Saturday, May 19th, 2007
Minster man to donate model of ferry to Lake Erie museum
By Margie Wuebker
Minster resident Tommy Tompkins checks out a hatch on the replica of the Erie Is. . .
MINSTER - The historic Erie Isle ferry is returning to Put-in-Bay this weekend thanks to the efforts of local woodworking enthusiast Tommy Tompkins.
Tompkins created the 3-foot replica over the course of several years, working from faded drawings provided by the Parker family that formerly owned the craft. Its proud legacy resurfaced one handcrafted part after another.
"I rode the Erie Isle for the first time 53 years ago," he recalls with a smile. "And what a ride it was."
Tompkins and his bride, the former Norma Larger of Fort Loramie, included a daytime outing to Port Clinton in their honeymoon plans. However, a storm disrupted the normally quiet cruise by whipping up 10- to 15-foot waves.
People seated by windows on the enclosed middle deck had to bend over and look up in order to see the wave crests. Seasickness struck quickly and unmercifully. Those unaffected by nausea prayed in earnest, fearing the ferry would capsize and they would drown in the rough water, he recalls
One of the passengers - a sailor familiar with the Erie Isle - assured the newlyweds the ferry's double-chimed hull afforded far more stability than flat-bottomed models. Vehicles on board, including a truck loaded with bricks, offered comforting weight.
Tompkins ventured on deck to watch the storm's fury and then set off to explore various nooks and crannies. He admired the workmanship, twin diesel engines and other appointments aboard the 67-foot craft that sailed at a speed of 6 knots.
"This was the biggest vessel I had ever been on," he says. "She wasn't fancy, just a basic workhorse of a boat."
The couple returned to Put-in-Bay periodically and took other trips aboard the distinctive white and black ferry. The coming of jet boats in the 1960s signaled the demise of the Erie Isle by cutting the trip between Put-in-Bay and Port Clinton from hours to minutes. It went first to Cleveland and later southward to Florida before winding up on a scrap heap.
During a visit to the Lake Erie Islands Historical Museum in later years, the retired mechanical engineer studied models of ferries that had operated in the area. To his dismay, there was no replica of the Erie Isle among the displays .
"I decided to build one and asked the curator to send pictures," Tompkins says. "Nothing ever showed up in the mail. I went up there again and talked to a new curator. Lo and behold, a package containing copies of the original drawings showed up in the mail three years ago."
The curator apparently spoke to the daughters of the original Parker owners about the proposed project and they eagerly supplied the material. The drawings were created by maritime architect John G. Alden of Boston.
"It took three months to decipher the dimensions," Tompkins says. "I spent night after night with magnifying glass in hand. Some of the numbers were unreadable; the only hard and fast ones were the hull shape."
Drawing on his engineering background, years of building model airplanes from scratch and some old black and white photographs, he set to work using a scale of 1/2 inch to 1 foot.
He meticulously cut individual pieces from plywood or other types of lumber and sanded for hours to achieve the desired thickness. Gluing was a tedious process that had to be completed before moving on to other tasks like mounting twin propellers, multiple navigation lights, a set of horns and even a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes. Other appointments included miniature chests for storing life vests, clear plastic for windows, multiple stairways, rows of seats and rope fencing around the deck.
Tompkins added the name Erie Isle in black paint along with a P insignia denoting Parker ownership with deft strokes of a brush.
"People ask me how much time I invested in this," he says pointing to the ferry parked temporarily on a coffee table. "I tell them 'Don't even ask because I don't know.' I worked in spurts and sometimes months went by without any progress."
On Sunday, Tompkins and his wife will take the replica to Put-in-Bay, where a museum display case awaits. Although a part of his life for several years, he has no qualms about leaving it behind.
"The old Erie Isle was forgotten over the years and I decided it was time for her to be remembered," he says. "She is part of a legacy for people on the island."