A Brief Illustrated History of Great Lakes Cruising

“At one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any other ocean of the world” – marine historian Harry Wolf.

Most people don’t realize that the five Great Lakes – Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior – are where the seven-day cruise originated. This dates to 1894-1895, when the Northern Steamship Company introduced the North West and North Land, with their motto “In all the World, no trip like this.” Among the North Land‘s first passengers was one Samuel L Clemens, better known to most as Mark Twain. Part of the Great Northern Railway system, these ships were described as the “largest, most complete and luxuriously equipped passenger boats in the world.” The return voyage from Buffalo to Duluth or Chicago took seven days, and one of the most popular stops was at Mackinac Island, where automobiles are still not allowed to this day.

Many more cruise ships followed, on both sides of the border, carrying happy crowds for many decades, with cruise directors, live bands and even radio broadcasts from on board. The better-known included Great Lakes Transit’s Juniata, Octorora and Tionesta and Georgian Bay Line’s North American, South American and Alabama, and, on the Canadian side, Canada Steamship Lines’ Hamonic, Huronic and Noronic and Canadian Pacific’s Assiniboia, Keewatin and Manitoba. These ships were all between 300 and 400 feet in length, 3,000 to 7,000 tons, and carried between 280 and 500 passengers each. The Georgian Bay Line advertisment shonw here dates from 1916.

Overnight lines also got into cruising when the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company began a Detroit to Chicago service via Mackinac Island in 1924, with the 500-berth Eastern States and Western States. This service became  the company’s “Cruise Division.” In 1933, the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company, which had been offering end-of-season cruises from 1921 with its four-funnelled 1,500-passenger 6,381-ton Seeandbe, (above), began offering seven-day Great Lakes cruises all summer long. Unlike the traditional cruise ships, these were big side-wheel paddle steamers, the largest in the world, and they continued cruising until 1950, when D&C, deprived of its overnight business by the advent of the superhighway, closed down. Their most interesting amenity was suites with private balconies, many decades before they were introduced into modern-day cruise ships.

Most of the traditional ships, in typical lakes fashion, had their engines aft, presaging modern-day cruise ship design. These ships carried on until Canadian Pacific’s  Assiniboia (left) and Keewatin were withdrawn in 1965, and Georgian Bay Line’s South American in 1967, victims of obsolescence and new fire regulations. The Keewatin is now a museum ship near Saugatuck, Michigan, while the 100-passenger Norgoma, which sailed between Georgian Bay and Sault Ste Marie for the Owen Sound Transportation Company, is at Sault Ste Marie, Ont.

Overseas ships have also cruised the Great Lakes. From 1959, when the St Lawrence Seaway opened, to 1963, the Oranje Line offered cruises on three passenger/cargo ships carrying 60 to 115 passengers each between Montreal and Chicago while on their voyages to and from Europe. In 1959, Sun Line operated the first Stella Maris into the Great Lakes on a number of cruises from Montreal to Toronto, Hamilton and Rochester. Midwest Cruises of Indianapolis offered two seasons of Great Lakes cruises between Montreal and Chicago with the 233-berth Stella Maris II (right) in 1974 and the 168-berth Discoverer in 1975, but then closed down. More recently the lakes have seen the 90-berth French-flag Le Levant, built in 1998, and the 96-berth German-owned Orion, which Travel Dynamics engaged for the trade in 2004.

Between 1997 and 2011, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 420-berth 14,903-ton Columbus became the largest ship to cruise the lakes, but she will leave the fleet in 2012. Most recently, in 2009 and 2010, Travel Dynamics operated the Clelia II (left), soon to be replaced by the Yorktown. With thirteen Great Lakes cruises in 2012, the Yorktown will more than double the capacity being offered this year by the much larger Columbus, which is doing only two Great Lakes cruises in her farewell season.

Full details of Great Lakes cruises can be obtained from The Cruise People Ltd of London. Please call  020 7723 2450 or e-mail cruise@cruisepeople.co.uk.

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About thecruisepeople
Specialists in sea travel - ultra-luxury cruising, freighter travel, small ships and expedition voyages.

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