The S.S. City of Milwaukee sailed Lake Michigan for years transporting passengers and rail traffic. Now the historic steamship is a bed & breakfast in Manistee. Rent a room, walk the halls of history and enjoy a continental breakfast on Manistee Lake.

All Aboard 

The S.S. City of Milwaukee is a museum (not a sailing vessel). Run your hand along the walls. Feel that oak paneling? It’s the same as when the 360-foot boat was built in 1931. Much of the decor is the same too, including luggage, magazines, wicker chairs and radios. The telephone room even has a batteryless calculator.

The bridge, or pilot house, is the first place you want to see. Right in the center, there’s a giant, wooden ship wheel. It’s surrounded by all sorts of apparatuses and neat contraptions (that the crew explains are actually quite simple to use). Put your hand on the wheel, plant your feet and give it a crank. I  pretended I was making a last-minute, desperate attempt to dodge an iceberg. (This ship sailed Lake Michigan year round. Rain or shine. Ice walls or wave towers.)

S.S. City of Milwaukee Historic Tour

The 50-minute guided tour shows guests all six decks with stops at the engine room, car deck, cabins and staterooms, the captain’s quarters and the pilot house (you can go on a tour even if you don’t book a room—some climbing required on ladders and stairs).

The tour starts off in the car deck, which is enormous. Standing in the empty hull gives you a better idea of the boat’s size. In this section of the boat, railers (ferry hands) would take orders from the Captain about when to “jack up” railcars based on weather conditions. Stand next to one of these 150-ton haulers (that’s without anything in it) and you really get a sense of what it would feel like to be working among 20 or 30 of them while speeding across Lake Michigan. Our guide shared a story about a train car breaking loose during a storm and crashing down on an automobile in storage. It completely flattened the automobile but thankfully didn’t kill any crew. Still, with 20–40 carts down here, it must have felt awfully cramped.

Below the car deck is the flicker room—engine crew territory. Through a small porthole is the boiler room. Here you’ll see what two 1,400-horsepower engines look like. Grease still coats the pipes and gears, and the air holds a heavy oil smell.

I won’t be able to explain it as well as the crew, but it is fascinating to hear about how ships of this size are controlled by only a few people. During the tour, the crew rings bells and cranks pullies to show the communication stream between the captain and lower decks.

As mentioned, and thanks to the incredible staff, everything onboard the S.S. City of Milwaukee has been meticulously preserved, including the kitchen, or galley. On display are the same cups, teakettles, pots and pans used by the crew in the 1930s. 

Nighttime was my favorite part of the trip—lights glow and stories flow. The crew has plenty of boating tales to tell. With the barrel back leather chairs and oak tables being straight out of that era, you truly feel like you’re back in time.

Things to Know

Rooms range from $45–$85 per night. Call 231-723-3587 to make a reservation (book in advance). Overnight stays include a continental breakfast, and tours are available upon request during these hours (call to make special arrangements for group tours and after-hour tours).

The S.S. City of Milwaukee also hosts weddings, reunions, and school parties. But, one of the coolest and most popular events is in the fall. Every weekend in October, the ship closes down its bed and breakfast and opens up the GHOST SHIP. Go if you dare.

The S.S. City of Milwaukee is located at 99 Arthur St. in Manistee. For more information, visit their website or call 231-723-3587.

Click the cover to read the Manistee Vacation Guide. 

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Photo(s) by Dan Oswalt