By Art Chavez and Ken Ottmann
From the Anchor News, January/February 1991
Copyright © 1991 Art Chavez and Ken Ottmann
Used with permission.

In September, 1989, Captain Ernest "Gus" Barth retired after a 43-year career aboard the Lake Michigan carferries.

Barth will be best remembered for his lengthy tenure as master of the C&O carferry CITY OF MIDLAND 41. He held command of the famed ship from 1967 until it was laid up in 1988. No other captain in the history of the PM/ C&O fleet ever had command of a single ship as long as Captain Barth.

Barth was raised in Northwestern Michigan's Leelanau County. His sailing career started in 1942 when he entered the U.S. Navy. After receiving initial training at Chicago's Navy Pier, he served two weeks of additional training aboard the paddle wheeled aircraft carrier WOLVERINE. He later saw action with the Pacific Fleet aboard the carrier U.S.S. HORNET. He was a member of the HORNET's original crew when she was commissioned in 1943.

While Barth was still in the Navy, his father passed away. Upon his discharge from service, Barth and his brother found it necessary to find work to support their mother and younger brothers. Job opportunities were readily available aboard the Ann Arbor carferries so in January, 1946, Barth signed on as a deckhand.

Barth tells of an interesting experience he had while working on one of the Ann Arbor carferries: in 1946, I was working for the Ann Arbor Railroad aboard the ANN ARBOR NO.6 as a watchman. There was a strong southeaster blowing. We had left Manitowoc for Frankfort. We headed just about for Ludington (straight across) to keep her bow into the sea. I was eating supper and she was rolling so damn hard I had to hold onto my place so it wouldn't slide off the table.

"As I was eating supper, I was looking out the window. All of a sudden, I could see on the horizon a boat I'd never seen before--the 41. I got done eating and went out on deck and stood and watched. I couldn't see where that 41 was moving [from the heavy sea at all! The 41 ran to Milwaukee steady at the time; she never made a run anywhere but Milwaukee to Ludington. She was leaving the shipyard at Manitowoc, so it was the first time I had seen her.

"When I watched her go by--she was quite a bit faster than the ANN ARBOR NO. 6--I could not see where that damned ship was moving. I thought to myself, 'Hey, if I'm going to work on the carferries, that's the one I'm going to work on!' It wasn't too long after that I quit and began working for the C&O boats.'1

Barth stayed with the Ann Arbor fleet briefly before moving on that October to a factory job in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In January, 1947, he decided to go home to visit his mother. He explains how the trip home led him back to sailing the carferries.

"I was down in Grand Rapids after I quit the ANN ARBOR and I was going to go home to see my mother. The only way I could get home... was to ride the train and a bus that ran from Ludington up there. So, I came in on the train and took my stuff down to the bus depot. I had about four or five hours between the train and bus, so I walked down to the dock--I'd never been in Ludington before--and looked around and walked into the dock office.

Marine Personnel Manager, Bill Klemm was there. He said, "Are you looking for anything?"

I said, "No, nothing in particular."

He said, "Are you a sailor?"

I said, "Yeah, I've got a seaman's card."

"Well," he said, "we really don't need anybody right now. Have you got any rating?"

I said, "Yeah, A.B. [able bodied seaman endorsement]."

Klemm said, "Oh, we can use you then if you've got an A.B. ticket!"

I said, "Well, I'm not really looking for work, let me think about it for awhile." So I thought, my mother didn't know I was corning, I think I'll work a couple of weeks, then go home. I went back to the bus depot and got my stuff and caught the PERE MARQUETTE 18 (II). That was the start of Barth's C&O carferry career. Barth laughs, "Forty-three years later, it's still 'two weeks."'

Once with the C&O fleet, Barth quickly rose through the ranks. In 1950, he received his pilot's license and was appointed 3rd mate of the PERE MARQUETTE 18 (II). During this period, Barth lived in Manitowoc, where he and his wife raised a family. In July 1958, he was promoted to the position of relief captain. His first command was the CITY OF SAGINAW 31. Eventually, he would be captain on all of the vessels that comprised the C&O fleet.

Barth rapidly gained a reputation of being an excellent boat handler and a skilled navigator. During the winter of 1962-63, he showed exceptional ability in breaking ice while in command of the PERE MARQUETTE 21. The experience he gained proved invaluable during February 1977, when the Lake Michigan carferries were confronted with some of the most arduous ice conditions ever seen. Captain Barth and the other C&O skippers kept their fleet running while the rival Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor fleets were forced to suspend service because of the ice conditions.

At approximately 7:30PM on September 29,1989, at Ludington, Michigan, Captain Barth signalled "FINISHED WITH ENGINES" for the final time on the Chadburns aboard the carferry BADGER. This last official act concluded his 42-year career on the Ludington carferries. Several friends and crewmen congratulated him and wished him well. In recognition of his distinguished career, Barth received a letter of praise from Michigan Congressman Guy Vander Jagt.

Reflecting on his career, Captain Barth says what he enjoyed most was the comraderie with his crew and meeting the daily challenges that faced him while navigating in varying sea conditions. Simply put, he said, "Every day was different, and I have no regrets."

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