The History of Miller Boat Line
At the beginning of the twentieth century Put-in-Bay, the heart of the Lake Erie “Wine Islands”, was rich with vineyards, orchards and dozens of wineries. Tens of thousands of tourists cruised via steamships to Put-in-Bay every summer. The glorious steamships would dwarf today’s island ferries in size, as these steamers averaged 400 feet in length. Also at the century’s beginning, Put-in-Bay boasted one of the largest resort hotels in the midwest – the Hotel Victory. Several other elaborate wooden hotels, a trolley, giant water toboggan, two school houses (one for East Point children), taverns, restaurants and an opera house were also on the island.
“Round House Tea and Ice-Cream” Circa 1905 – downtown Put-in-Bay
Daily arrival of steamers from Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo, Cleveland and Sandusky
Water Toboggan and Deisler’s Bathing Beach
In 1905 two Put-in-Bay men, William M. Miller and Harry Jones, started a local ice business. During winter months the crew would saw and harvest about 1000 tons of block ice. Although a hazardous business, it was a convenient location; the ice was taken from the Put-in-Bay harbor, just yards off shore. The ice was stored in an ice house which was insulated with sawdust. Throughout the summer Miller would sell the precious ice to sailors aboard their yachts moored in the bay and to island hotels and restaurants. Miller’s eighteen foot wooden delivery boat was appropriately named Iceman.
Lake ice being cut and stored for summer Gibraltar Island in background. Photo from “Isolated Splendor”
Five year old Lee Miller aboard the “Iceman”. The “Iceman’s” original gas powered engine, a Toledo built Rellacco, is on display at the Miller Boat Line office
Miller Boat Livery ~ Promotional postcard luring fisherman to excellent bass fishing. 1930’s
The Lake Erie waters have long been a fisherman’s haven. An abundance of perch, pickerel and bass drew sportsmen to the aptly named Bass Islands. Miller expanded his service to six charter boats, headed up by the 50 foot Avon. Judy Borman Prinz and John Borman who grew up on Put-in-Bay remembers joining their father on such a fishing trip. If the “catching” was slow, a side-trip to Lonz Winery on Middle Bass could be part of the outing. (While the men sampled George Lonz’s finest, the children explored the Lonz castle-like winery and gleefully collected champagne corks.)
Miller also operated local water taxis. Along the bay, especially during Regatta week, one could hear the loud, hardy, sing-song of “Millllllll-eeeerrrrrr!” as people hailed the Miller water taxis for pickup.
The son of William M. Miller, William Lee, known as “Lee”, skippered the Avon between the Bass Islands and the point of Catawba. To serve as a “ferry” the vessel would be attached to a scow. This served as a simple means of carrying about eight cars at a time.
Eventually the scuttled deck of the old Erie Isle bought from the Put-in-Bay Auto Ferry Company, became one of Miller’s scows. Cars, freight, livestock and passengers could be ferried. At the same time the scow was also the means to carrying barrels of gasoline and other fuels to keep the Miller Boat Livery in motion.
Lee held the contract for the year round mail service between the Bass Island and the mainland. Regular Bass Island air service would not begin until 1929. Mail service to the Bass Islands during the months of open water proved challenging enough, but it was during the season of bitter Lake Erie winters that Lee and crew proved worthy of their delivery obligation.
Between the icy stretch of Catawba Dock to the Lime Kiln Dock of Put-in-Bay, mail and passenger-filled “ironclads” were hauled, pushed, and floated across the frozen lake. These wooden boats were outfitted with metal sheathing and nailed on “with about a million nails”, according to Bill Market, in order to withstand the jagged ice and the boat and crew had to be ready to float across open water or drop through weak ice areas. It was commonplace for a paying passenger to have to help shove and manuever the boats across the ice.
In the mid-1940’s William M. (“Pop”), son Lee and his wife Mary, and Put-in-Bay resident “Mick” Arndt, bought the Catawba Dock Company stock from several Catawba residents. By 1945 Lee had taken over the Livery from his father. He knew the need for a more efficient and safer ferry system.
In 1945 the all-steel auto/passenger ferry South Shore was built by Stadium Boat Works of Cleveland. The 65 foot enclosed vessel could carry up to 12 cars, run earlier in the spring and later in fall, and had a hull design built to handle the Lake Erie “chop”. The ferry trip between Miller’s downtown dock and Catawba Dock took about 40 minutes and three round trips a day were made. Trips to Middle Bass Island were by appointment in 1946.
