Mar 8, 2006

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The SS North & South American were the first deep draft vessels to travel the
St. Lawrence Seaway (Sept. 1958). Although Saugatuck was not a scheduled stop,
the sister ships wintered in Saugatuck from 1914 to 1924.

Ship's Dining Room.

Ship's orchestra entertained nightly.
French cruiser Le Levant arrives in Saugatuck.

Cruise routes of SS North & South American.


In cruising’s 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

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