Peek into the Past: History of the William M. Miller Ferry

Discover the fascinating history behind the modernization and expansion of a Lake Erie ferry line.

When the William M. Miller was launched in Lake Erie in 1954, it was an important part of the modernization and expansion of a ferry line that had started humbly a half-century earlier.

In 1905, two South Bass Island men, William M. Miller and Harry Jones, began harvesting ice in the western basin of Lake Erie. Their product was a necessity in the days before refrigerators, when homeowners and establishments depended on iceboxes to keep perishable foods from spoiling.

From their delivery service came a water taxi, which was taken over in the 1940s by Miller’s son Lee, who had big plans. On St. Patrick’s Day 1945, the line’s first car ferry, the South Shore, launched. Built at Stadium Boat Works at the end of West Third Street in Cleveland (near Municipal Stadium, hence the name), the 65-foot-long ferry could accommodate 12 cars — more if they were hauling the small European sports cars that ran annually in the Put-in-Bay Road Races that roared across South Bass Island through the 1950s.

More similar-sized ferries followed. The West Shore was added in 1947, the William M. Miller in 1954 and the Put-in-Bay in 1959. The fleet also included five fishing boats and two 26-foot Lymans, the famed clinker-built boats designed and built in Sandusky, Ohio, specifically to handle Lake Erie’s choppy waters. 

Eventually, the side-load ferries were replaced with bigger boats on which vehicles could drive on and off, culminating with the Mary Ann Market, a 140-foot ferry that was put to sail in 2022, capable of carrying more than two dozen vehicles and as many as 600 passengers.

But the old boats still had life in them as well. In 1998, the William M. Miller was sold to Bill Fournier, who brought it to Bay City, Michigan, as part of the new Bay City Boat Lines, renaming it the Princess Wenonah. The Bay City Boat Lines offer music, leisure and history cruises on boats that once took racers, partygoers and other fun-seekers to the Lake Erie Islands.