The Early Days of the Washington Island Ferry

When you live on an island that requires traversing a stretch of water known as Death’s Door, it’s a balm to the mind to know there is a “lifeline” to get you back and forth safely.

The word “lifeline” was invoked several times by speakers at a fall ceremony to honor the Washington Island Ferry Line’s 75 years of service to the residents of and visitors to Washington Island. Dick Purinton, who spent 40 years with the ferry service and took over running the company from his father-in-law and company co-founder Arni Richter, pointed out at the ceremony that it takes a good group of dedicated people and supportive government to keep that lifeline running. Dick has passed the company reins on to his son Hoyt, who serves as president of the ferry line, as well as captain.

At the height of the summer tourism season, ferry captains and crews make up to 25 round-trip voyages a day. That drops to two daily round-trips in the treacherous winter season when high winds, ice and snow complicate matters. No matter the conditions, day in, day out, the Washington Island Ferry Line always delivers its cargos of people, vehicles and goods safely to their destinations.

We asked Dick to give us an overview of the first 75 years of the Washington Island Ferry Line. He also writes regularly about the ferry line and Washington Island culture on his blog Ferry Cabin News, which you can find here: Dick is also the author of several books — Words On Water:  A Ferryman’s Journal; Bridges Are Still News; Poem, Prose & Image:  Lines and Form; and Thordarson and Rock Island. Learn more about them at his website,

Early ferry service to and from Washington Island began with the rise in popularity of the automobile and freight truck. By 1917, improved roads connected Door County’s northernmost tip with Sturgeon Bay and beyond.

The island’s freighting operators of the day realized an opportunity awaited them and competition sprang up to provide this new service of ferrying cars, passengers and freight between Washington Island and the nearest harbors on the Door Peninsula. Few succeeded more than a season or two, exc

Photo courtesy of the Washington Island Ferry Lines Archives.

ept for Captain William Jepson, who continued his ferry service by expanding docks and piers to accommodate the increasing motor vehicle trade.

Jepson operated two wooden ferries. The ferry Welcome was 65 feet in length, built by Rieboldt & Wolter in Sturgeon Bay in 1929, and it was constructed specifically for use as an island car and passenger ferry. The North Shore was also 65 feet long, built by Burger Bros. of Manitowoc for William J. Lawrie of Milwaukee in 1930 and later sold to Jepson.

On the mainland, Jepson began with landings in Ellison Bay, but he soon made Gills Rock his primary peninsula port. Northport was developed in the late 1920s by extending a wooden crib pier from shore. This pier became an outlet on days when Gills Rock landings were impossible due to high westerly or northerly winds. On Washington Island, Jepson shifted ferry landings in 1931 from the Gislason dock near the East Channel to Lobdell Point in the West Channel, and that’s where the island ferry dock and terminal are today.

Despite the new and improved transportation Jepson’s specialized ferries offered, their wooden hulls couldn’t withstand the rigors of winter’s ice. This meant that for at least three or four months in winter there was no ferry service. During that time island residents either remained on the island, or they had to chance crossing over the unstable Death’s Door ice.

As 1939 rolled around, and with more than 20 years of ferry service and vessel freighting behind him, Jepson considered establishing a new ferry route across Green Bay, from Sturgeon Bay to Marinette-Menominee. He was serious enough to announce it in the local papers and have preliminary plans drawn for a new 100-foot vessel for that route.

At about the same time, two island men were considering expanding their own limited fishing ferry service. Carl Richter and his son, Arni, worked in the fishing trade — Carl as a commercial fisherman and Arni as a fish wholesaler. Those connections led to providing a transportation service in 1932 for the island’s fishermen in winter, hauling their catch packed in ice in wooden boxes from Detroit Harbor to a waiting truck at the tip of the Door Peninsula.

In order for the Richters to compete, they needed a larger and better vessel. Carl and Arni also drew up conceptual plans for a new ferry. At this juncture the two parties came together and agreed upon a sale of Jepson’s company to the Richters, effective April 11, 1940.

On that date Washington IslandScan 50 Ferry Line officially started business, with Carl and Maggie, and Arni and Mary Richter as principals.

In addition to the two ferries, purchase of Jepson’s business included docks, a Ford Model T with snow tracks for crossing ice in winter, a small office building, and assorted pieces of shore equipment, in addition to the two wooden ferries.

