Save Time with the Ironton Ferry

Ironton Ferry is a four-car cable ferry that crosses a narrow point on the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix in the U.S. state of Michigan in the unincorporated community of Ironton.  The Ferry connects Ironton, located about 5 miles from Charlevoix, Michigan, to Boyne City, Michigan.  The ferry crosses the lake about 100 times a day.  The current vessel went into service in 1925.  The ferry is 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and weighs 43 tons. 

It's powered by a diesel engine with a hydraulic drive system that features propellers at both ends. Two different cables are guiding the ferry since it doesn't have any rudders.  The slack in the cables drops 25 feet below the surface to allow boats to pass. The ferry has the right-of-way because its ability to maneuver is restricted.  Every five years the ferry is pulled from the water for a full Coast Guard inspection. 

It’ll probably save some driving time around Lake Charlevoix (it takes the ferry about 5 minutes to cross the south arm of Lake Charlevoix, saving about a 30-minute drive) but the real reason to slip your car onto the Ironton Ferry is the short sweet ride across the narrows of the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix - a ride that’s been a tradition up here since 1876.  The Ironton operates daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.  Fares: $3.25 per car, 50 cents per person (without vehicle or bicycle), $1 with a bicycle. Find it on M-66 four miles south of Charlevoix. 10231 FERRY RD, 231-237-3500.

The Ironton Ferry is operated by the Charlevoix County Transportation Authority. Ferry service is provided from mid-April until the day before Thanksgiving.  The ferry provides a shortcut that saves about 24 miles of driving.  The ride across the Ironton Narrows is only 610 feet and takes less than 5 minutes, including loading and unloading.

The ferry is located just off M-66, approximately 6 miles southeast of Charlevoix and 9 miles north of East Jordan.  From the east side, it is approximately 9 miles west of Boyne City at the end of Ferry Road.

Captain Sam Alexander, who operated the ferry from the 1880s to the 1940s and lived nearby, was listed by Ripley's Believe It or Not for having traveled a distance equal to the circumference of the earth without ever being more than 1/4 mile from his home. 

Ironton Ferry History

The Ironton Ferry began operation in 1876. In the early days, the ferry was powered by horses. Ironton became a Pig Iron Factory town when the Pine Lake Iron Co. opened in 1879.

Ironton is direct across from a parcel of land once owned by George R. Hemingway, uncle of renowned author Ernest Hemingway.  While Hemingway spent summers at his parents' cottage in Walloon Lake from 1900 to the 1920s, he also spent time near Horton Bay and across Lake Charlevoix at the tree farm of his "Uncle George."  This tree farm on Lake Charlevoix was at the south landing of the ferry and is known as Hemingway Point.  In Hemingway's, The Nick Adams Stories, the Hemingway point is where "Nick" was camping when he became frightened and fired rifle shots to signal his father and uncle who were out on the lake.  This was confirmed by the author's first cousin, Margaret Hemingway Bundy, before her death.

Below is an interview with captain Bob Pawlus, captain of the slow chugging cable-guided ferry:

  • Why is the Ironton listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not? The former captain, Sam Alexander, who lived nearby, logged 15,000 miles while never being more than a quarter-mile from home.
  • How short is the ride? It’s 610 feet; the ride takes three minutes or less. The water is about 40 feet and the cables drop down to 25 feet. You have to drive around the lake an extra 18 or 19 miles when the ferry isn’t running.
  • What about that huge engine? Isn’t it a gas eater? We have two 325-gallon diesel tanks that are filled every two weeks. The ferry goes 3 1/2 miles an hour and gets about 1.4 miles per gallon. It saves fuel because we can run four cars a trip and about 12 cars an hour.  Last season we transported 65,000 cars.
  • What’s the best part about your job? I love my job—everybody who takes a ride is always in a good mood. It’s very flattering—people are always telling me, “You’ve got a great job,” or “I want your job.” People in the military salute me. I consider that a sign of great respect. And every day there’s a story.
  • Tell us more. Like the little girl who got on and said, “Where are the fairies?” Or one lady who gets violently seasick. She got all worked up about taking the ferry the day before—she was dreading getting on the boat. After the ride, she couldn’t believe she fretted so much. Then there was the person in the minivan that got off on the Boyne City side and realized he rode the wrong way. I had a convertible full of six people in their fifties—perfectly sober—and they kept lifting their arms in the air and screaming as they crossed.
  • What about transporting ambulances? Can you rev up the engine? I try to go faster. Under ideal conditions, I can cross in 2 ¾ minutes.
  • What’s your biggest challenge on the job? When I get a group of bicyclists, like 25 at once. Their fare is $1, and sometimes I have to make a lot of change.
  • What happens if people get on the ferry and discover they have no cash? I give them the address to our county clerk or direct them to the office. It doesn’t happen much.
  • What’s it like to pilot the ferry in November? Sometimes it can snow two inches an hour. That flat steel deck gets very slippery. But I’ve never fallen in.

Ripley's Believe it or not
The ferry acquired nationwide fame in 1936 when Ripley's Believe it or Not! listed Ironton Ferry Captain Sam Alexander for traveling 15,000 miles while never being more than 1,000 feet from his home. Alexander piloted the ferry from 1900 until his death in 1948.

There is a more recent collection of short stories about life in the area during the 1970s.  My Summers On Hemingway Road, by Alicia Hein Cook, features original artwork of the Ironton Ferry on the cover.  The Ironton Ferry has been captured by many artists, both amateur and professional.  Among these are Leland Beaman, an accomplished Michigan artist, who painted the Ironton Ferry in watercolor before the landing and onboard gates being electrified in the late 1970s.

The Landing
The Landing Restaurant, a popular eatery right at the dock on the Charlevoix side.  The Landing Restaurant has undergone amazing transformations over the years.  Its weathered wood docks have faithfully served Lake Charlevoix boaters for over 50 years and have been home to many different owners and businesses.  Located in the calm and secluded Ironton Cove, and situated next to the Historical Ironton Ferry, The Landing has forever been a favorite stop for tourists and locals alike, casting out Jimmy Buffet tunes over the serene blue water.  

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