Mackinac Island was a different place, and yet very much the same, when George T. Arnold and his partners, Francis B. Stockbridge and O.Q. Johnson, founded the Mackinac Lumber Company in the 1870s. Arnold knew he would need reliable marine transportation to help them build their new company in the Straits of Mackinac. So in 1878, he formed, along with L.B. Coats, the Arnold and Coats Ferry Line.

More than 140 years later, Star Line – the Mackinac Island Ferry Company – continues the rich tradition established by Arnold and Coats. Star Line and its acquired lines of ferries, which includes the historic Arnold Transit Company and Argosy Boat Line, celebrate a heritage perhaps unrivaled on the Great Lakes.

A new ferry line on the straits

Imagine Mackinac Island without the stately Grand Hotel gracing its bluff. No fudge shops. No streams of bicyclists pedaling along a smooth, paved highway. But you can see horses pulling wagons. People walk down the hill from Fort Mackinac to greet boats coming into the harbor. There are fishermen lining their wet, shimmering catches across wooden planks.

One of the first Arnold boats was a coal-fired side-wheeler. Other steamers stretched 100 feet to 200 feet long, compared to today’s 60-90 foot ferries. In 1886, Arnold acquired the Algomah which was built in 1881. It steamed across to the island until the 1930’s when its steam engine was considered unique enough to find a permanent home at historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Algomah II went into service in 1936. It was 156 feet long, carried up to 450 passengers and required a crew of 20 people to get it from shore to shore. (By comparison, many of today’s ferries only require a crew of four!)

A vacation from city life

When the railroads from Chicago and Detroit reached Mackinaw City in the 1880’s, life in the straits changed almost overnight. First came the building of Grand Hotel, finished in 1887. Other hotels on the island and mainland followed. Beautiful summer cottages were built along Mackinac’s great bluffs. More stores popped up along its streets. Renowned families such as the Strohs (brewery), Cudahys and Armours (meat packers) and Palmers (Chicago real estate) either owned cottages on the island or came for long stays at one of the island’s hotels, increasing the resort’s popularity in the Midwest.

To accommodate the growth, Arnold bought out his partners and incorporated the company in 1890. He bought more steamers for his fleet. These steamers mirrored the magnificent passenger boats sailing out of Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo, New York. With the trip across taking nearly an hour, passengers walked up and down the boat’s gleaming staircase, lounged on cane-bottom deck chairs and peered through observation windows at the big steam engines at work.

The line stays connected

When George Arnold died in 1921, his wife, Susan, continued running the ferry service, but asked that the company auditors, Price Waterhouse, provide assistance. The renowned accounting firm sent a young accountant, Otto Lang, to help manage Arnold Line. Mrs. Arnold also asked a local attorney, Prentiss M. Brown, Sr. to assist with the handling of the boat company’s affairs.

When Mrs. Arnold died a few years later, the Arnold heirs were ready to sell their interests in the ferry line. Lang and Brown wanted to keep the operation together and bought out the Arnold interests, guiding it through times of boom, depression and World War II. The Brown family continued to own and operate the company for more than 80 years.

A new wave of boats

Post-World War II, the Arnold Ferry Line faced its first major competition. Determined to be the leader, Lang and Brown replaced their labor-intensive steamers with diesel-powered boats, operated by five people. By 1963, Arnold Line had seven of these smaller, more efficient boats crossing the straits in 30-35 minutes.

While there is something to be said for leisurely crossing the straits and enjoying the beautiful scenery aboard these classic ferries, there was an increasing demand for faster and smoother boats. Arnold responded in 1987 when it introduced the first passenger-carrying catamaran to the Great Lakes. These twin-hulled, triple-deck ferries provided the fastest, smoothest, most comfortable ride yet on the straits.

A new rival emerges

Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry was founded by Tom Pfeiffelmann, Sam McIntire and others in the late 1970’s when they purchased Argosy Boat Line. The company was then renamed “Star Line” after its five original stockholders, represented by the 5-pointed star. In its first year, Star Line operated slower ferries including the classic Nicolet, Treasure Islander and Flamingo.

In 1979, Star Line purchased its first fast ferry, the Marquette. In the years that followed, the old LaSalle and Nicolet were replaced with sisters to the Marquette. When Arnold Transit Company introduced the catamaran Island Express in 1987, Star Line responded the following year with the Radisson, an 85-foot fast ferry which was modeled after a luxury yacht. She boasted two propellers as the other ferries had, but also had twin hydro-jets for added speed. One hydro pointed out of the water, making an incredible plume of water behind the boat!

In time, the LaSalle, Nicolet and Marquette also added hydro-jets with their trademark rooster tails. In 1990, Star Line added the Cadillac to the fleet, and in 1993, the Joliet. These boats were built in the style of the Radisson. In 2005, the Marquette was replaced by the larger Marquette II.

Today… and tomorrow

Arnold Transit Company faced a series of financial setbacks after the Brown family sold the company in 2010. In November of 2016, Star Line purchased the majority of Arnold Transit Company’s assets out of foreclosure, assuming the almost 140 years of its history and combining it with that of Star Line’s existing fleet. These combined assets allowed Star Line – the Mackinac Island Ferry Company – to build upon and enhance the legacy of the oldest and largest ferry fleet in the Straits of Mackinac.

With the company’s continued focus on making the journey to Mackinac an important first leg of each passenger’s island adventure, Star Line purchased the straits area’s only current catamaran, the Mackinac Express, in 2015. And in 2020, Star Line introduced the area’s only pirate ship, the Good Fortune!

Today, Star Line is the only ferry line providing year-round passenger service in the straits to allow visitors and residents the opportunity to enjoy all four seasons on Mackinac Island.

While protecting and honoring its legacy, the company also builds for the future, taking advantage of technological advances and developing plans to incorporate electric vessels into its fleet – to deliver, ultimately, the very best Mackinac Island ferry experience for generations to come.

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