Stories Continued From the Front Page

A Brief History of the Georgian Bay Lines

Many long-time Holland residents have fond memories of driving near the shores of Lake Macatawa and catching sight of the three white ships of the Chicago, Duluth, and Georgian Bay Transit Company moored at their winter dock at the foot of 16th Street. The Georgian Bay Line, as it was more commonly known, maintained its winter dock and warehouse there from 1924 until the end of service in 1967.Georgian Bay Lines
The Georgian Bay Line was chartered in 1912 by Mr. Robert C. Davis. Davis saw an opportunity to develop something unique for the time: a Great Lakes shipping company devoted exclusively to passenger excursion travel.

By spring of 1913 the 291-foot S. S. North American had been built by Great Lakes Engineering Company of Ecorse, Michigan. For her first season she was placed on a round-trip schedule between Chicago and Duluth. She met with such tremendous success that a second, larger ship was ordered almost immediately. The S. S. South American, 321-feet long, was ready for service for the 1914 season. She was placed on the Chicago-Duluth run, and the North American established new service between Chicago and Buffalo, New York.

From 1913 through 1923 the Georgian Bay Line maintained a winter port at Saugatuck, as did several other lines. In 1924 a decision was made to find a less crowded port. Holland was chosen and land was purchased at the foot of 16th Street, where a dock and warehouse were constructed. Though barely completed, the South American tied up in early September while finishing touches such as water main connections were made.

During the night of September 9, 1924, the very day that fire hydrants were installed at the dock, the South American caught fire. The fire spread quickly throughout the ship, and the crew, which was still living aboard while making winter preparations, was forced to flee for their lives. According to an account in the Holland City News, Anna Kanerz, the head waitress, was forced to squeeze through a porthole and drop into the lake. Captain A. C. Anderson, the last to leave, burned his hands badly as his only means of escape was to go hand-over-hand down a chain to the dock. While the entire upper works of the ship was destroyed, the hull was saved because the engineer had the foresight to reverse the pumps and fold the ship, partially submerging it. This was especially important considering the 35,000 gallons of Number Six fuel oil in the ship’s bunkers. Amazing it may seem the South American was rebuilt at Ecorse in time for the start of the 1925 season.

Business continued and unlike some Great Lakes steamship companies, the Georgian Bay Line managed to weather the Great Depression. In 1939 the line purchased the S. S. Alabama, the former flagship of the Goodrich Line, which had gone bankrupt in 1933. At 275-feet, she was the shortest of the three ships, and her time of service proved to be short as well. World War II slowed business and several attempts were made to sell the Alabama to other passenger lines, all of which failed. She remained tied to the dock from 1946 to 1961 when her hull was cut down and she was converted to a work barge, a duty she still performs today.

The North American and South American, however, continued their service. For several years the ships were opened early and used as floating hotels for Tulip Time visitors, and as late as the early 1960’s they provided concert and dinner cruises on Tulip Time evenings. Local high school bands serenaded passengers as they enjoyed a short trip on the “Big Lake.”

Unfortunately, the times were changing. In 1961 the North American ran aground in the St. Lawrence and could not be freed for a week. She lost some of her popularity with the public, and in 1963 she was sold to the Canadian Holiday Line, who later defaulted. In 1967 she was sold to the Seafarers International Union. On September 14th of that year, while being towed in the Atlantic Ocean, she sank.

The South American remained popular but in 1966 the United States Coast Guard ruled that after 1967 no ship with a wooden super-structure would be allowed to remain in overnight passenger service. That sealed the South American’s fate. She spent her last season carrying visitors to and from Montreal’s Expo ’67. When the South American terminated her service an era ended. She was the last active passenger excursion ship on the Great Lakes.

After the 1967 season, the Seafarers Union bought the South American to replace the lost North American. Eventually she was sold to a scrap yard in Camden, New Jersey, where she has languished since. Several attempts were made to bring her back to the Great Lakes but all have failed.
The memories of the Georgian Bay Line, however, are alive and well. Included in the collections of the Holland Historical Trust are many items to renew those memories. Photographs, posters, tickets, and dining room china are just some of the items waiting to remind us all of a great time in our history.