A Brief History of Great Lakes Cruising

“At one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any other ocean of the world” – marine historian Harry Wolf.

The North West and North Land offered 7-day Great Lakes cruises

Most people don’t realize that the five Great Lakes – Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior – are where the seven-day cruise originated. This dates to 1894-1895, when the Northern Steamship Company introduced the North West and North Land, with their motto “In all the World, no trip like this.” Among the North Land‘s first passengers was one Samuel L Clemens, better known to most as Mark Twain. Part of the Great Northern Railway system, these ships were described as the “largest, most complete and luxuriously equipped passenger boats in the world.” The return voyage from Buffalo to Duluth or Chicago took seven days, and one of the most popular stops was at Mackinac Island, where automobiles are still not allowed to this day.

A Georgian Bay Line cruise advertisement from 1916

Many more cruise ships followed, on both sides of the border, carrying happy crowds for many decades, with cruise directors, live bands and even radio broadcasts from on board. The better-known included Great Lakes Transit’s Juniata, Octorora and Tionesta and Georgian Bay Line’s North American, South American and Alabama, and, on the Canadian side, Canada Steamship Lines’ Hamonic, Huronic and Noronic and Canadian Pacific’s Assiniboia, Keewatin and Manitoba. These ships were all between 300 and 400 feet in length, 3,000 to 7,000 tons, and carried between 280 and 500 passengers each.

The great Seeandbee offered 7-day cruises around the Great Lakes in the 1930s

Overnight lines also got into cruising when the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company began a Detroit to Chicago service via Mackinac Island in 1924, with the 500-berth Eastern States and Western States. This service became  the company’s “Cruise Division.” In 1933, the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company, which had been offering end-of-season cruises from 1921 with its four-funnelled 1,500-passenger 6,381-ton Seeandbee, began offering seven-day Great Lakes cruises all summer long. Unlike the traditional cruise ships, these were big side-wheel paddle steamers, the largest in the world, and they continued cruising until 1950, when D&C, deprived of its overnight business by the advent of the superhighway, closed down. Their most interesting amenity was suites with private balconies, many decades before they were introduced into modern-day cruise ships.

Canadian Pacific’s Assiniboia offered weekly cruises between Georgian Bay and Lake Superior

Most of the traditional ships, in typical lakes fashion, had their engines aft, presaging modern-day cruise ship design. These ships carried on for several years, until Canadian Pacific’s  Assiniboia and Keewatin were withdrawn in 1965, and the Georgian Bay Line’s South American in 1967, victims of obsolescence and new fire regulations. The Keewatin, which was a museum ship at Douglas, Michigan, for forty years was moved to Port McNicoll, Ontario, in June 2012 while the 100-passenger Norgoma, which sailed between Georgian Bay and Sault Ste Marie for the Owen Sound Transportation Company, is at Sault Ste Marie.

The Stella Maris II cruised the Great Lakes for one season  in 1974, photo by Richard Duncan

Overseas ships have also cruised the Great Lakes. From 1959, when the St Lawrence Seaway opened, to 1963, the Oranje Line offered cruises on three passenger/cargo ships carrying 60 to 115 passengers each between Montreal and Chicago while on their voyages to and from Europe. In 1959, Sun Line operated the first Stella Maris into the Great Lakes on a number of cruises from Montreal to Toronto, Hamilton and Rochester. Midwest Cruises of Indianapolis offered two seasons of Great Lakes cruises between Montreal and Chicago with the 233-berth Stella Maris II in 1974 and the 168-berth Discoverer in 1975, but then closed down. More recently the lakes have seen the 90-berth French-flag Le Levant, built in 1998, and the 96-berth German-owned Orion, which Travel Dynamics engaged for the trade in 2004.

In 2009 and 2010, Travel Dynamics operated the 100-berth  Clelia II on the Great Lakes

Between 1997 and 2011, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 420-berth 14,903-ton Columbus became the largest ship to cruise the lakes. Although she left the fleet in 2012 she will return in 2014 and again in 2015 as the ms Hamburg. Most recently, in 2009 and 2010, Travel Dynamics operated the Clelia II, and in 2012 and 2013 the US-flag Yorktown .