Similar side-load ferries followed; the 65 foot West Shore in 1947 and the 65 foot William M Miller in 1954, both built in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. The 64 foot long Put-in-Bay was built in 1959. Capable of carrying up to twelve cars, the Put-in-Bay had unlimited overhead clearance; ideal for the larger vehicles and mobile homes. Car owners simply put their trust and vehicles in the hands of the experienced crewmen who drove the cars on and off the ferry. Often vehicles were parked so closely together on the deck that the crewman could only access the car by crawling through the vehicle’s window. Once passengers and vehicles were safely on board the heavy wooden planks were hauled with a heavy rumble off the deck. Then the ferry was off “to the other side”.
Miller Boat Line had become the main water connection from Catawba to the Bass Islands. Also, through the 1940’s and part of the 1950’s the ice business continued. However, instead of sending men harvesting ice from the harbor, ice was purchased on the mainland, loaded onto Model A trucks and ferried to the islands.
Lee and Mary’s son Bill (“Mucker”) captained the Wm. M. Miller from the day she arrived on the island. Bill also found time to skipper the Mervine II, a navy LCM (Mechanized Landing Craft) built during the Second World War, for fuel delivery to the islands. (You can see the Mervine II, renamed Cantankerous, at the downtown Miller Ferry Dock.)
Meanwhile, the fleet still included five fishing boats and two 26 foot Lymans, the latter used for speedy (or medical emergency) taxi service.
In 1959 the Miller family and island community suffered the accidental drowning of the 28 year old Bill. The loss of the popular, outgoing young man was a tragedy to those who knew and loved him.
Miller Boat Livery became incorporated in 1966 and renamed Miller Boat Line. Breakwall and a steel and concrete dock were added to Miller’s Lime Kiln Dock on the southeast tip of Put-in-Bay. By switching the main Miller ferry route to the Lime Kiln, Lee Miller had established the most efficient and shortest ferry route to the island. This shorter passage was three miles long and could be run in under twenty minutes. By 1972 the vessels were making twelve trips daily between the mainland and Put-in-Bay (South Bass). Scheduled trips were added for Middle Bass Island and run by the ferry West Shore.
In 1971 Lee Miller appointed Bill Market to take over as manager of the boat line. Market, a fourth generation islander, had worked for Millers as a purser and deckhand since 1954. With the loss of young Bill Miller, who also was Market’s best friend, Market became captain of the vessel William M Miller. When Lee passed away in 1973, Mary Miller asked Market to take over operations of the company.
Put-in-Bay’s growth and rebounding popularity became apparent in the 1970’s. Local residents and developers began to preserve and showcase the fine private homes and downtown buildings, many of which had fallen into disrepair. Historic buildings such as the Colonial, Park Hotel, Blacksmith Shop, Crescent, and Round House were restored and upgraded.
Funding began to flow into the DeRivera Park, South Bass Island State Park, and infrastructure. The 1970’s high water erosion of the shoreline surrounding the Perry’s Monument (National Park) was alleviated with the construction of the unique concave concrete breakwall on either side of the memorial grounds. Put-in-Bay began to move in fast-forward, and tourism became the island’s economic mainstay.
In 1978 Bill and his wife MaryAnn Market, also a native islander, purchased the boat line from Mary Miller. The Market family has owned and operated the business since then.
Residents and customers welcomed the Islander in 1983, a 90 foot long, 38 foot beam, drive-on, drive-off ferry. Several minutes were shaved off the scheduled turnaround time. The Islander built at G&W Builders in Cleveland, could carry sixteen vehicles or up to 450 passengers.
The 96 foot South Bass built in 1989, also in Cleveland, could handle eighteen vehicles or up to 500 passengers. In 1993 the William Market began its run, followed by the Put-in-Bay in 1997, both built at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Each could carry up to twenty cars or 500 passengers. The Put-in-Bay was extended by 40 feet in 2010 and can now carry approximately 24 vehicles or up to 600 passengers. These drive-on/drive-off vessels allow the boat line to maintain an efficient summer service with departures every half hour, the most frequent schedule to Put-in-Bay.
The longer vessels and more frequent trips insured that a walk on passenger would have less waiting time, the most frequent trips, with a crossing time between Put-in-Bay and Catawba of eighteen minutes, plus be assured of trips early spring through late fall. (Note: Due to mild weather, Lake Erie never froze over during the 2011-2012 winter, making it the longest running season to date. The longest running season prior to that was 2003-2004, where the boat line ran until January 4, 2004.)
