When the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Communications had a new passenger and auto ferry built in 1975 for the service between Kingston and Wolfe Island, it named the new boat WOLFE ISLANDER III. While the authorities probably thought that they were not only carrying on an historic name but also were acknowledging the years of service contributed by two other ferries named WOLFE ISLANDER in earlier times, they were mistaken. For, you see, there have actually been four vessels named WOLFE ISLANDER on this ferry route, although the first may never have been registered and we suppose that Queen's Park can be forgiven for overlooking her.
As a result, the sidewheel ferry which served the route for forty-two years and endeared herself to Wolfe Islanders and Kingston area residents in the process, should really not be called WOLFE ISLANDER (I) as she usually is, but rather WOLFE ISLANDER (II).
It appears that the first ferry service to and from Wolfe Island was established by one Sam Hitchcock in 1802. The vessel which he used for the run was a craft built of pine cut on the island, her timbers held together with wooden spikes. She carried sail but also boasted six oars on each side. At that time, the trip to Kingston took a traveller all of two days, for most of the settlers had to walk through the woods from their cabins in order to reach the ferry. A charter to operate the ferry was granted to Hitchcock in 1809 and he then leased the service to Alvah Bennett for three years. In 1812, Hitchcock again took over the service himself and operated several small flat-bottomed bateaux powered by oars. This type of vessel seems to have been the mainstay of the service for many years.
Hitchcock built a dock at Wolfe Island in 1832 and, in 1841, he constructed a two-masted sailing vessel which he called THE STRAWBERRY. Sam Hitchcock departed this life shortly thereafter and the operation of the ferry was then taken over by his stepson, Thomas Davis. The latter gentleman built in 1843 a clinker-type boat which was to hold down the service until 1850. It was this boat that was named WOLFE ISLANDER. Davis introduced steam power to the ferry route in 1850, but it is not known what vessel he used.
In 1851, the Wolfe Island Railway and Canal Company was formed for the purpose of digging a canal to divide Wolfe Island into two sections. Work on this ambitious project was begun immediately and the canal was completed in 1857. The canal which, of course, required no locks, ran from Barrett's Bay on the island's north shore to Bayfield Bay on the south shore. The canal's principal purpose was to provide a short route which boats might take en route between Kingston and Cape Vincent so as not to have to sail all the way around the island.
In 1857, the first licence for the operation of a ferry to Wolfe Island was granted by Her Majesty Queen Victoria to one Coleman Hinckley. He built a new steam ferry, PIERREPONT (I), with island timber and placed her on the route. PIERREPONT was the first ferry to run through the canal from Kingston to Cape Vincent when she made the passage in 1858. She continued to operate as the island ferry until 1864 when she was succeeded by GAZELLE. The latter vessel ran until 1870 and was replaced by WATERTOWN, which had been built at Kingston in 1864.
The St. Lawrence Steamboat Company Ltd., Kingston, managed by the Folger Brothers, bought out the Hinckley interests in 1872 and placed on the ferry service the 123-foot sidewheeler PIERREPONT (II) which had been built the previous year at Kingston. PIERREPONT served the route well for 32 years and only relinquished the run in 1904 when a new boat was built. The iron-hulled PIERREPONT was taken down the river then and served various owners. Her hull, cut down to a barge, was still afloat as late as 1944.
By 1903, there was a considerable community of residents on Wolfe Island and they were not entirely satisfied with the outside operation of a ferry whose purpose, after all, was to provide access to their homes from the mainland. In a vote taken that year, the residents indicated quite clearly that they wanted to have control of the ferry service and to operate it themselves. A contract was immediately let to the Bertram Engine Works of Toronto for the construction of the necessary steamer and she was ready for service during the summer of 1904.
