Shepler’s Celebrates 70 Years of Ferry Service to Mackinac Island

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Mackinac Island
Photography courtesy Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau

As America recovered from World War II, Michigan’s tourism industry was taking shape.

William H. Shepler dreamed of providing a fast, efficient and modern way to get the tens of thousands of seasonal visitors back and forth to the famed Mackinac Island.

Public Act 106 of 1945 — the original enabling legislation for a statewide travel commission — served as the driving force behind Travel Michigan and future tourism campaigns, including the award-winning Pure Michigan, which has been a boon for Shepler’s business in recent years.

The Shepler family started small, operating a snack bar for those waiting to catch the existing ferry. Next Captain Bill started a charter service and soon had the opportunity to buy out a competitor. Bill and his son, Bill Jr., began running daily service to the island aboard two speedboats: Miss Penny, named after Captain Bill’s daughter, and The Fiji, after Bill Jr.’s fraternity.

By 1950, the company commissioned the building of a 30-foot cabin cruiser with twin gas engines and seating for a mere 24 passengers. The vessel was christened Miss Margy after the captain’s wife, Margaret.

Just this summer, a bigger, faster and shiny new Miss Margy was unveiled in celebration of Shepler’s 70th anniversary. Built by Moran Iron Works Inc. in Onaway, this 85-foot ferry can reach speeds of 42 miles per hour and carry up to 281 passengers.

Shepler's Ferry
Photography courtesy Shepler’s Ferry

With this addition, the third-generation company now boasts a fleet of six boats ferrying people between Mackinaw City, St. Ignace and Mackinac Island. Each year, nearly a million people visit this freshwater island for a travel experience like no other — and the Sheplers want that experience to begin the minute people step foot on one of their ferries.

“The state’s Pure Michigan campaign is the reason we had to build a new boat,” says Chris Shepler, president of the company and grandson of founder Bill Shepler. “Business has been very good this summer. For the past five years, we have seen a steady increase in people coming to Michigan, and, of course, Mackinac Island.”

If you couldn’t fit in a trip this summer, there is still time to visit Mackinac Island and enjoy the fall colors. Shepler’s season ends Oct. 31. For more about Shepler’s iconic history, visit sheplersferry.com.

A 158-page book titled “Undefeated” by Jean R. Beach and Dr. Don Steele, which highlights the ups and downs of this family-owned, family-operated business, is available online.

“Fierce competition from other ferry lines, treacherous weather conditions, costly maintenance on passenger and freight vessels, changing governmental regulations, and depressed economic conditions in the State of Michigan are but a few of the challenges the Sheplers have faced over the years,” according to the book.

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