William Klemm was Super of the Steamships

December 19, 2013
Bill Klemm poses with a picture of the Badger when it was operated by Chessie

Bill Klemm poses with a picture of the Badger when it was operated by Chessie

A Recent Chat with William L. Klemm, Retired Superintendent of Steamships

By Carrie Klemm, MCP Correspondent

Even on a first visit to Ludington, it is almost impossible to ignore the rich maritime history. Whether riding into town aboard the S.S. Badger, watching her glide past the North Breakwater Lighthouse from the beach or just hearing that ferry whistle blow from across town, clues to the past generation of steamships are prevalent even in this day and age.

I was a third generation carferry employee, following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, though I admit, my different positions onboard were much less strenuous. My grandfather, William L. Klemm retired as superintendent of steamships in 1979. Though he and I have chatted about the surface details of his former position, we had never gone in depth about it until recently. While there is much to be said for reading the history of the ships that made Ludington’s harbor, having an opportunity to chat with someone who lived and breathed the Ludington carferry system in its prime was priceless. I consider myself very honored.

When he started, the carferries were owned by Pere Marquette Railroad. In 1947, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) acquired PM. In 1973, C&O merged with more companies to become Chessie System. Since that time, Chessie and other corporations formed CSX.

In the mid-1950s, 5% of the workforce in Mason County worked for C&O Railroad.


MCP: How many years did you work for the carferries?

WK: 38 years. I started on August 18, 1941 and retired in June of 1979, though I was gone for a few years when I served in the Navy during the war.

MCP: How did you get started with the carferries?

WK: Ray Thomsen, the Assistant Superintendent, called me. He had visited the high school in search of someone to fill a position at the boats. A few of my teachers recommended me for the job, telling him I was a good man and good student. I had never met him before, but he called me up, told me not to call him “Mr. Thomsen,” but to call him Ray and that he thought I was probably what they were looking for down at the docks. He said that he couldn’t promise me a permanent position, but I learned later that they were trying me for the job to see how I would work out. Apparently, I did alright. I went to work right before the war broke out. That December, all of us knew we would be going into the service in a short time. I joined the Navy in March of 1943 and served for three years.

MCP: What was your first role with PM Railroad and what did you do?

WK: I was a Clerk and as a Clerk you did anything they needed you to do. I even mopped floors from time to time. In the winter, it would be sloppy and wet. I didn’t need to be told, I just went out there and mopped because it needed to be done.

The City of Midland 41 was Klemm's favorite ship.

The City of Midland 41 was Klemm’s favorite ship.

MCP: As the clerk, did you ride the ships often?

WK: Nope, I was on shore all of the time. I sold tickets at the counter in the same building that stands today. They always said they were going to be getting a new building in there, a nice two story building with a tower where the operator that day could sit up there and keep watch on ships moving in and out of the harbor, but they didn’t buy it. We got along with the old one, and that’s the way it was.

MCP: Did you have a draw to the railroads and ferries before you started working for the carferries?

WK: No, not really.

MCP: What made you head to work at the ships versus working on the farm?

I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer. I watched my dad slowly die from hard work on the farm. He worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without relief. I had made up my mind, it wasn’t for me.

MCP: Prior to being named superintendent of steamships, had you been clerking the entire time?

WK: No. Back in 1952, we had a big strike here, I don’t think you remember that.

MCP: Nope, I wasn’t around for that one.

WK: The officer’s strike lasted all summer from July 4th until about the 20th of October. That was the autumn that the S.S. Spartan and S.S. Badger were launched.

MCP: What was the reasoning behind the strike?

WK: The usual things, they wanted more money, better working conditions. They just walked off, all of the officers and engineers. All of the ships were laid up because we had no crew to run them

MCP: There wasn’t a single ship running?

WK: Everything was tied up. A regular crew for a ferry was 56 workers and we didn’t have any.

MCP: How many ships were operating at the time of the strike?

WK: There were six, the Pere Marquette 18 (II), Pere Marquette 21, Pere Marquette 22, the City of Saginaw 31, the City of Flint 32 and the City of Midland 41. When the Spartan was launched in 1952, that kind of broke the strike. They had to send men over to Wisconsin to bring her to Ludington and so they sat down and decided enough was enough. The strike was over.

MCP: There wasn’t a real resolve in the strike? Did anyone get what they were seeking?

WK: Some of the officers and the captains did. As a result of strike negotiations, all of the captains were appointed as officials of the company. The seven or eight captains at the time were all put on the company payroll.

photo (35)MCP: When did they call you back after the strike?

WK: September of 1952. The Spartan was getting ready to come out of the shipyard and they needed a crew in a hurry. I was probably the only one who was qualified to do that. I knew who belonged where and where everyone fit onboard. I had hired a lot of the guys in those days, and with that went the payroll, I knew everybody for coming in to pick up their checks.

MCP: I heard that you could look at someone and say “that guy is number 43792,” is that true?

