Free Ferry across Wisconsin River on Wis 113
The first Colsac was built in the 1920s to carry automobiles the size of a Model T Ford. ("Colsac" is a portmanteau of Columbia and Sauk, the two counties connected by the ferry.) By the 1960s, the ferry was woefully obsolete and the Colsac II went into service, capable of carrying 12 cars. In 2003, the Colsac II was replaced by the Colsac III, capable of carrying 15 cars.
The Colsac III is a nostalgic trip across the river, the last ferry on the state trunk highway system. At one time, there were over 500 ferries in operation in Wisconsin. Ferries carry cars and people into the state but this is the last ferry operating within the state of Wisconsin.
Several times over the years, bridges were proposed to replace the popular ferry, the attempts always failing for one reason or another. When I-94 was completed, bridging the Wisconsin River about 12 miles upstream, "experts" predicted the demise of the ferry crossing, convinced that people would make the 24 mile detour to avoid the bottleneck. But tourists surprised the experts and the Merrimac Ferry remains a popular attraction.
The ferry has survived several threats. During WWII, the ferry was a bottleneck for workers commuting to an ordnance plant in Baraboo. The federal government offered to pay half the cost of a bridge, but Governor Julius P. Heil vetoed the idea, saying that if the feds wanted a bridge here, they could pay for the whole thing.
By the early 1960's, service complaints began to stack up. The original Colsac, built in 1924 for cars the size of a Model T Ford, could only carry six modern cars. The state proposed building a bridge here. State engineers went so far as to design a bridge to span Lake Wisconsin to replace the anachronistic ferry. Local interests had seen how tourists enjoyed the ferry, so they started a local campaign to save the beloved Colsac.
Buttons proclaiming "I Believe in Ferries" was the basis of the campaign. The state gave in, and the Colsac II was commissioned to Marinette Marine Corporation. The 12-car ferry went into service in 1963. The Colsac II was decommissioned on November 4, 2002 and replaced by the Colsac III on May 6, 2003. The Colsac III, a catamaran, was built by Basic Marine of Escanaba, Michigan. It was shipped overland to Merrimac and assembled on site over the winter.
According to the Wisconsin DOT, the ferry continues to carry over a quarter of a million vehicles each year, including a high count of 318,354 in 2009. Link: http://wisconsindot.gov/Pages/travel/water/merrimac/history.aspx
The ferry operates April through November each year, although it will continue service into December until ice makes the crossing impossible. In the event the ferry is not operational, a series of warning lights at strategic points alert motorists to take a different route.
The Colsac III is a nostalgic trip across the river, the last free ferry on the state trunk highway system. At one time, there were over 500 ferries in operation in Wisconsin and although fee ferries carry cars and people into the state, this is the last ferry operating within the state of Wisconsin.