Operating as the Washington Island Ferry Line, the Richters continued Jepson’s established, scheduled service, transiting Death’s Door passage in the non-ice months, and crossing over the ice by vehicle or on foot, when necessary, in winter months.

Carl was 62 when the Washington Island Ferry Line was established, and would remain active as a ferry captain into his early 80s. He died in 1964.

Arni, at age 29 when the company was formed, was active in the ferry business for the rest of his life. Although he “officially” retired at 91, Arni remained vitally interested in company activities until his death in December 2009, just a few months short of 99 years of age.

Today, several generations of family members are shareholders, and Arni’s grandson, Hoyt Richter Purinton, is company president.

Milestones in Island Ferry Transportation

My involvement began in late 1974, following college and a four-year hitch as a U. S. Navy quartermaster. Arni, who was also my father-in-law, hired me as a deckhand. From that point forward, I gradually gained experience working on the ferries, in addition to the daily business routine and gradual assimilation into island life and living. I received my U. S. Coast Guard captain’s papers in 1976.

Looking back on my own service with the ferry line in the past 40 years, and by comparing my experiences with the time period preceding my involvement, there are certain events, projects and decisions that stand out as noteworthy milestones.

Scan 420In this subjective exercise, I’ve tried to consider both the positive impact on the ferry line as a business, but more importantly, what those improvements meant for the general public, and an island community that relies on safe, dependable, year-round ferry service.

Following, then, are four milestones that brought great impact to ferry transportation in the past 75 years. Since one project or decision generally builds on previous accomplishments and leads to others, there is no single “top” milestone. Rather, there are steps that lead toward overall service improvement, a continually moving target.

Ferry Griffin, 1946

The dilemma of no winter ferry service remained unresolved for many years, even after Jepson sold his business.

In a tragedy on March 10, 1935, Mary (Cornell) Richter’s brother, John, was one of six young men who drowned when their car broke through thin ice in Death’s Door. It was an accident that begged improved winter ferry service. But because of our nation’s efforts to wage war during World War II, it wasn’t until 1946 that the steel-hulled Griffin was built by Krause Kraft of Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Designed by Sturgeon Bay naval architect Walter Haertel, this was the only Richter ferry to be constructed outside of Door County.

Sturdily built, the Griffin became the first island ferry capable of winter ice breaking. A single, 180-horsepower Kahlenberg diesel provided the propulsion power and, yet, this was a major step forward in winter transportation, all but eliminating the need to cross over ice to reach the mainland.

Named for LaSalle’s sailing vessel that loaded furs in this area in 1679, the Griffin became a primary summer vessel, too, and remained in service as an island ferry until 1971. Then, the Anderson Transit Company of Washington Island converted the Griffin into a combination tanker/freighter. Eventually, in 1981, when an underwater electric cable was laid between Northport and the island, the Griffin was rendered obsolete as an oiler, because much of the oil carried had fed the diesel power generators at the Island Electric Co-operative. The Griffin was then sold to a ChicagVyageur.firstsemi.jpego owner.

Building on experience gained with the Griffin, a second steel ferry, the C. G. Richter (70 feet by 25 feet) — named for Carl Godfrey Richter — was constructed in 1950, also from Walter Haertel blueprints, at Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company.

This ferry featured an improved deck layout over the Griffin, with a slightly larger passenger cabin. Initially, twin Murphy engines provided increased maneuverability over a single screw, but in 1971 it was converted to a single diesel with single propeller for winter ice service. The steel ferries Griffin and C. G. Richter enabled phase-out of the earliest wooden ferries, and they advanced both vessel safety and capacity.

Ferry Voyageur, 1960

This open-deck ferry was also a Walter Haertel design. Though still 65 feet in length, the beam was stretched to 35 feet with multiple lanes for vehicles, and its twin engines and propeller shafts provided greater maneuverability.

Perhaps the greatest attribute was the Voyageur’s ample foredeck that could now accommodate semis or large pieces of farm equipment or stone crushers. Paving of the island’s gravel roads, for example, became one benefit. This similar design, when enlarged, led to later ferries with similar characteristics:  the Eyrarbakki, constructed at Bay Shipbuilding in 1970; and Robert Noble, built at Peterson Builders, Inc., in 1979.

