Cover of Lake Michigan Passenger Steamers by George W. Hilton
Lake Michigan Passenger Steamers
George W. Hilton


384 pages.

Cloth ISBN: 9780804742405


Excerpts and More

This is the richly illustrated, definitive account of the rise, fall, and extinction of steam passenger transportation on Lake Michigan. Originating in the 1840s with the ships that brought fruit from the Michigan fruit belt to the produce markets of Chicago and Milwaukee, the industry soon expanded in response to the demands of the public for excursions from the two cities.

The steamers provided a wide variety of passenger services, ranging from 38-mile excursions between Chicago and Michigan City to cruise operations the length of the lake. The most heavily utilized service was the Goodrich Line's daily excursion from Chicago to Milwaukee, usually operated with the huge Christopher Columbus, the only passenger ship of the whaleback configuration ever built. The principal cross-lake operator was the Graham & Morton Line, which developed St. Joseph, Michigan, into what was called "Chicago's Coney Island." In general, the longer the trip, the higher the income level of the passengers. This accorded with the social stratification of Chicago: the Michigan City service of the Indiana Transportation Company largely served the poor, and the Mackinac line of the Northern Michigan Transportation Company was a facility designed for the wealthy and socially elite.

The industry peaked in the early years of the twentieth century, but began to decline as early as 1911. After World War I, the rise of motor transport forced a rapid decline in the industry, a decline accelerated by the Depression, and the industry essentially expired in 1932. The cross-lake line between Milwaukee, Grand Haven, and Muskegon was an exception, always standing apart from the rest of the industry, first as a railroad connection, then as an auto ferry. It survived to 1970.

The first part of the book treats the industry as a whole in five discursive chapters, accompanied by maps of the lake and major harbors. The second part consists of detailed corporate histories of the ten major operators.

About the author

George W. Hilton is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of several books on U.S. transportation history, most recently Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic (Stanford, 1995)

"Presenting a wealth of new material that is the result of monumental research, this book deals with a significant part of American social and economic history not previously available. An encyclopedic archive for future researchers, it will be an essential source for maritime historians and for local historians of the towns in Michigan and Wisconsin served by the vessels."

—Edwin F. Dunbaugh, Hofstra University

"This book is nicely produced by Stanford University Press, with good paper, sturdy binding and clear, easy to read type. . . . This is a scholarly book, reflecting countless hours of research, careful compilation and writing. The text, in tone and content, is thoughtful and serious, reflecting the author's career in economics as well as his lifetime fascination with these steamships. It is an insightful book that goes far beyond simple description and presernts an understanding of the rise and fall of the passenger steamers. For anyone with an interest in passenger steamers in general or in transportation around the Great Lakes and the major cities including Chicago and Milwaukee, this book is essential reading. This is an excellent book and an outstanding reference."

Railroad Model Craftsmen

"...the author has achieved his intention "to provide antiquarian scholarship on the ships." He is to be congratulated on producing one of the most scholarly and useful books published on this aspect of Great Lakes shipping history."

Steamboat Bill