Posted by: Kath Usitalo | November 10, 2010

Ferry Troubled Mackinac Island

Arnold Line ferries await passengers in Mackinaw City

With its Victorian architecture and ban on automobiles the image of Mackinac Island, the historic retreat in the Straits between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is of an idyllic place lost in a simpler time.

There’s an airstrip on the island but transportation to and fro is largely by passenger ferry from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City. On the island folks get around on foot, bicycles, or vehicles powered by four-legged horsepower.

Old fashioned horsepower on Mackinac Island

The aroma of fudge fills the gift shop-lined streets, and visitors enjoy century-old pastimes of bicycling around the island, hiking the trails, visiting the 18th century fort and seeing natural formations like Arch Rock.

At the end of a day-trip or overnight stay vacationers, slabs of fudge in hand, hop a ferry back to the mainland and life in the 21st century. But there is a community of about 500 residents who live year ’round on Mackinac Island, and they—as well as concerned part time residents, visitors and workers—are in the thick of a debate (to put it genteelly) about their lifeline, the ferry service.

In what seems to be a peaceful place a battle is being fought, and unlike the lilacs that the island celebrates each June, it’s not a pretty picture.

Shepler's Ferry passing Round Island Lighthouse, near Mackinac Island

It involves sales and mergers, proposed property acquisitions, math that doesn’t add up, and an order from the Island’s mayor to stop clapping.

For decades three ferry companies have provided boat service to and from the island: Arnold Transit Co., which dates to 1878; Shepler’s, established in the 1940s; and Star Line, launched in the 1970s.

These are franchise operations that pay a total of about $300,000 in fees to the City of Mackinac Island. With their five-year contracts expiring in March 2011, Mackinac Island is considering ferry service proposals that were submitted in October.

The problem evolved from attorney Jim Wynn’s purchase of the Arnold company and merger with the Star Line to form a new operation called Northern Ferry Company.

Mr. Wynn has promised better service, lower ticket prices, and increased freight and year-round transportation, while paying significantly more to the city.

As in a minimum of $1.2 million instead of the previous $300,000.

All the city need do is leave Shepler’s high and dry and grant just one franchise, to Northern Ferry Company.

One outfit, Northern Ferry Company, with exclusive control of the service to and from the Island. No competition. No choice. No options for the consumer.

But no, concerned citizens have been told, it’s not a monopoly. And, by the way, stop that clapping for Shepler’s and against the non-monopoly.

The City of Mackinac Island states that it has the authority to not only determine the number of franchises, but can regulate ticket prices and schedules. And purchase property for terminals in St. Ignace, Mackinaw City and on the Island.

It has issued an overview of the situation, an FAQ available at the official Mackinac Island blog site. (Is it just me, or shouldn’t the city have tried to not editorialize in the answers?)

For an extensive discussion on the subject see the Facebook page Stop The Monopolization of Ferry Service to Mackinac Island; check out the timeline of events.

You’ll also find comments from residents who—despite the mayor’s admonition at a standing room only meeting to stop applauding—fully intend to continue clapping for their cause.

Ferry interesting.

Ferry over-capacity is one of the concerns in the controversy



  1. In doing so, they’d put Shepler’s out of business, right? That’s a shameful option for a city that’s relied on a business for decades to serve them to grant a monopoly to one line and ruin another.

    • Exactly.
      Quite the controversy.

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