SS Milwaukee Clipper, also known as SS Clipper , and formerly as SS Juniata, is a retired passenger ship and automobile ferry that sailed under two configurations and traveled on all of the Great Lakes except Lake Ontario. Milwaukee Clipper is the only US passenger steamship left on the Great Lakes. The vessel is now docked in Muskegon, Michigan.
Her story begins on 22 December 1904, in Cleveland, Ohio, at the shipyards of the American Shipbuilding Company. Christened Juniata when launched, she was built for the Anchor Line, the Great Lakes marine division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Her sister ships are the SS Tionesta and SS Octorara.
The ship is 361 feet (110 m) in length, 45 feet (14 m) in beam, a depth of 22 feet (6.7 m), with a gross tonnage of 4333 tons. She carried 350 passengers in staterooms at 18 knots. As originally built, she had a riveted steel hull and a magnificent wooden superstructure. For the Pennsylvania Railroad, she carried passengers and freight between Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota until 1915.
That year, the anti-monopoly Panama Canal Act, which forbade railroads from owning steamships, went into effect. Divesting its marine divisions, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold its Anchor Line along with four other railroad-owned company fleets, to the newly formed Great Lakes Transit Corporation. Under this flag, she carried passengers along her old routes for another 20 seasons. Juniata was laid up in 1937 after the closing of the Chicago World's Fair.
Juniata sat idle in Buffalo until being sold in 1940 to be rebuilt and used as a passenger ship on Lake Michigan. Juniata was extensively modernized at the yard of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company. Her boilers upgraded from coal to run on fuel oil, but she retained her original quadruple expansion steam engine. The old cabins and wooden superstructure were removed and replaced with steel to meet the new maritime fire safety standards created after the disastrous SS Morro Castle fire off Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1934. The streamlined forward stack is false and does not ventilate engine exhaust. It is a signature of naval architect George Sharp, whose ideas regarding fireproof ships were first incorporated into Juniata. This stack became standard on many new ships that were to come. Sharp is credited with three historic vessels, Milwaukee Clipper, SS Lane Victory, and NS Savannah.
The modernized ship featured air conditioned staterooms, a children's playroom, a movie theater, a dance floor with a live band, a soda fountain, bar, cafeteria known for its cuisine, lounges and sports deck, and capacity to carry 120 automobiles. On June 3, 1941, she made her maiden voyage from Milwaukee to Muskegon. As Milwaukee Clipper, she steamed between Muskegon and Milwaukee, as well as excursions throughout Lake Michigan visiting various other ports, for 29 seasons. She was also called the "Queen of the Great Lakes" and carried around 900 passengers and 120 automobiles in the summer. The amount of oil used varied per round trip, but was approximately 5,500 US gallons (21,000 l; 4,600 imp gal). On week days she made two round trips that took 7 hours each way, using three of the four boilers. On weekends, she made three, six-hour round trips on all four boilers. The crew lists were between 105 and 109, with around 55 of them in the steward's department alone to take care of the 900 or so passengers on board. There are stories from former crew members about how they would "lose count" as to how many were actually on board. If you were there, apparently you did not get turned away. The cost per person in the 1950s was $3.33 and $8.00 extra for an automobile, with an extra 75 cents charged to travel in the forward Club Lounge and to use the forward deck.
During World War II, Milwaukee Clipper transported defense materials between Muskegon and Milwaukee. The ship had contracts with auto manufacturers to carry new cars during her entire career. The passenger season was between May and September. After that she was under various limited passenger certificates which allowed her to carry a reduced number of passengers and up to 250 automobiles.
By 1970, the company had plans to replace Milwaukee Clipper with the newer and larger Aquarama. Negotiations regarding dredging the Milwaukee harbor for Aquarama failed and the plan did not materialize. Ironically, though 1970 was a banner year for Milwaukee Clipper, she stopped running her regular route after that year.
In 1977, Milwaukee Clipper was purchased by Chicago interests operating out of Navy Pier. They planned to put her on a Chicago to Milwaukee run made popular by the whaleback passenger ship SS Christopher Columbus. Financial backing fell through and Milwaukee Clipper remained a museum ship on Navy Pier.
In December 1983, Milwaukee Clipper was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in May 1989 the ship was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, both plaques are on board the ship. The next year (1990), she was sold to Hammond, Indiana where she served as the centerpiece for their large new marina. She was sold on December 2, 1997 for use as a museum in Muskegon, Michigan, her old home port.
Milwaukee Clipper is currently docked in Muskegon, Michigan at the old Grand Trunk Ferry dock, undergoing restoration by volunteers of the SS Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. organization. In the summer season, visitors tour the pilothouse, some staterooms, crew quarters, dance floor, soda bowl, movie theater and more. A large collection of the original Art Deco furniture remains on board. Warren McArthur was the designer and builder of the ship furniture. The frames were all aluminum. He designed furniture for buildings, such as theaters, and there were no two that were alike. A piece of Milwaukee Clipper furniture off the ship is readily identifiable. There are also displays of memorabilia from both Juniata and Milwaukee Clipper, which include memory books, photographs, brochures, dishes and other items of interest.