Automobile and truck traffic, campers and recreational boat trailers continued to increase during an expansion of Door County’s tourism economy in the latter decades of the 20th century. By 2000, after 40 years of service, the Voyageur’s rather short foredeck and single bow ramp became outdated. Shortly after the ferry Arni J. Richter was commissioned in 2003, the Voyageur was sold to Shoreline Marine of Chicago. Chicago’s visitors today may ride the Voyageur, remodeled as a platform for Chicago River excursions and architectural tours.

Northport Breakwater, 1994

What began as a crib-and-stone projection at the tip of the peninsula in the late 1920s wArni Jas expanded over many decades, finally encased in steel and cement, and then extended outward in 1982 by 70 feet. This pier that jutted into Death’s Door had to withstand not only breaking seas, but also fields of moving ice.

Once the pier was lengthened, adjustable steel ramps were added to ease ramp angles when loading vehicles and accommodate a variety of lake levels. A permanent change in the primary landing for Washington Island ferries shifted from Gills Rock to Northport in 1984, following pier extensions and improvements. This new location — formerly used mostly in winter — shaved 10 minutes from each ferry crossing, or approximately 630 hours of running time in the 3,800 one-way annual trips.

Prior to 1984 and even back to the days of Captain Jepson’s operations, summer landings were typically made in Gills Rock. Northport was the safety outlet during strong northerly winds, and Northport was the only viable landing point in winter when ice floes streaked past from Green Bay waters.

In many ways, the long-awaited breakwater built in 1994 to surround the Northport Pier was as critical to safety and improved ferry service as any single vessel, because this protection assured safe landing during high winds and seas. Ferry crossings were possible during conditions when formerly service would have been suspended. The encircling arms of stacked stones also had mass to stop or deflect wind-driven ice fields that slid through the Door passage.

The Northport Harbor breakwater project was made possible through the State of Wisconsin’s Harbor Assistance Program, with a construction grant administered by the County of Door, and with Washington Island Ferry Line as the lessee. The breakwater not only brought greater certainty to ferry landings in adverse sea conditions, but on days with moderate wind conditions landings could be made on either side of the pier, with two ferries loading simultaneously, all leading to quicker and more efficient service.

Ferry Arni J. Richter, 2003

Len Villano

Photo by Len Villano.

This is the newest, longest and most powerful ferry in the fleet. Named for founder Arni Richter, this Tim Graul Marine-designed vessel features a sturdy hull structure for breaking ice, tugboat-like horsepower, stainless steel ice-class propellers, wide decks and wide ramp openings, several heated (or air conditioned) cabins, and a passenger observation deck for summer seating and viewing.

The superior ability of the Arni J. Richter as an icebreaker brought an increase to two scheduled round trips per day. Crossing times remained comparable to summer sailing, day-in, day-out, with very infrequent delays or cancellations of service. The Arni J. Richter’s deck capacity doubled that of the winter ferry it replaced, the C. G. Richter, in turn helping to relieve winter’s transportation log-jam.

A wide main deck and longer vehicle lanes enabled the transport of semis and other large vehicles, winter as well as summer. For the first time in winter, island businesses could receive products in bulk tankers such as propane, heating oil and gasoline. Even the island’s trash and recyclables, formerly restricted to shipment by truck in non-ice months, could now be transported when the large bins reached capacity.

The Arni J. Richter ferry has demonstrated premier ice-breaking capabilities since placed in service, operating daily during a time of year when very few vessels find it prudent or profitable. Built to federal vessel design and construction standards, and inspected and certified by the U. S. Coast Guard for passenger and vehicle service, as are all of the Washington Island ferry vessels, this ferry is now in its 12th year of operation.

It is the scheduled year-round service that enables Washington Island to remain connected with the rest of Door County and the State of Wisconsin, allowing the island community’s people, and its economy, the chance to carry through until the following summer’s tourism season.

Seventy-five years as a company is but a blip in the longer scheme of things, and yet Washington Island Ferry Line as an essential service must respond to daily demand, adapt to a changing environment and economy, and meet or exceed the federal codes that provide a framework for safe operation.

Over the decades we’ve been fortunate to have local Door County shipbuilders and designers. We’ve also had an excellent, dedicated crew and a supportive community. These critical contributors make the task of providing daily ferry service easier, as well as rewarding.

Photos courtesy of the Washington Island Ferry Line Archives.

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