WK: Yes, that was their pay number. I had a talent for that, I guess and it helped because they found out they needed me back. Ray Thomsen called me on a Saturday night wanting me back to work on Monday morning. At the time, I had been scheduled to go to Lansing to school for a couple of weeks to learn the insurance and real estate business. I told him I would sleep on it. I didn’t know what to do, I already had 12 years of seniority with Chessie, but I also had a wife at home with two twin baby boys. I knew I would be on the road with that position. In the end, Ray got in touch with company headquarters in Detroit and told them that Bill Klemm, the local personnel man, was thinking of leaving the company. Detroit offered me an official position and put me on a salary. It changed my whole life.  

MCP: When they brought you back on, what was your position then?

WK: I was Labor Relations Assistant. I dealt with the same people who I had hired.

MCP:  What were winters like?

Cold. The ice out on the lake made it difficult for the crew who were sleeping onboard. The sound of the ice breaking against the hull of the ship was loud, you could hear it cracking. In the PM 21 and PM 22, the deckhands slept near the bow, the first thing to hit the ice. They would tell me it was terrible. In the newer ships, the sleeping quarters were moved to other areas away from the bow. It was rough sailings in those days. It seemed like we had a lot of bad weather.

MCP: How was the heat on the ships during the winter?

WK: The newer boats were more adapted. It got cold, but they made it work. I made a few trips. There were times I shouldn’t have gone, but I wanted to see what it was like. Some of those rides were rough, being thrown from side to side, forward, backward, up and down on the waves. It was part of my job when I became an officer. One of the things they insisted upon at the negotiations in the strike 1952 was that they didn’t have anybody to talk to about their problems. My job was created to ride the ships, listen to their problems then bring it back to the office and talk to the boss about it. Sometimes we could help, other times there wasn’t anything we could do. All of that stuff had to be negotiated in the Detroit office.

MCP: When did you become superintendent of steamships?

WK: That was in 1975, before that I was Assistant Superintendent for four years. First, I worked for Mr. Leland H. Kent, he was the Superintendent, and his assistant was Ray Thomsen, who had hired me. When Mr. Kent retired, Ray took over and when Ray retired, Ted Winkel took over. After Ted retired, a fellow by the name of Wilbur Wright took over the position of Superintendent, no relation to Orville and Wilbur. He was a nice guy, quite a Southerner. When he retired in 1975, I was appointed to the job. I think it was May.

MCP: You retired after four years of working as the superintendent of steamships. What brought on the retirement?

WK: I was appointed to Superintendent of Steamships in 1975 and I held that position until I retired in June of 1979, at the request of my family. They could see that the job was getting to me and worried I would have a nervous breakdown. I was getting more involved in the particulars of the Chessie abandonment of lines. I had to go to labor relation meetings in Washington DC, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, and all I did was fire more guys than I could hire. They were trying to get rid of the boats and I was the frontman in a lot of ways.

MCP: Why do you think C&O started to back out?

WK: Cost. All cost. Ships are an expensive item. Anything on water is really expensive to operate. We could all see it coming. For a long time, they needed the ships as an alternative route through Chicago. They would try to send shipments through that area and sometimes cars would get lost for weeks, even months. I found out later that during the strike of 1952, the company purchased some property going through the Chicago area where they could send a straight train all the way through. After they established the route, they could take a hundred cars over that way, reducing the freight that needed to go over on the ships.

MCP: When you were superintendent, how many ships were operating out of Ludington?

WK: There were seven ships, the PM 21, PM 22, City of Saginaw 31, City of Flint 32, City of Midland 41, S.S. Spartan 42, and the S.S. Badger 43, but they weren’t all operating at one time. Usually, we would have five going with the other two under repairs. Once in a while we would have the sixth one running on a light schedule whereas the other five would run full time. Little by little, the freight kept dropping off. Some would say deliberately, others would say because of cost. I would say a little bit of both.

MCP: Being a person who was so involved with personnel, knowing that you had hired so many of the employees, how difficult was that for you?

WK: It was hard. It wore on me. Here I was, firing all of these guys I had previously hired. I also had to fight unions which didn’t help any. Max Sykalski was the National Maritime Union man in the area. He would come in to my office and be very demanding and then the next minute he would say “well, Bill, we had a good one today, didn’t we?” He enjoyed stirring things up and he knew he had the power to do things. He was quite a guy. A typical union man, everything had to be union.

MCP: You were sent all over the country during the abandonment procedures representing the railroad. Were you alone in that role or did you have support of other superintendents?

WK: I had to go alone. I remember one time, we were in a hearing in the Labor Relations room, the federal judge was sitting up high, I was on the next tier and then all of these guys were out in the audience fighting to keep the boats. There were attorneys from Grand Rapids, Detroit and all over Michigan, the city manager, the mayor, there must have been 20-25 guys out there who were all ready to nail me, they were going to nail this “Klemm.” I had made up my mind. Before I left, I told my boss in Detroit that I wasn’t going to lie. If I was asked something that I knew to be right or wrong, I was going to say so. He told me that was what they expected of me and lying about anything would come back to haunt the company. So there I was in Washington, going up against all of these young guys who had nothing to lose and only wanted to wear me down. They were trying to get me to say something wrong, trying to catch me. They worked me over for quite a while. All of a sudden I heard a loud noise coming from the back of the room, the sound of someone throwing a fist down on a desk. That union man from Ludington, good old Maxie, stood up and said “That’s it, you’re not going to crucify my friend, Bill Klemm.” Even being the union man that he was, fighting right alongside these attorneys, he knew I was doing what I was told to do, which is really what it amounted to. I didn’t lie about anything and I think the attorneys started to sense that. It irritated them because they couldn’t get a rise out of me.

