William L. Mercereau

William L. Mercereau (born June 9, 1866 – June 22, 1957) was an American design engineer manager of train ferries for the Pere Marquette Railway. He supervised their railroad-over-water system of train ferries as the largest carferry system in the world at the time.

William L. Mercereau
Born(1866-06-09)June 9, 1866
DiedJune 22, 1957(1957-06-22) (aged 91)
Known forConstructing steel carferries

Early life and education

Mercereau was born at Union, New York, on June 9, 1866.[1] As a boy of fourteen he worked part time in a drug store in his hometown.[2] When he was 18 in 1884 he went to Montana and Idaho, where he worked in drug stores as a general laborer. He later moved back east to Saginaw, Michigan. There as a young man of 105 pounds (48 kg) he started as a coal stoker on locomotives for the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad. After a little more than a year at this job he had increased his weight by 20 pounds (9.1 kg).[3]

Mercereau then took on a job associated with bulk shipping of material in steamships which the railroad company operated out of Ludington, Michigan.[2] He was a ship's clerk working out of the company's office at Bay City, Michigan. His first steamship he worked on was the break-bulk steamship Pere Marquette No. 2, that carried large quantities of salt in bulk. He later worked on the steamships Pere Marquette No. 3 and No. 5 for a few years.[2] These vessels were handled by freight crews that took the material off railroad boxcars and transferred it into the bulk carrier vessel tanks to be shipped across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin. There another freight crew would unload the steamship vessel tanks and transfer back onto railroad cars. This was a costly, labor-intensive, time consuming process for each break-bulk transfer.[3]

Mercereau quit working for the railroad company after a couple of years and went to college in St. Louis, Missouri, to get a business degree. After graduation he returned to Saginaw in 1897 and became an assistant manager in the railroad company's main office. In August, 1898, he was promoted as assistant to the superintendent of marine operations at Ludington.[4] After a year on the job there in 1899 he took over that position of the previous superintendent.[2][3]


Technology was introducing in the 1890s the idea of just loading the complete railroad freight car onto the ship instead of transferring its contents to ship holding tanks. The package steamships with bulk holding tanks had carried freight this way since 1882, but this old technology was on its way out. The railroad car ferry came about and the first ones were wooden craft. In 1897 the first all steel carferry was introduced – the SS Pere Marquette (later given the number 15). Mercereau organized and managed this new state-of-the-art technology for the railroad company. He then started ordering more steel carferries to add to the company's existing fleet of wooden carferry ships.[5] He became the Superintendent of Steamships for the Pere Marquette Railway in 1899 and ultimately developed the world's largest carferry fleet from this beginning.[3][6]

The next steel carferry for the railroad company was the SS Pere Marquette No. 17. It was basically the same as PM No. 15 except with more extensive cabin accommodations. Mercereau completely planned and oversaw the construction of this steel vessel that was built in a shipyard in Cleveland in 1901. His wife Louise christened the ship that year when it was launched.[2]

The Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad company meanwhile in 1901 acquired another railroad company that already operated a wooden carferry.[7] This carferry originally was called the SS Muskegon and renamed as the SS Pere Marquette No. 16 as the second carferry in its fleet.[1] Mercereau ordered and supervised the construction of another steel carferry that was given the No. 18. Business was growing rapidly, so he then ordered two more steel carferries. These became SS Pere Marquette No. 19 and SS Pere Marquette No. 20 that were also built in Cleveland. Mercereau eventually built SS Pere Marquette No. 21 and No. 22 and other all steel carferries.[5][8] Mercereau engineered and supervised the construction of the Pere Marquette fleet of train carferries for the railroad company.[1] He was known as the "Father of the Fleet" since he gave 31 years of service to the Pere Marquette Railway.[9] Mercereau became the builder and operator of the world's largest carferry fleet during his working career.[2][3][10][11][12] He was known as the 'father of the railroad on the water' because he brought to fruition the idea of loading the complete railroad car onto cross-lake ferries for transporting as a complete loaded freight car unit.[13]

Later life and death

Mercereau retired on September 1, 1931, from the railroad company after a 50 year working career.[14] He died at the age of 91 on June 22, 1957, in Dunedin, Florida.[2][15]


  1. Read 1939, p. 6.
  2. "Under Mercereau, fleet grows from one vessel to nine". Daily News, Section B "Steam & Steel" pg. 4. Ludington, Michigan. March 18, 1997.
  3. "Tribute to Father of the Fleet (part 2)". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. September 14, 1940. p. 6 via Newspapers.com . Such is a brief and factual summary of his life as builder and operator of the world's largest carferry fleet.
  4. "Idea Of Carferries Got Its Start Here in 1897". Ludington Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. October 16, 1943 via newspapers.com .
  5. Hilton 2003, p. 103.
  6. "Today Marks 60th Anniversary of Sailing Pere Marquette 15". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. February 19, 1957 via Newspapers.com . Feb. 19, 1957 marks the 60th anniversary of the first sailing of the steel carferry Pere Marquette, the beginning of the transportation business which revolutionized shipping on the Great Lakes and made Ludington the home port of the largest carferry fleet in the world.
  7. "Industry on Parade". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. April 22, 1953 via newspapers.com .
  8. "William L. Mercereau Dies In Florida Saturday". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. June 24, 1957 via newspapers.com .
  9. "Idea of Carferries Got Its Start Here in 1897". October 16, 1943 via newspapers.com.
  10. "World's Largest Carferry Fleet In Port". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. November 23, 1930 via newspapers.com .
  11. "Ludington P.M. Railroad Yard Workers Pledge to Keep Freight Moving". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. December 10, 1942 via newspapers.com . Terminal Connects East with Northwest in Vital Rail Link/Yard Services World's Largest Carferry Fleet
  12. "Tribute to 'The Father of the Fleet' (part 1)". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. September 14, 1940 via newspapers.com . -even then the largest carferry fleet in the world-
  13. "Detailed History of the 'Railroad on the Water' (part 2)". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. March 15, 1934 via newspapers.com .
  14. "'Commodore' Mercereau, 50 Years In P.M. Service, Will Retire September 1st". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. August 26, 1931 via newspapers.com .
  15. "William L. Mercereau, 91, Dies In Florida Saturday". Daily News. Ludington, Michigan. June 24, 1957 via newspapers.com .


Further reading

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