In these days when abandonment petitions have brought the Lake Michigan railroad carferries to the attention of all lake shipping observers, we tend to forget that at one time railroad carferries also operated on Lake Erie and even on Lake Ontario. The Lake Ontario operations, however, were never particularly well known away from their own stamping grounds and have been all but forgotten in the nearly twenty-seven years that have elapsed since their termination.
It was back in 1907 that the newly-formed Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd., Montreal, began service across Lake Ontario between Cobourg, Ontario, and a dock two and a half miles up the Genesee River at Charlotte, New York, near Rochester. The company, which received its charter in 1905, was put together by the Grand Trunk Railway, Montreal, and the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad to handle coal traffic originating on the latter road's lines (mainly from the Pittsburgh area) and destined to points in eastern Ontario on the Grand Trunk lines as fuel for steam locomotives. The new ferry service eliminated the long haul around the western end of Lake Ontario and expedited the delivery of bituminous coal by several days.
To inaugurate the service, the twin-funnelled, twin-screw, steel-hulled carferry ONTARIO NO. 1 (C.125983) was built for the company by the Canadian Shipbuilding Company Ltd. at Toronto. Laid down as the yard's Hull 106, she was constructed with a length of 317.0 feet, a beam of 54.2 feet and a depth of 18.7 feet, these dimensions giving her tonnage of 5146 Gross and 3229 Net. Her engines and boilers were made by her builders and four single-ended Scotch boilers measuring 14 feet by 12 feet delivered steam at 175 p.s.i. to two triple-expansion engines having cylinders of 20 1/2, 32 1/2 and 54 inches and a stroke of 36 inches. This machinery produced 350 Nominal Horsepower.
As built, ONTARIO NO. 1 did not have an overhang or shelter to cover the outside passages on the promenade deck but before long this feature was added to give passengers more deck space which was protected from the elements. Another early change for the ferry was the addition of a stern pilothouse for use in navigating the ship stern-first into her slip at either terminal port. When she came out fresh from her builders, she did not have the benefit of this convenience and had been given only a catwalk which ran down the middle of the boat deck and terminated aft in an elevated platform upon which one of the officers stood to relay signals forward to the bridge during the docking procedure.
ONTARIO NO. 1 was painted white and her two finely raked funnels, set in tandem, were buff with black tops. The steamer was to retain these colours for her entire life and they were also given to the only other ship which the Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd. would ever operate.
By 1914, the success of ONTARIO NO. 1 and the considerable traffic which she carried across the lake, particularly on the northbound crossing, prompted the company to decide that another ferry was needed to supplement the NO. 1 on her route. Accordingly, the company let a contract to the Polson Iron Works Company Ltd. of Toronto for the construction of a near-duplicate of ONTARIO NO. 1. The new ferry was laid down as Polson's Hull 126 and she was launched on April 3rd, 1915, at which time she was christened ONTARIO NO. 2 by Mrs. Hugh Calderwood of Barrie, Ontario, the wife of the ship's designer. Thanks to a very extensive description of the new ferry extending through several issues of the monthly Canadian Railway and Marine World, we have full details of the ship and of her entry into the waters of Lake Ontario. Amongst those present at the launching ceremonies were H. G. Kelley, president of the Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd. and a vice-president of the Grand Trunk Railway; G. A. Bowman, assistant general freight agent for the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad; W. H. Smith, manager of the O.C. F. Co. Ltd.; W. D. Robb, superintendent of motive power for the G.T.R., and representing Polson Iron Works were J. B. Miller, president and general manager; A. H. Jeffry, secretary and manager; H. H. Miller, vice-president, and W. H. Newman, works manager.
ONTARIO NO. 2 was assigned official number C.137978 and like her near-sister was registered at Montreal,(with the exception of the present-day INCAN SUPERIOR, they were the only two open-lake carferries ever registered in Canada). The new steamer was 307.5 feet in length, 54.0 feet in the beam and 20.2 feet in depth. Her Gross Tonnage was 5568 and her Net was 3376. A twin-stacked, twin-screw, steel-hulled vessel, she was fitted with four single-ended, coal-fired Scotch boilers measuring 14 feet by 12 feet and equipped with forced draft. They supplied steam at 180 p.s.i. to two jet-condensing, triple-expansion engines with cylinders of 20 1/2, 33 and 54 inches and a stroke of 36 inches, which operated normally at 110 r.p.m., both engines turning outward and producing 350 N.H.P. The machinery was built by Polson Iron Works.
