstructure from carrying passengers.
The last cruise of the sister ships was taken by the SS South American
when it took a boatload of passengers to the 1967 Montreal Exposition.
The French cruise-liner Le Levant revived the cruise tradition in
Saugatuck with scheduled passenger stops in 1999. After 2001, low water
levels prevented future visits, but hopefully new liners will visit our
shores and restore cruises on the Great Lakes.
by Rob Carey