The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2001

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First Ferry to Fast Ferry


Gerard Muhl

A ferryboat to Canada? Who will pay for it? What about ice and storms in the winter? But, more importantly, who will want to go from Canada to Rochester? These questions and more were being asked in 1905 when the Ontario Car Ferry Company was established by a joint agreement between the Grand Trunk Railway of Montreal and the Buffalo Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway. The car in "Car Ferry" referred to railroad cars exclusively, and particularly to coal hauling cars.

The Grand Trunk Railway needed a reliable supply of coal to power its steam engines. The Buffalo Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway had a cheap source of coal in central Pennsylvania but often experienced congestion at the Niagara frontier in delivering its product to Canada. A faster cheaper route for Pennsylvania coal was sought. A ferry route through Rochester would shorten the haul to Montreal by four to seven days.

After financing was arranged a new ship was ordered to be built at the Canadian Shipbuilding Company of Toronto. She was named the Ontario No. 1 and was ready for her first voyage from Rochester on November 19, 1907. The ship was 317 feet long, 54 feet wide, with a draft of 16 feet. She had two smoke stacks and the entire ship was painted gleaming white.

The Ontario No. 1 had three decks with the main deck sporting four tracks for twenty-eight coal cars. Each car could carry seventy tons of coal. Thus, almost 2000 tons of coal could be carried on every crossing of Lake Ontario.

The Ontario No. 1 would leave Rochester from the coal docks near Boxard Street on the Genesee River. It would chug north covering the 58 miles to Cobourg, Ontario, in just under 5 hours. Coal cars would be rolled off in Canada and empty coal cars pushed onto the ferry. After a 75-minute layover in Cobourg the steam whistle would blow and Ontario No. 1 would be on its way for the return trip to Rochester. Occasionally cars loaded with lumber, pulp wood, and feldspar would be sent south, but generally the ferryboat coal run was a one-way haul. Since it was assumed the boat would be empty the return trip was scheduled for only 4 hours, or an hour less than the trip north.

After just over a year of accident-free sailings the Ontario No. 1 was ready to begin passenger service. Commencing in 1909, between Memorial Day and the end of September, passengers would board a special train in downtown Rochester and ride to the Genesee docks to begin their ten-hour cruise. This was the time before air conditioning, and the cool lake breezes would be most welcomed.

The Ontario No. 1 was licensed for 1,000 passengers and at times had nearly that number on board. It boasted state-rooms and cabins, a large dining salon, and a large music room with its own band for every cruise. Passengers were well cared for by twenty-five "railroad sailors." The cost for a trip on the ferryboat was $1.25 which included the train ride from downtown Rochester. Sit-down lunches were served on white linen and china plates for 75 for adults and 40 for children. Some passengers preferred to pack a picnic lunch and eat on the boat deck and enjoy the open sky. Wherever a person ate, however, the sound of the salon orchestra could be heard. Dancing was a nightly recreation on the return voyage.

While in Cobourg for the layover, passengers could stroll through the well-tended town square, buy souvenirs, or take home hand-painted china and porcelain from one of the china halls on the main street. Merchants were happy to see the ferryboat arrive, and gauged business in the pre-inflation dollar of the time at over $75,000 for the short summer season.

When launched in 1907 the Ontario No. 1 had only two life boats. When passenger trips were added in 1909 two more life boats were installed. It wasn't until after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 that eight more new life boats were added so that every passenger could be accommodated. Fortunately the life boats never had to be used in an emergency.

Coal and passenger business was booming in the Port of Rochester. The Ontario No. 1 was turning a profit and paying an annual dividend to investors. Thus, a second ferryboat was launched in April 1915. Built to almost the exact dimensions of its sister ship, the Ontario No. 2 immediately began transporting rail cars and passengers. In fact, passenger service was extended to include three trips per week in June and in September. In pre-radar days the lake was deemed to treacherous for passenger service between October and May. But, the boats made daily crossings with coal and freight throughout the stormy winter months.

It may be the winds of November in the Gordon Lightfoot song that thwart ships in Lake Superior, but in Lake Ontario beware of March. On March 1, 1924, the Ontario No. 1 encountered a 75 mile-per-hour gale within a half hour of leaving Rochester. Making less than two miles per hour headway against the north wind the boat gave up on ever reaching Cobourg and headed for Toronto. It arrived covered in icicles and with three feet of ice that needed to be chipped from its car deck. After minor repairs it made Cobourg a day late.

On March 28, 1923, the two boats collided with each other in fog off the Port of Rochester. Little damage was done. On March 17, 1924, the Ontario No. 1 was trapped for 24 hours in ice 18 miles off shore. On February 20, 1932, both boats were stuck for six hours in Genesee River pack ice. The two ferryboats were built with re-enforced plating in the bow so they could act as icebreakers and crunch their way through the lake, but sometimes the lake won.

