By Jim Hayden
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton stood on the Saugatuck Chain Ferry dock Saturday morning with city council members, the authority of the U.S. Congress and signature of the president behind them.
“Who would have thought that it would take an act of Congress to do this?” the Republican congressman from St. Joseph said, looking at the boat poised to take passengers across the 300 feet of Kalamazoo River from downtown Saugatuck to the Park Street landing
“It needed to be done,” Upton added, holding a proclamation from the city thanking him for legislation that helped preserve a tourist icon that had been foundering in federal bureaucracy.
Upton inserted language in the 2018 U.S. Coast Guard authorization bill signed last winter by President Donald Trump that lifted what the city called “costly and burdensome regulations” that required the hand-cranked ferry have onboard a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain subject to random drug testing and other rules that forced the boat to close early last year.
The Saugatuck passenger ferry is the only one of its kind in the nation. It operates by running a chain along the river bottom. The chain runs through a winch mechanism on the ferry where a person turns a lever to crank the vessel across the water. The ferry’s path doesn’t vary. The flat-bottom vessel does not run on stormy or windy days.
A chain ferry has been crossing the Kalamazoo River since 1857, according to the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center. The original scow could carry a wagon, team of horses, passengers and automobiles.
The current, smaller-sized ferry was introduced in 1965 by R.J. Peterson, who joined the Saturday event, holding a photo album from that original dedication 54 years ago.
The ferry is operated by Star of Saugatuck LLC and runs 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Aug. 31. Crossing costs $2 one way.