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Rare Bear: Ferries on the Upper Lakes

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Barry Kentner

FERRIES ON THE UPPER GREAT LAKES
When three officers of the North American Bent Chair Company formed a shipping company, they had only one intention: to use the company steamboat S.S.Michipicoten as a means of transferring product between the many isolated communities of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, as well as delivering their furniture. Little did they know then what their enterprise would include as the years went by.

The following information was taken from Wikipedia:

The Owen Sound Transportation Company was comprised of W.G. Hay, President, J.H. Hay, Vice President, and J. Garvey, Secretary-Treasurer. It was formed in 192l, the same year a rumor began circulating about a new steamship company being formed, which would resume travel on Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

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From the late l9th century to about 1903, a Collingwood, Ontario based cruise line sponsored the popular trips on Georgian Bay. What caused an interruption of service is not known, but in 1926 Captain Norman McKay arranged through the Owen Sound Board of Trade, a sum of money that made possible the purchase and refit of a Lake Ontario Steamer called the S.S. (for steamship) Modjesta. It has been laid up since l924 because of a serious collision.

The cruise ship arrived late in the season, but still in time for the Owen Sound Transportation Company to operate several tours including two trips to Sault Ste. Marie. Over the following winter, the S.S. Modjeska was equipped with cabins and staterooms to accommodate 150 passengers.

Renamed the S.S.Manitoulin, she began the first full season on June 6th., 1927 with Norman McKay as Captain. Wikipedia reports the weekly schedule of the S.S. Manitoulin began with an 11:15 p.m. Monday departure from Owen Sound, arriving Tuesday morning at Killarney, then through the North Channel, calling at Manitowaning, Little Current, Gore Bay, Meldrum Bay, Cockburn Island, Hilton Beach, Richards Landing, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, arriving at Mackinac Island, on Wednesday evening. Returning over the same route with departure from Mackinac Island at 11 a.m. Thursday, the Manitoulin arrived at Owen Sound on Saturday morning at 4:30. Weekend trips on the Manitoulin departed 11:15 p.m. Saturday, with calls at Killarney, Manitowaning and Little Current, followed by arrival back in Owen Sound at 4:30 Monday morning.

Wikipedia also states that the S.S. Michipicoten continued on an unscheduled freight-only service between Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie, calling at Manitoulin Island and North Shore ports. The Michipicoten was destroyed by fire at the Cooks Dock, near Silverwater on Manitoulin Island, on October 11, 1927

To replace the Michipicoten, the OSTC purchased the S.S. Macassa. Macassa had completed her season on September 30, 1927, operating as a day excursion steamer between Toronto and Hamilton. The Macassa was originally part of the Toronto and Hamilton Steamboat Company, along with her sister ship, the S.S. Modjeska. Over the following winter in Toronto, she was converted for the accommodation of overnight passengers. Renamed S.S. Hyperlink, and then the Manasoo, she departed from Toronto for Owen Sound on April 16, 1928.

On September 15, 1928, the Manasoo foundered near Griffith Island in Georgian Bay. While fighting a heavy storm, she capsized when her cargo of 116 cattle apparently shifted to one side, overbalancing her. She sank quickly.

All five of the survivors drifted for 60 hours in a life raft before being picked up by the CPR’s SS_Manitoba.

The majority of the information above was provided by Wikipedia. I’d now like to tell you first-hand about how the first car ferry was put into service, the many changes that occurred surrounding the transport of automobiles, and the day in 1946 when I saw the launch of a new ferry for Manitoulin Island.

The first car ferry on the Upper Lakes was the M.S. Kagawong…a wooden vessel that carried cars across the waters of Georgian Bay from Cutler to Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island.

In l927, the Steamer S.S. Winona began adding cars to its cargo as it steamed along the North Channel to Gore Bay, on Manitoulin Island. By the end of that season, the Alice, operated by John Tackaberry, was also carrying cars, to Providence Bay. And by 1928, the steamers Manasoo and Manitoulin were carrying cars as well. In the 1937 season, The Manitou was joined by the MS (for motor ship) Normac.

A competitor to the Owen Sound Transportation Company, the Dominion Transportation Company, also operated a pair of passenger and package freight vessels out of Owen Sound, over much the same route as the OSTC.

In l930, a 28-year-old Tug Boat was purchased for the Owen Sound Transportation Company. This boat, commissioned initially as a fire tug, was named the James R. Elliot. She was built at the Jenks Shipbuilding Company in Port Huron and served the Detroit Fire Department. Launched in 1902, she was a stalwart until she was sold 28 years later. After refitting, she was used on the Manitoulin Run under the name MS Normac. Her refit included a new deck which gave her a car carrying capacity and a diesel that gave her the power to do it. She continued that route for another 15 years, when she was retired; giving way to the Norgoma which was a larger vessel. The Norgoma, with an increased car-carrying capacity, along with the Norisle, continued to serve the Manitoulin run until the advent of the Chi-Cheemaun.

In 1974, Ontario Northland Transportation Company (ONTS) acquired OSTC and launched the state-of-the-art MS Chi-Cheemaun (“Big Canoe”) capable of transporting 600 passengers and close to 150 vehicles with a crossing time of fewer than two hours.

Today, after separating from (ONTC) in 2002, Owen Sound Transportation is an Operational Enterprise Agency of the Province of Ontario, headquartered in Owen Sound and owner of the MS Chi-Cheemaun and MV Niska 1. The company is also contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to provide year-round transportation service to Pelee Island on Lake Erie.

As for the Normac, it was sold to a Toronto firm and became a restaurant on the waterfront of Toronto. On June 2, 1981, the Toronto Island Ferry “Trillium” had a power failure, and struck the Normac broadside…putting a hole beneath the waterline. Two weeks later, the hull patch failed, and the Normac sank at her dock. The superstructure was removed in early 1982 but the hull remains on the bottom

On July 15, 1946, the 215-foot SS Norisle, hull 136 was launched at the Collingwood Shipyards. I was among the watchers. I did not know then that it was the Norisle…I just knew it was a big ship. Of course, I was only eleven years old. Later, I learned a lot more about the Norisle, and its sister ship the Norgoma, when I worked at Radio Station CFOS in Owen Sound.

But I remember that day in 1946 quite vividly. It was the biggest launch I had seen. Vacationing in Collingwood Ontario and on the beaches of Georgian Bay over the years, I saw a lot of life. Even though I was a youngster during the war years, I recall so much. And while I had seen launchings in both Midland and Collingwood this one was the biggest by far.

There were people everywhere, and some got absolutely soaked when the hull hit the water. I watched three launchings in Collingwood over the years, and one in Midland. In Midland, they built P=T Boats. but you were kept so far back from the water that it was hard to see much.

I boarded the Norisle early in the Spring of her last season, for the trip from South Bay Mouth to Tobermory. I was with part of my family on a trip to Western Canada and on the way back we decided to do the ferry. I”m glad I did.

Two years later I rode its successor, the Big Canoe..the Chi-Chemaun. The Norisle, retired in l974, is at Manitouwaning, and it’s sister ship the Norgoma, also retired in l974, is now in mothballs, awaiting the judgment of a lawsuit. One side wants to sink it as a dive site; the other side wants to restore it.

I saw one other launch at Collingwood as a kid. It was a refit of a Laker; the Whaleback is much like a whale in that the cargo holds are rounded on the top, supposedly to keep the cargo dry in the case of rain. I don’t believe there are any whalebacks in service anymore.

There is one other chapter to discuss…the Ferries of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Bob-Lo Ferries… stay tuned!

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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