MCP: So what happened next? Did they stop badgering you?

After that happened, everyone started hooting and hollering until the judge pounded the gavel to quiet the room. He said he wanted to talk to me alone. He covered the microphone and asked me a lot of questions, sensible questions. He asked how things were, about different crews and how we were handling everything. Then he said “thank you, Mr. Klemm” and things continued on, but by then it was a different atmosphere. I could sense it right away. That was a turning point and I will never forget it. Good, old Maxie.

MCP: It was wearing on you, though.

WK: My wife, your grandma, always knew what kind of day I had at the office. It would show in how I was feeling when I came home at night. If I was upset, worn out and tired, she knew it had been rough. I remember I had told her once that I had just about had it with all of this, but that was part of the job. I was the superintendent. I had to make all of these trips, leaving my wife and kids at home. It was an experience. I wouldn’t want to do it again but it was an experience. Everybody around town, I wouldn’t say they hated me, but they knew that I had to go around and get rid of the ships, that was my job. I didn’t like it, but I had to do it if I wanted to keep my job.

MCP: Ludington was a huge port, but there were so many other ports operating in Michigan and Wisconsin, what a devastating blow to lose the carferry systems. As the superintendent of steamships, you were Ludington based, but did you deal with the other ports?

WK: The other harbors were under my control. I had people at each port to run operations, but I was Ludington based.

MCP: So you had assistant superintendents working out of the other ports?

WK: Yes. I had a guy in Milwaukee, and another in Manitowoc. We didn’t have anybody at Kewaunee, but if there was a ship coming into port, we’d have a guy from Manitowoc drive the 30 miles north to that harbor when the ship was in. It was interesting. I had some good times. I had some sad times.

MCP: When did you retire?

WK: June 1st of 1979. Mr. Warren Lindsey replaced me, they made him superintendent when I retired but he only lasted a few years and then he died. That could have been me. It was a stressful job.

MCP: On a little bit of a lighter note- what was your favorite ship?

WK: The City of Midland.

MCP: Everyone always says the Midland, what was it about that ship?

WK: It was streamlined. They had a big promenade deck on the outside. On the Spartan and the Badger, there were just cabins and a small dining room. They had dining areas, but they weren’t as nice as the Midland. Dining on the Midland it was way up forward and on the Spartan and the Badger it was on the aft. The Midland was just more of a ship to me.

MCP: More luxurious?

WK: Well, the Spartan and the Badger were pretty nice. They had worked to improve the ships in that way, but the Midland was built the way I would imagine a ship to be.

MCP: What was it like to have all three of your sons working for the ships?

WK: Well that was kind of neat. It wasn’t new in the company, everyone had their families working onboard. We didn’t worry about nepotism back in those days. The only one who didn’t work on the boats was my daughter, Sue, and I feel bad about that. Never had a chance to get her to work there.

MCP: Were there many women working for the carferries then?

WK: No, just cabin maids and stewardesses. Even in the ticket office there were a lot of fellows working, a lot of teachers, a couple of coaches.

MCP: Having held so many different positions with the company, what would you say was the dirtiest job you ever did?

WK: My dirtiest job was firing all of those guys, really. That was the toughest part, laying them off and knowing they wouldn’t be coming back. The honeymoon was over.

MCP: One final question, what was your favorite part about working for the carferries?

WK: The people I worked with and the people I would see. I had a lot of good crew members and for the most part, they all respected me and I respected them because they did their jobs well. I had a couple of situations where guys would get upset and make remarks about me. I would let it pass and then a few days later, they would come back and apologize. Even Maxie, I told him once, “we would get on a lot better if you would just back off once in a while. I know you’ve got a job to do, but I do too. I can’t always give into you, and you should know that.” and he said “I know that, Bill.” At my retirement party, he got up and said “Bill Klemm has been my friend and he always will be.” It was Maxie’s job to fight for the people that I had to let go. We each had a job to do and we both knew it.


The S.S. Badger is the last remaining coal-powered passenger steamship operating in the United States. The ship is tied up for the winter, but will be back in operation in May of 2014. For more information on the history of the vessel, visit www.ssbadger.com.

Further preservation of Ludington’s luscious nautical history is currently in the works with the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, expected to be housed in the former Ludington Coast Guard Station. To learn more about the project or support the initiative, visit www.ludingtonmaritimemuseum.org.

MCP would love to build an archive of carferry and railroad employee stories. If you would like to tell your story, please contact us at editor@masoncountypress.com. 


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