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Perspectives

Rare Bear: Ferries on the Upper Lakes, Part 2

Boblo Island Dock | by PunkToad

By Barry Kentner

To read Rare Bear’s. Ferries of Lake Ontario, part 1, click here.

There are no ferries West of Kingston Ontario that cross Lake Ontario. So moving West from Kingston, which is home to the Ferry to Wolfe Island, and the Glenora to Adolphus ferry, we find Amherst Island. Howe Island and the Frontenac Islands — then it is on to Picton Ontario and then North to Lake Nippising, where the M.V. Chief Commanda II takes passengers on a variety of cruises. There are ferries in Barrie and Orillia Ontario as well. The real ferries are in Toronto.

The Toronto Islands are a jewel in Ontario’s Crown. At one time though, they were a peninsula, but a storm fixed that. On April 13th, l838 a vicious storm hit the waterfront of Toronto, silting in the Rouge River, Highland Creek, the Don River, and the Toronto Peninsula. Suddenly the peninsula was separated by a 500-yard gap and it became an island. The storm also did severe property damage, including the destruction of two hotels: The Quinn’s hotel, and the Parkinson house.

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While ferry service was inaugurated in l833 with a four-horse team-boat called Sir John of the Peninsular, the History of Ferries out of Toronto goes back to 1827. In that year, The Canada, a British Packet steamer made regular trips between York (later renamed Toronto) and Niagara Town. Two other ferries were also added over the years: The Toronto and the New Toronto.

In 1839, ferry service between Toronto and Queenston began and by 1896 there were three ferries on that route. In 1878 the Niagara Navigation Company began creating a steamship line to serve Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Lewiston. The Chicora launched in 1880 was a side wheeler. The Cibola, launched in 1880 was a paddle steamer and later the Chippewa joined the fleet.

There was ferry service of one kind or another ever since 1827. From Toronto’s waterfront to Niagara, Niagara on the Lake, Rochester, and Lewistown.

I rode the S.S. Cayuga to Crystal Beach on three occasions between 1950 and 1954. Crystal Beach was a playground on the outskirts of St. Catharines Ontario. I also rode the Island Ferries countless times. There was the Bluebell, built in l906, and the Trillium, in 1910. The William Inglis was built in 1935, the Sam McBride in 1939, and the Thomas Rennie in 1951.

According to Wikipedia, The Trillium was retired in l957 but totally overhauled and refitted for service in 1976. Then in June of 1981, the Trillium sustained a power failure and hit a restaurant that was once a Detroit Fire Department Boat. The James S. Elliot, re-christened the M.V. Normac had seen service on Georgian Bay. On June 2nd, she was broadsided by the Trillium. Her hull patch didn’t hold, and two weeks later she sunk to the bottom of the Toronto Harbour.

There is a whole list of ferries and information on Facebook and Wikipedia, but in my opinion, I have picked the most important. There is one more Ferry — The Marylin Bell. This ferry was named for a long distance swimmer, who waded into Lake Ontario at Youngstown, New York, on the night of September 8th, l954. At 11.07 PM she began her swim. She emerged 32 miles later, at the breakwater of Toronto Harbour. Her time in the water was 20 hours and 59-minutes. Two other long-distance swimmers had given up by 6 PM that night. She was 16 years old, and the first swimmer to conquer Lake Ontario. I was in that crowd. As a matter of fact, the Cabin Cruiser that accompanied her on the trip across Lake Ontario is now in a backwater at Midland, Ontario. She is still serviceable. I know this because when I worked in Midland in l980 and 81, I did a story on it.