The new steamer, TOM FAWCETT, was built at Bertram's yard near the foot of Bathurst Street, Toronto. We believe that she may have been the yard's Hull 42, but this cannot be confirmed. Her hull was built of wood and measured 118.6 feet in length, 17.7 feet in the beam, and 6.8 feet in depth. Her tonnage was 224 Gross and 98 Net. She was a sidewheeler but we know nothing about the details of her engine or boiler. TOM FAWCETT was enrolled at Toronto as C.116763 and her registered owner was the Corporation of the Township of Wolfe Island, Ontario.
TOM FAWCETT was a typical ferry of her day. She had wide guards and this gave her a broad open area on the main deck forward which could be used to carry goods, livestock, horses and wagons, and latterly automobiles. She had a fully enclosed cabin on the main deck and she carried small enclosed paddleboxes which were devoid of decoration. Right aft on the main deck was the ladies' cabin which was fitted with large sectioned windows. The upper deck was generally open as a promenade area although the officers' quarters were located abaft the pilothouse. The pilothouse itself was a small rounded cabin which was elevated above deck level. A wooden lifeboat was carried on each side of the upper deck immediately over the paddlebox.
TOM FAWCETT carried a rather tall but thin stack immediately behind the pilothouse. It was well raked but not at the same angle as was the light and short mast which was stepped about half way between the stack and the stern. She carried only the one mast, but she did have a tall raked jackstaff aft and a tall steering pole at the bow.
The new steamer was put through her paces and was found to be acceptable. She was brought down from Toronto to Kingston in June 1904 and made her first regular trip in the ferry service on July 1, 1904 under the command of Capt. James Crawford. Her crew on that auspicious occasion included Michael O'Shea, mate; Lloyd Card, purser; Robert Tetro, engineer, and David Stevenson, fireman. Some of those who were aboard for the maiden voyage of TOM FAWCETT on that Dominion Day would also be present for her final trip which was made on another Dominion Day, 42 years later.
TOM FAWCETT spent only one year in her intended service with her original name. It was in 1905 that the more suitable name of WOLFE ISLANDER was given to the ship. It must have suited both the ferry and her passengers, for she kept it until the end of her days. The only other major change to affect the steamer was the eventual transfer of her ownership to the provincial government. Governments are great believers in the continual changing of the names of the various ministries and Ontario is certainly no exception. The ferry was placed under the auspices of the Department of Highways (or whatever else it may have been called at various times) and ever since then the Wolfe Island ferry service has been operated by that ministry of the provincial government responsible for highway development and maintenance .
When the new steamer first was placed in service, her schedule called for departures from Wolfe Island at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., the last trip of the day leaving Kingston at 4:30 p.m., except for Sundays when the crew was given a three-hour rest during the afternoon. One trip per week was made during the summer months to Howe Island, which is located just downstream from Wolfe Island. The ferry left the Wolfe Island wharf at 6 p.m. each Wednesday and went down to Brakey's Bay at the foot of the island where she spent the night. Early in the morning, she would cross to Howe Island, leaving there at 8 a.m. and calling back at the Wolfe Island wharf at 9:30 a.m. to pick up passengers for Kingston. On the return trip, she left Wolfe Island again at 3:30 p.m. for Howe Island, landing back at Kingston around 7:30 p.m. and leaving again for Wolfe Island at 8 p.m. One Wolfe Island resident recalls from childhood the free trip to Hogan's coal dock on Wednesday evening. The ferry would go there to take on bunkers before setting out on her long trip to Howe Island.
The January 1911 issue of "The Railway and Marine World" advised that the receipts from the Wolfe Island ferry service for the season from March to November 1910 had amounted to $9,377.35. It also reported that, at a meeting of the Wolfe Island Township Council held on December 9, 1910, a decision had been made to enlarge the capacity of WOLFE ISLANDER by lengthening her by fifteen feet and adding "false sides". It was also intended to install electric lighting and a searchlight, the total cost of the alterations to approximate $7,000. The electric lighting may well have been fitted at that time, but nowhere in the records can we find any evidence that WOLFE ISLANDER was lengthened at any time during her lifetime.
