This week we’re beginning a new series looking at some of the architectural landmarks around Northern Michigan.
Today we visit the old car ferry aprons in Elberta.
At one point Elberta’s waterfront was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Now, as a developer moves forward with plans for the property, there is a new push to preserve the structures that made it possible to transfer rail cars across Lake Michigan.
It may be hard to believe now, but the shipping industry was changed forever right here in Northern Michigan. This is where the Ann Arbor Railroad brought freight from downstate heading west – everything from flour to sand to automobiles. The problem was getting that freight across Lake Michigan.
Jed Jaworski says, “They had to be unloaded into a huge warehouse that went down this property. That was very labor intensive. And a ship would come in along the other side of the warehouse - there was a dock facing. All that material that had been unloaded from the trains had to be reloaded then onto a ship. The ship would cross the lake. And at the other side, the process would be reversed.”
Jed Jaworski is a maritime historian advising the Village of Elberta on the best way to preserve this part of the village’s history.
In 1877, the Ann Arbor Railroad’s James Ashley started shopping around his idea of building a ship that could carry all of that fright – along with the train itself – across Lake Michigan. Working with naval architect Frank Kirby, he came-up with a way to have a piece of track suspended over water far enough to attach to a waiting ship. That apron had to be strong enough to support the weight of a rail car, but flexible enough to move as the ship rose and fell with the water. Ashley was told time and again that it couldn’t be done. But in 1892, the Ann Arbor #1, the world’s first open water train ferry left Elberta bound for Wisconsin carrying a freight train full of coal.
Jaworksi says, “And far from being an immediate failure it proved such a success it was duplicated around the world and here in Elberta the ferries sailed for nearly 100 years.”
Following the ship’s maiden voyage, one newspaper in England predicted the breakthrough would pave the way for similar ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. That same paper referred to James Ashley as the Christopher Columbus of the 19th Century.
Today, the Elberta waterfront is quiet. Most evidence of an industrial harbor has been replaced with open space and playground equipment. Charter fishing and pleasure boats now take-up space in the marinas. The ferry aprons are still here, but they’re showing their age.
Scott Gest says, “They’ve deteriorated quite a bit. They can’t, necessarily, be left in place but we can try to preserve elements of the structures.”
Developer Scott Gest has plans for the waterfront and he says he’s willing to help the village remove the aprons so they can be reused as a monument of sorts to the history of Elberta.
Gest says, “We really feel that part of the fabric of the community and the history of it is really something that we would like to foster.”
Gest and his Elberta Land Holding Company have helped preserve other structures on the property, including the old life-saving station.
Emily Votruba, is managing editor of the Elberta Alert. She says it’s likely the village will transform the large, steel counterweight arms into a gateway into Elberta’s Waterfront park.
Emily Votruba says, “Depending on what we’re able to get and how feasible it is to move it, we might try to do artistic things. Jed was mentioning that one of the cross-beam-arm things up there on the west slip is just totally bent.”
What the gateway will look like and what will be used will depend on what there is to work with. A hundred years ago, the men building these structures routinely used whatever was at hand as fill, counterweights and building materials so there’s no telling what could be found as the aprons are removed from the waterfront. And whatever their future use, Jed Jaworski says it’s important some of this history stays-put.
Jed Jaworksi says, “These loading aprons, while they will likely never make the connection from rail to water again, it’s certainly worth hanging on to these to be able to tell that story.”