Now it is on to Lake Erie and again, a historic beginning with the Sailing Ship, The Gryphon, which was actually built above Niagara Falls in Lake Erie, for sailing on the Upper Lakes. The reason: Niagara Falls is 326 feet above the Niagara River It is no secret that LaSalle’s ship also had to be hand-hauled with ropes through the narrows of the St.Clair River into Lake Huron. (Information courtesy of history of Canada by Brown)

At some time, the river was widened and deepened at that spot in order to accommodate the current flow of traffic which includes every type of vessel…from canoes and rowboats to the very latest in shipping technology,

The most prominent vessels on Lake Erie are the Two Ferries; Pelee Islander two, scheduled to go into service by April, and the Jiimaan, which has served since l992. I rode the Pelee Islander three times while I was in St. Thomas. I have no doubt that some of the stories I have heard about its activities are true. But that’s for another time.

However, the Jiimaan had an adventure that was well advertised. It grounded in the Harbour at Kingsville on October 11th, 2012 and 33 passengers spent the night on board the ship. It was freed the following day from a sandbar. John Benfield wrote a song about it. It is performed by Monique Benfield on YouTube. If you wish to hear it, type” Jimaan Ferry song” into the search options.

There was another ferry that turned up in St.Thomas Ontario in the summer of 1965 and operated for about two weeks. It was from Cleveland, Ohio and like many other attempts over the years, it failed.

Now we come to Bob-Lo Island…with ferries operating from Amherstburg as well as Detroit. From 1898 until September 30, 1993, the Stean Ferries Ste. Claire and Columbia serviced Bob-Lo Island.

I’ve no doubt that many readers of this column have ridden the Bob-Lo Ferries. They were truly wonderful, not only in looks but in memory. Anyone who rode them has a memory of some description. I, myself rode both the Columbia and the Ste. Claire, plus the ferry from Amherstburg a number of times. The Columbia was sold to New York Interests when the Park closed in 1993, but the Ste. Claire languished at a dock in the East End of Detroit from l993. Then on July 6th, 2018, while under a refit, a disastrous fire nearly destroyed her completely. The ship, purchased by two doctors, were under a refit. They were partially complete when a welder’s torch triggered the fire, undoing all the work that had gone into the job, and for a while, it looked like it was to the point of no return. However, a go-fund-me page on facebook is making a difference.

A sidebar here: The Captain of the fire tug that helped extinguish the blaze…Ron Horner was at one time the Captain of the Ste. Claire. He started as a deckhand and worked his way up to Captain.

Ron Kattoo and Saqib Nakadar, the co-owners of the boat announced on Feb 16th of this year, that after two years of waiting they now had the dredging complete that would bring the boat 29 feet closer to shore and speed up the work. The restoration will begin again. In October of last year, they announced that the white primer paint applied would brighten the hull, keep the steel preserved, and generally make it look better while the restoration continues. But they promised a new paint job as well.

It looks like the Ste. Claire will once again ride the waves of the Detroit River. However, the fate of the Sombra Ferry is still up in the air, so to speak. Neither the Federal nor Ontario Governments have come forward with any money to repair the damage done by the ice of last winter. The crushing ice wiped out the causeway and damaged the ferry badly.

Now according to Wikipedia, there are l8 ferry routes in Michigan; among them the routes to Mackinac Island which is car free. There also is a ferry to the only State Park, Isle Royal which is accessible only by boat. The main ferries, including the biggest in Lake Michigan, the S.S. Badger, carry goods and trucks across the Lake to Wisconsin. The Badger, by the way, is one of the last coal-fired steamers on the Great Lakes. She is also a section of U.S. Route l0

*Information courtesy of Wikipedia and History of Canada, by Brown.

Rev. C.J. Barry Kentner

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Barry was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1935 and schooled to Grade 10, but continued educational pursuits until age 65 when he graduated from Open Word Bible College. He started working for Spitzer and Mills advertising in 1952, then moved to the Broadcast arena where for 62 years he was News Director and Talk Show Host at several Canadian Radio Stations. He was one of 5 consultants who managed to lobby for Christian Radio in Canada, and in the last five years before retirement, he was News Director of Canadian Altar.Net News, a network of 25 Christian Radio Stations across Canada from Charlottetown PEI to Campbell River BC.
Barry Kentner is a semi-retired pastor.

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