As the years passed, the schedule was amended to provide for more trips as the traffic warranted. For instance, in later years, a special trip was scheduled for Saturday evenings so that the islanders might do some shopping or visit a movie theatre. WOLFE ISLANDER sailed from the village on the island at 7 p.m. and returned from Kingston at 11:30 p.m. In those days, the Kingston stores stayed open until 9:30 on Saturdays. WOLFE ISLANDER was also available for charter; she catered to clubs and groups for moonlight excursions or Sunday picnics to Brophy's Point. The cost of such a charter amounted to the princely sum of $20.00. Regular adult fares on normal ferry trips were 25 cents, while high school students could ride for only 15 cents and those under twelve were carried free. If a special trip were required during the week as a result of illness or accident, a charge of $5.00 was levied.
WOLFE ISLANDER had plenty of open space on her bow to carry freight, but other arrangements were made with small parcels being delivered to island residents. Kingston merchants, from whom items had been ordered by islanders, would deliver the parcels to the ferry and they would be placed on a large round table which was located in the ladies' cabin aft. There they would be collected by the consignees. The purser was occasionally asked by an islander to run an errand in connection with such parcels and, on one occasion, at least, it very nearly landed him in hot water. It seems that a woman riding on the ferry stole a package containing a pair of corsets. She then went to the purser and asked that he take them back to the store from which they had been bought. In the meantime, the person for whom they had originally been intended found that they had been filched from the ferry and reported the theft. When the purser arrived at the store to exchange the goods on behalf of the woman who had approached him, he had considerable explaining to do and thereafter displayed a marked reluctance to run errands for people.
It was about 1920 that a rather pleasant new waiting room was constructed at the ferry dock on Wolfe Island. The cost of this much-appreciated structure was all of $400.00. It contained a natural fireplace behind which was a small locker in which the local constable was accustomed to keep his supply of wine. Most of the islanders knew of his stash but his wife did not, and when the officer would try to put the pinch on an islander for a misdemeanor, he would quite often be confronted with a threat to inform his wife about the wine. The waiting room was eventually sold for use as a restaurant and the new owner had it carted off to his property.
On at least two occasions, WOLFE ISLANDER took unexpected trips with no one at the wheel. The first such escapade took place during the 1920s when the ferry made a special trip to carry the islanders to the mainland to attend the Kingston Agricultural Fair. More passengers were waiting on the wharf than the ferry could accommodate and a number were left behind when she sailed. Those left were understandably vexed and had to hire a launch to take them to Kingston. When they arrived, they went to where WOLFE ISLANDER was berthed and they slipped her mooring lines. It was not long before Capt. Ferguson, who had gone ashore, realized that his steamer was adrift in the harbour. He had to chase after her in a launch and the wayward ferry was then towed back to her dock by the steamer WAUBIC which, at that time, was owned by the Rockport Navigation Company Ltd., Kingston, and operated on the run between Kingston and Cape Vincent.
The second such event occurred in 1939. For all WOLFE ISLANDER's years in service, it had been the custom of her crew to moor her at the foot of Brock Street in Kingston on Saturday evenings while the crew went ashore for shopping or the theatre. On this particular occasion, persons unknown set the steamer adrift and it was not until about an hour later that the deed was discovered by two Queen's students who saw her out in the harbour. She was soon towed back to the dock but not until she had caused considerable consternation for the officers of an inbound tanker who had suddenly found the helpless ferry in their path. A collision was averted and Capt. George Bates was reunited with his vessel.