Replacing the Yorktown in 2014 is Pearl Seas Cruises’ new 210-berth Pearl Mist, which enters the Great Lakes for the first time this year. Built in Halifax and completed in Chesapeake Bay, she will cruise between Toronto and Chicago on itineraries that include Georgian Bay, while other itineraries will include the River and Gulf of St Lawrence.

Full details of the new Pearl Mist cruises are available from The Cruise People Ltd of London, England. Please call  +44 (0)20 7723 2450 or e-mail cruise@cruisepeople.co.uk for further information.

Welcome to Cruising the Great Lakes

The Cruising the Great Lakes blog has been developed to promote within Europe the Great Lakes and other cruise programs offered by the 2,354-ton m.v. Yorktown. This 130-berth ship has been acquired by Travel Dynamics International of New York, which offered its first season of Great Lakes cruises in 2004 with the 4,050-ton Orion and returned in 2009 with the 4,077-ton Clelia II. As in 2004, 2009 and 2010, a full season of Great Lakes cruises was offered between June and September 2012 while US coastal waterways and Central America cruises are offered at other times of the year. The Yorktown returns to the Great Lakes in 2013.

The 2013 Program is Now Available Here.

Completed by First Coast Shipbuilding in Coral Springs, Florida, in 1988, as the Yorktown Clipper, she is the largest active US-flag coastal cruise ship. She was operated for many years by Clipper Cruise Line of St Louis, Missouri, and first came into the Great Lakes in 1992, when she operated a series of cruises between Charlottetown PEI and Rochester NY and Rochester and Quebec City, before being replaced in the Great Lakes by the smaller 108-berth Nantucket Clipper. In 2006, the Yorktown Clipper was acquired by Cruise West of Seattle and became the Spirit of Yorktown, under which name she operated in Alaska and on the West Coast until Cruise West closed in September 2010.

The Yorktown is the perfect vessel for relaxed and convivial exploration of America’s great coastal waterways. With a 257-foot length and 43-foot beam, on a draft of 8 feet, she has the same dimensions as the old St Lawrence canallers, the maximum size ship that could reach the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes before the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

By comparison with the Yorktown, the Georgian Bay Line’s 2,317-ton North American, which operated Great Lakes cruises for fifty years, had a slightly lower tonnage but slightly larger dimensions, at 280 x 47 feet, and carried 400 passengers. Her near sister ship, the 2,662-ton South American, was slightly larger again.

With her compact size, the Yorktown is able to manoeuver into secluded waterways and to visit small ports that are inaccessible to larger vessels. And Yorktown’s American registry makes it possible to operate domestic itineraries unavailable to foreign-flag ships. Like the  Georgian Bay Line ships, the Yorktown features a walk-around promenade deck and all-outside cabins, but unlike the older ships, which were retired in the 1960s, the Yorktown is fully air conditioned and every cabin is en suite, in addition to which all the passengers dine at one seating.

Fares include your cruise, all meals, all shore excursions and lectures, welcome and farewell cocktail parties, all soft drinks and wine and beer with lunch and dinner, the on-board educational program and port and embarkation fees. They do not include flights and transfers and you are left to your own discretion to tip your service personnel.

Occasionally, if they are available, we will also list offers by other operators in the Great Lakes, including Plantours of Germany, who will be operating a 16-night Montreal-Great Lakes round trip on their 400-berth ms Hamburg in September 2014. This ship cruised the Great Lakes betqween 1997 and 2011 as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Columbus.

The Cruise People Ltd
88 York Street, London W1H 1QT England
T +44 (0)20 7723 2450 F +44 (0)20 7723 2486

Full details are now available from The Cruise People Ltd of London, from whom international guests (and agents) can obtain details and make bookings. Please call us at +44 (0)20 7723 2450 or e-mail at the link above to find out more.