During peak summer season Put-in-Bay trips begin as early as 6:30 am and depart Catawba as late as 9:30 pm with trips every half hour. Quite a change from 1946 when ferries departed for only three trips from Catawba. Miller Boat Line is the only scheduled ferry service to Middle Bass Island from the mainland.
While the newer, larger ferries joined the service, the smaller vessels were gradually sold to new “homes” in the Great Lakes: the South Shore is now at Chicago in Lake Michigan. The West Shore and the William Miller are back together again in Bay City, Michigan. The Put-in-Bay was renamed the Sacre Bleu and serves as a freight vessel for Arnold Boat Line at Mackinac Island, Michigan. Whenever each of the ferries left the Lake Erie Islands for the last time, it was like saying farewell to a well-loved friend.
Other improvements included the addition of several acres of free parking near the Catawba (main land) Dock. Reserved parking is also available. Hydraulic ramp systems have replaced the heavy wooden planks of yesteryears.
Miller Boat Line is the primary UPS carrier to Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass, which Griffing Island Airlines assumes once the ferry season has ended for the winter. Retail shops, Dockside, Waterline, and Bayview Gifts, offer gifts, snacks, sportswear, and free island and area information. The landmark Miller Office on Bayview Avenue, Put-in-Bay overlooks the downtown Miller Dock, winter home to all four vessels. Across the street is Miller Marina, developed in 1995 with available dockage totaling 1100 feet. Because of its serene setting and proximity to town, the marina is one of the most popular dockage spots for residents and transient boaters. In 2016, additions include the purchase of E’s Golf Cart Rental at the Miller Lime Kiln Dock and also a new Information Kiosk for added customer service.
Miller Boat Line continues to add services and provide values for its customers: Budget-friendly fares, season passes to Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass, frequent floater tickets, season parking, group and student fares, free parking and island packages. Miller Boat Line proudly supports several non-profit and community organizations and events on Put-in-Bay and neighboring mainland communities. Miller Boat Line is the proud sponsor of the tall ship “Niagara” for the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial Celebration 2013.
The name “Miller” continues as the corporate name; a salute to the Miller family, our island heritage, and goodwill the company has cultivated over the past century. Our patriarch, friend, and leader Bill Market III passed away in November, 2006. Not a day passes that the Market family does not reflect on the company that their parents nurtured and proudly passed on to their family. Mary Ann Market, well known for her leadership and generosity, passed away in April, 2010. The Market’s three children, Julene, Bill and Scott now own and operate the Miller Boat Line.
Today the ferries are equipped with regulation Coast Guard safety, security and fire equipment, all which lend to these priorities: A safe, dependable and enjoyable crossing.
Part of the fascination of the ferry trip is watching the puzzle pieces of passengers, cars, bicycles, commercial trucks, kayaks, pets, boats and trailers, motorcycles, luggage (and most anything!) fill the decks of the ferry. The eighteen minute trip between Put-in-Bay and Catawba allows enough time to chat with fellow residents, check the to-do list, or relax. The Middle Bass route allows a bit more leisure; forty minutes of gazing at the islands, Ohio and Canadian shoreline.
The ferry service operates because of the devotion of all who work there; the people that sell car and passenger tickets, gift shop/information ladies, dock personnel, freight handlers, women that run the office operations and answer the phones, security, Captains, diligent deck hands and maintenance men sent to repair things at a moment’s notice. About 95 five people are employed by Miller Boat Line during peak season and they each lend to the boat line’s reputation of being the most frequently traveled and largest ferry service on Lake Erie.
What began as a humble fishing charter and ice business has evolved into not only a ferry line for passengers, cars and freight, but a way of life for anyone who chooses island living. Miller Ferry is the main artery between mainland and the islands of Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass. Board a ferry across Lake Erie and you will understand why a ferry route is known as “the most poetic of roads”.
- Andy Sykora, Great Lakes Historical Society and family friend.
- Bill Market III
- Bob Schmidt, Put-in-Bay resident, family friend, storyteller, and former employee of Miller Boat Line.
- Judy Borman Prinz, Put-in-Bay native who spends most of the year in Minneapolis and anxiously awaits the summer so she can return to her cottage on Put-in-Bay! You can meet Judy at Dockside Gifts.
- Eugene Kindt, Put-in-Bay resident. Began working for Millers at the age of 11 in 1948 and retired in 2011.
- “Isolated Splendor” by Dr. Robert Dodge, Put-in-Bay native
- “Ferries of North America” by Sarah Bird Wright
Please contact us if you have memories or photos of Miller Boat Line or the islands that you would like to share.