Some may bemoan the end of summer, but the folks at Miller Ferries will tell you that there is still plenty of time to enjoy the slower pace of a less hectic tourist season and beautiful autumn days by visiting Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Ohio's Lake Erie Shores and Islands region.
Miller posts a schedule of daily ferry trips to and from the popular holiday destination from the middle of March through nearly Thanksgiving in November, and the venerable boat line can even schedule transportation to and from the island later into the colder weather if the waterway is still clear of ice.
The importance of ice or the lack of ice, on Lake Erie played a major part in the 110-year history of Miller, which got its start in 1905 when William M. Miller and Harry Jones started an ice-harvesting business in the area.
The ice business started out by harvesting approximately 1,000 tons of block ice each winter, storing it in an ice house insulated by sawdust. The business sold the product to sailors moored in the bay and the hotels, resorts and restaurants at Put-in-Bay at the turn of the twentieth century.
Huge hotels like the Hotel Victory, known as one of the largest resort hotels in the Midwest, catered to tens of thousands of tourists who arrived by steamship in the early 1900s. Some steamers carrying tourists to Put-in-Bay averaged 400 feet long and arrived from places like Buffalo, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and Sandusky.
Put-in-Bay also had a trolley, giant water toboggan, two schools, an opera house, bars and restaurants in addition to the large, wooden hotels during those early days as well.
The ice business had an 18-foot wooden delivery boat called Iceman, and Miller began to envision other possibilities to build a transportation, livery and, in the face of a the growing interest in the area's fishing, a charter business serving the area's growing tourism industry.
Soon, Miller had a fleet of six charter boats, including a 50-foot boat call the Avon, and operated a water taxi service which many folks hailed from the shore by calling out "Millllll-errrrr".
Miller's son, William Lee Miller, began hauling cars across Lake Erie between the mainland and Put-in-Bay by attaching a flat-bottomed boat to the Avon that could carry about eight cars.
Thus began Miller's formal ferry service.
The business grew and offered new services through the next few decades while continuing to run the ice-harvesting end of the business into the 1950s.
The purchases of increasingly durable and larger boats allowed Miller to offer year-round mail service for Put-in-Bay by 1929 and regular ferry schedule during the warmer weather months.
William Lee Miller took over the livery service from his father in 1945 and worked to establish a faster, more efficient and reliable ferry system.
All-steel passenger ferries held more automobiles, could more easily handle the Lake Erie waves and sported enclosed areas that made the trip more comfortable for passengers. The 40-minute trip to Put-in-Bay via ferry now ran more frequently, and the Miller line added trips to and from Middle Bass Island by appointment.
By 1966, the Miller Boat Livery became Miller Boat Lines and adopted a shorter route that went through Lime Kiln Dock at Put-in-Bay. The route, three miles shorter than previously, now took less than 20 minutes one way.
Miller also maintained a small fleet of fishing boats and a few speed boats to use for things like medical emergency water taxi service.
Bill Market began working for the company as a purser and deckhand in 1954, acquiring the company in 1978 with his wife Mary Ann from the Miller family.
Market, a fourth-generation islander, was familiar with the operation of the boat line and the challenges that lay ahead as the 1970s brought a renewed interest in Put-in-Bay that included repairing or restoring some of the older homes and buildings there dating back to its early 1900s heyday as a thriving resort community and modernizing some of the community's infrastructure and erosion problems.
The Market family continues to run the family-owned business while honoring the Miller family's dedication to building the business by keeping the Miller Boat Lines name.
The newer ferries can carry that up to two dozen vehicles and/or 500 passengers at a time, so what are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, check out a video of one of our recent trips to Put-in-Bay aboard a Miller ferry!
Want to learn more about the Lake Erie Islands and their history? Check out my story Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum recalls Put-in-Bay area history here on Midwest Guest or Lost Stories: Yesterday and Today at Put-in-Bay by Ronald L. Stuckey.
© Dominique King 2015 All rights reserved