Passenger excursions usually faced benign weather but at least once tragedy almost struck. In the days before accurate weather forecasting, what might appear to be a fine sailing day near Rochester could turn deadly farther off shore. On September 8, 1934, over five hundred people set off under deep blue sun-filled skies. Before long a gale blew out of the west. The boat rocked farther over seemingly with every wave. The kitchen was forced to close and the Steamer Orchestra could not continue to play. Several lifeboats were ripped from their moorings. Passengers were knocked to the floor. When the boat finally limped back to the safety of the Genesee, 65 people needed medical attention while 24 were hospitalized.

The only fatality on any of the crossings happened in May 1925 with the death of Captain Frederick Douglas Forrest by drowning. The captain suffered a stroke in his cabin while bathing. He slipped beneath the water of his bathtub only to be found hours later by a crew member.

In 1920 the two boats carried over 70,000 passengers in the short summer season. By 1925 over 12,800 loaded coal cars headed north from the Port of Rochester. But with the coming of the Great Depression of the 1930's business began to slip. The Buffalo Rochester and Pittsburgh was absorbed into the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as were the ferry-boats. To make up for a reduction in freight more passenger excursions were held with groups coming from as far away as Pennsylvania. Day trips were made to Toronto, Picton, Dalhousie, and Oswego as well as to Cobourg. Layover time in Canada was increased. One annual cruise was reserved for area Shriners. Upon arriving in Cobourg they would march with bands playing to the town square where a free concert was given.

With the increase in popularity of the automobile, the family Ford was welcomed to the ferryboats beginning in the 1930s. However, since the port had no facilities for loading passenger autos, they were first driven on to railroad flatcars and then taken aboard the ferries. The $10 fee per auto, however, worked to keep traffic down.

The Great Depression had a lesser negative effect on Rochester than on many cities. Not one bank failed in the city, Kodak worked to keep from laying off workers, and the concern that later became Delco moved many jobs to the area in the 1930s. Wealthy citizens with money to spend realized the value in the unspoiled land of Lake Ontario's north shore. They began building near Cobourg what they called "cottages." A portion of Rochester's social life moved north every summer to these five and six-bedroom summer homes. Rochester's finest were often seen on the Friday ferryboats heading north to join their families who were already there.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States declared itself to be neutral. This meant no American ships could trade with belligerent nations. Since Canada followed Great Britain into the war it looked as if the Ontario Railroad Car Ferries would have to discontinue coal shipments. A quick trip to Washington by directors of the Baltimore and Ohio got the ferries declared to be trains. Shipping to Canada continued. In fact, in 1945, 1,270,000 tons of coal were shipped from Charlotte alone.

The war emergency cut the passenger train from downtown Rochester but even so 43,000 passengers rode the ferries in 1945. But conditions for lake shipping began to change. The central Pennsylvania coal fields were becoming depleted. The major supply area for coal was moving farther west. The Canadian National Railroad was coming to rely more on coal from Nova Scotia for its trains. For the first time, by the late 1940s coal shipping on the ferries declined to a point where its value was less than other products being shipped. By 1949, only 192,000 tons of coal were transported by Ontario No. 1 and No. 2 together. The company slipped into the red for the first time beginning in 1946. It would never see a profit again.

To make matters worse the excursion business fell away with only 22,000 passengers buying tickets in 1949. Increased highway building and the return of automobile manufacturing after the war found people more and more relying on personal transportation when considering vacation plans.

By 1949, the Ontario No. 1 was 42 years old and Ontario No. 2 was 34. With the burning of the lake cruise ship Noronic in Toronto in September 1949, and the subsequent loss of 141 lives, the governments of both Canada and the United Stated demanded safety requirements that the ferryboats could no longer meet. The ships needed $950,000 in repairs to be able to remain in service. With debts rising and cargoes falling it was decided that operations would cease in 1950. In 1951, the Ontario No. 1 was cut apart at Port Colborne and Ontario No. 2 was scrapped at Hamilton in July 1952.

The era of daily passenger cruises to Canada from Rochester had come to an end but was never far from the imaginations of a few visionaries. In July 1957 Simplex Tours of Rochester tried a one-time excursion aboard the Cayuga to Cobourg. The seven-hour trip seemed too long for modern travelers and the trip was not repeated. In 1963, the Rochester press reported new proposals to begin a new service to Cobourg. Again nothing developed. In the 1990s the tour boat Spirit of Rochester ran some limited excursions to Cobourg. Bad weather on cruise dates seemed to doom the endeavor.

Now interest again runs high for a fast ferry service to Canada. Only time will tell if a new attempt will come into being and if it will be a success.

2001, Gerard Muhl
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