Feature Photo: Courtesy of Little Traverse Bay Ferry Co.
Upon your arrival in the Petoskey area, you realize you’re surrounded by blue. Glittering swaths of freshwater in cerulean, turquoise, and cobalt shades meet your eye at every turn. Forget driving—you want to be out riding the Lake Michigan waves. But, you don’t have a vessel sturdy enough to handle the Big Lake, so that’s out of the question. Or is it?
Ferries used to be a popular and necessary way of transporting people and goods across Little Traverse Bay. Their usage died out around the mid-1900s, and driving became the norm.
However, a few Michiganders have revived the Little Traverse Bay Ferry Co. Since opening in 2020, they’ve ferried about 18,000 people amongst their ports in Petoskey, Harbor Springs, and Bay Harbor. They’re making sure you can get out into the bay, even if you don’t have your own private vessel.
Chris Chamberlain, LTB Ferry Co.’s captain, says that locals broached the subject of restoring the area’s legacy of ferry transportation. He’s no stranger to northern Michigan or boating. He and his family have been long-time visitors to the area. His parents started a canoe rental business in Lansing in the 1970s that transformed into a riverboat cruise line, now owned by Chamberlain. With help from Evan Blanc of 17 Marine and local Elliot Langton, the ferry company was launched as a nonprofit to help fundraise the startup costs.
Meet the ferry boats
LTB Ferry Co. currently owns two boats: the Miss Lauren, which seats 49 passengers, and the Harbor Princess, a 149-passenger ferry.
The Harbor Princess is the company’s newest acquisition and comes with an interesting backstory: in her past, she was called the Emerald Isle. She was the first ferry built for the Charlevoix to Beaver Island Run by the Cristie Shipbuilding Co. in 1955 for the Beaver Island Boat Company. She most recently operated as a tour boat in Detroit (the Diamond Jack). Now back to Northern Michigan, she proudly sails as the Harbor Princess.
“We’re excited to have brought her home,” says Chamberlain.
Miss Lauren ferries passengers on a regular schedule between ports in Bay Harbor, Petoskey, and Harbor Springs. Options for one-way, round-trip, and around-the-bay tickets that are available for reservation at LittleTraverseBayFerry.org.
The Harbor Princess provides evening cruises on the Little Traverse Bay. The boat is also available for private events, which can include local catering and drinks. Folks who are interested in reserving The Harbor Princess for a special occasion should email Ahoy@LittleTraverseBayFerry.org.
“We do recommend getting your tickets a little bit in advance,” advises Chamberlain. “Especially on some of those really busy days in July, it gets hard to fit everybody in.”
An “explosion of visitors” in the 1880s
One notable fact about this ferry operation is that it builds upon the region’s history. Chamberlain says that the Harbor Springs Historical Society’s 2020 “Don’t Miss the Boat” exhibit on ferries inspired him to keep pushing to make the LB Ferry Co.’s dreams a reality.
Ferries have long been used for transportation in the Petoskey area, running between Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Harbor Point, Bay View, Wequetonsing, and Bay View, depending upon their route. The Harbor Springs Area Historical Society reports that LTB ferries began operating in 1875, conveying up to 5,000 people per day to their destinations. Historical ferry transportation ended in 1930 when the final vessel, the America, was sold.
“A lot of people have the impression that we’re a busy tourist destination now,” says Beth Wemigwase, program director for the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society. “But it was an absolute explosion of visitors in the 1880s.” The lumber industry had died down by that point, and tourism in Northern Michigan was becoming more popular. Imagine hundreds of people lined up on the docks every half an hour to catch a boat.
Ferries were an enormous part of the social lives of the area’s denizens, whether on the bay or Inland Waterway. An unnamed writer in a 1916 Petoskey Evening News story reported that social functions in the late 1800s were regularly attended by communities across the bay from one another, whose members traveled by ferry. The Harbor Springs Area Historical Society reports that up to 5,000 patrons per day rode Chrysler Line ferries between Harbor Springs and Petoskey. A steamer named Columbia was commissioned by Petoskey High School in 1916 for a track meet in Boyne City, an excursion that included students from Pellston, Harbor Springs, and Charlevoix, along with the Petoskey High School band and baseball team. School outings, pleasure cruises, dances, conventions, sporting events, school outings, and other events took place with the aid of ferries.
“If you were a businessman at that time and you decided to go from the bank in Harbor Springs to the one in Petoskey, you could either rent a carriage and ride over some very bumpy roads, or you could hop on a ferry and be there in 15 to 20 minutes,” explains Wemigwase.
Who wants to drive anyways?
Though a drive between Petoskey and Harbor Springs no longer takes half a day, there are still great reasons to take a ferry. It’s a chance to be out in the glittering waters of a pristine bay. It’s a connection to the region’s transportation history. Plus, who wants to drive in northern Michigan when you can be in a boat? Isn’t the water what we’re all here for?
Some considerations for ferry passengers: Chamberlain suggests checking the weather forecast before scheduling your trip. You’re not as protected from the wind as you might be on an inland lake, so plan accordingly. If possible, purchase tickets in advance to avoid a sold-out day. And, of course, enjoy yourself out there.
Passengers can check the Little Traverse Bay Ferry Co.’s social media for weather and transportation updates. If the weather is inclement on the day you scheduled your trip, you can use your tickets later in the season.
“There are lots of people lined up already this year,” concludes Chamberlain. “We’ve got good staff, good crew captains, and we’re gonna have a lot of fun out there in the Little Traverse Bay.”
About the Author: Jen DeMoss is a newcomer to the Petoskey area and loves northern Michigan. You can catch her paddling a canoe, hiking a trail, or swimming in Lake Michigan as often as the weather cooperates. She’d love to help you make the most of your time in this paradise she now calls home.