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Four ‘wheel’ drive

The Michigan Central Railroad transfer steamer Detroit pulls away from the dock with a full load for a crossing between the Motor City and Windsor, Ontario. Twentieth-century commerce on the Great Lakes called for all manner of specialized vessels — grain steamers, coal carriers, passenger ferries. Few were as focused as the transfer steamers.

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The Detroit was designed to do one thing: carry rail cars (passenger and freight) on the half-mile route across the Detroit River, one of the most heavily used waterways in America. Launched in 1904 at Great Lakes Engineering Works in Ecorse, Michigan, she had four propellers — two forward and two aft — each coupled to its own engine and shaft, along with forward and aft rudders.

The ship loaded from the bow. The cars were shunted onto rails built into the deck and clamped down for the ride. A self-adjusting “link span” allowed for alignment of the ship’s tracks with those on land. The Detroit could carry as many as 24 cars and had a top speed of 18 mph.

In the winter, ice made the river crossing a challenging, sometimes harrowing passage. In 1904 the river was iced up for 65 days straight, yet service was never suspended — not with 1,000 rail cars a day needing transport. The transfer steamers were expected to break the ice as they went. If their landing was choked, they dispersed the ice with their forward props.

Also known as rail ferries, transport steamers gradually declined with the growth of truck and air freight traffic, but they haven’t disappeared. These specialized vessels still carry rail cars in some areas of the United States.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.