WOLFE ISLANDER led a charmed life and very seldom got into major difficulties. On at least one occasion, however, she did run aground. She was on an excursion to Clayton, N.Y., with a young people's group aboard. During the return trip, the mate relieved the captain at the wheel and managed to run the steamer hard on the island shore. She was so close in that the women and children made their way ashore via the gangplank and were taken back to the island village by a farmer with his buggy. Meanwhile, two men aboard the boat got into a scuffle as a result of having imbibed too freely of the spirits during the shore stop at Clayton. The disturbance was finally quelled by the master with the help of a gun which he kept in his cabin. One culprit was locked in the purser's room and the other in the mate's cabin. Once order was restored, the crew set about freeing the boat. They eventually lowered a lifeboat in which they took out the anchor and a length of cable. The anchor was set astern of the ferry and the cable was made fast to one of her paddle buckets. Her engine was turned over slowly and she winched herself off the shore as the cable wound around the wheel, although how this was managed without stripping the buckets from the wheel is difficult to imagine. Boat and crew made it back to the wharf at 4 a.m.
The passengers aboard WOLFE ISLANDER were usually accustomed to enjoy a peaceful and comfortable trip, but this was not always the case. On one occasion, some farmers were taking cattle across on the ferry. The lake was running a good sea at the time and the cattle did not appreciate the motion of the boat as she rolled. The animals broke loose and ran back from the bow towards the passenger cabins. The passengers who were caught on the main deck tried to make their way to the safety of the upper deck, but in the resulting confusion, several passengers either were pushed or else jumped overboard. All were rescued and no major injuries were suffered.
WOLFE ISLANDER enjoyed a long career for a wooden steamer of her type, but as she got older, she needed more and more tender loving care to keep her operative. During the latter part of 1940, she was out of service for several days after she broke a paddle shaft which had become weakened during the steamer's battles with early winter ice. The Pyke Salvage tug SALVAGE PRINCE substituted for WOLFE ISLANDER until repairs could be made.
A more serious accident occurred shortly before the old ferry was finally taken out of service. The engineer and a deckhand were working in the engineroom and they released the safety valve on the boiler. Unfortunately, there was still steam pressure inside and both men were severely scalded by the escaping steam. They were given immediate medical treatment but both died a few days after the accident.
WOLFE ISLANDER ran on into the 1946 season but she was not getting any younger. She failed her inspection in 1946, was condemned, and made her last ferry run on Dominion Day, July 1st, 42 years to the day from her commissioning. She was sold to a Wolfe Island resident, Oscar McCready, who had her taken around to his property on the south shore of the island. As she left under tow on this last trip, a large number of Wolfe Islanders gathered on the dock and at other vantage points along the island shore to bid farewell to the ferry which had served them so well for so many years. It is likely that some of those watching her go had been born on her decks, for it was not unusual for island ladies to lose their race with the stork whilst en route by ferry to the mainland hospital.
McCready originally intended to preserve WOLFE ISLANDER as a tourist attraction but those backing the plan were discouraged by the high water of 1947 which caused damage to the boat's hull. She filled frequently and the decision was finally made to dismantle her. The machinery and other steel aboard were cut up and sold, while the cabins and wooden hull were burned. The steamer's deep whistle, which had been donated to her by Rev. Spratt, local parish priest, was saved and placed on the vessel which took over the route, although it was later removed.
From July 1 until November 18, 1946, the ferry service was held down by two wartime landing barges which were hastily secured to replace the condemned steamer. Then, on November 18th, a new ferry was commissioned. Also named WOLFE ISLANDER, this vessel had been constructed at Collingwood for service in Chinese waters under the name OTTAWA MAYBROOK. Hurriedly rebuilt as a ferry at Collingwood, she served the Wolfe Island route until the present WOLFE ISLANDER III was built in 1975.
(Ed. Note: For many years, we had been hoping to be able to put together a feature on this famous little steamboat, but the material necessary was simply not available to us. We owe a great debt of gratitude to member Tom Wilson of Bath, Ontario, and to his late brother, Nels Wilson, a long-time member of T.M.H.S. for their assistance. It was Nels who first suggested that WOLFE ISLANDER would make a good Ship of the Month. We would, however, be remiss if we did not make special mention of the assistance rendered by Miss Carmel Cosgrove, a lifetime resident of Wolfe Island, who has a special place in her heart for the old ferry and who did much research of local sources for us. Her uncle was purser in the ferry service for 47 years.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.