Four tracks were laid on the main deck of ONTARIO NO. 2 giving her a capacity of 30 standard coal cars of 70 tons each. Accommodations for passengers and for the ship's officers were contained in a deckhouse on the steel shelter or promenade deck. There were twelve two-passenger staterooms at the forward end of the deckhouse on each side of a double central hallway leading forward from the large music room which extended the full width of the cabin. Aft of the music room was the boiler trunk or stack casing on the port side of which was located the ladies' cabin, purser's office and a washroom, while to starboard was the smoking room with buffet and the steward's and assistant steward's quarters. Aft of these facilities was a hallway running across the full width of the cabin and from this passageway entrance was gained to the dining saloon which extended to the sides of the deckhouse and which contained eight tables with a seating capacity of 32. The rest of the deckhouse aft of this point contained galley and pantry facilities, the crew's messes and various crew's accommodations. The quarters for the navigation officers were located in the texas cabin on the boat deck. While ONTARIO NO. 2 actually had stateroom accommodation for 48 passengers, the May 1915 issue of Canadian Railway and Marine World stated that she had accommodation for 800 first class deck passengers and 200 second class passengers. We suppose that the former would be allowed the run of the promenade and boat deck spaces, while the latter would be confined so that they could pass the crossing by admiring the scenic wonders of the car deck.
As ONTARIO NO. 2 was built, access to passenger areas from the car deck was gained by a companionway located amidships aft of the galley and it led to a small passageway which opened onto the starboard side of the promenade deck. There was also a companionway forward of the deckhouse on the promenade deck which led down to the forward end of the main or car deck where the quarters for the engine crew were located. As time passed and passenger traffic increased, especially with excursions, both steamers were fitted with open stairways right aft, these being hinged so that they could be hauled up to the level of the promenade deck and out of the way when rail cars were being moved over the stern of the ship.
ONTARIO NO. 2 came out with four lifeboats on each side of the boat deck but as passenger traffic increased she was given two more boats on each side, although the number of davits was not changed. This meant that in the event of an emergency, the boats could not all be launched at once, for two of them on each side would have to wait until the others were away and the falls cleared before they could be swung out. ONTARIO NO. 1 had the same sort of arrangement although hers was, if anything, even more complicated. The earlier ferry had come from the builders with only two boats on each side of the promenade deck. When the shelter was built out around her deckhouse, the boats were moved to the cabin top and were increased in number to four per side, an adequate number of davits being fitted. But then with the onset of the excursion service (and also as a result of the TITANIC disaster), even more boats were needed and so she was given a total of eight boats on each side of the boat deck. The additional lifeboats were simply placed on chocks on the deck in between the others and for three of the four, the davits, once cleared of their own boats, could simply be swung back to lift the second boat. But the last of the new boats on each side was set right aft out of reach of the davits and if launching should have been necessary, would have either to be left to float free on its own or else manhandled up the deck to the nearest davits. This was a peculiar arrangement, to say the least.
The car deck and interior cabin arrangements were virtually the same in each ferry. In external appearance they were quite similar with the one major difference being their pilothouses. ONTARIO NO. 1 was built with a pilothouse on the boat deck and above it an open bridge from which the ship was normally navigated in the accepted fashion of the day. ONTARIO NO. 2 never had an open bridge and was given a raised, enclosed pilothouse set atop the texas. The earlier ferry continued with her open bridge until 1924 at which time she too was given an enclosed upper wheelhouse as a result of difficulties encountered that year in a heavy winter storm.
The first master of ONTARIO NO. 1 was Captain F. D. Forrest and when the NO. 2 entered service he transferred over to the new flagship along with his chief engineer, A. Nichol. Capt Forrest died in 1925 and he was succeeded on the NO. 2 by Capt. C. E. Redfearn who had moved over from the NO. 1, being replaced on that ship by Capt. S. H. McCaig, longtime first officer of the ferries. The last master of ONTARIO NO. 2 was Capt. William Bryson.
ONTARIO NO. 2 ran her engine trials in the lake off Toronto on August 28th, 1915 and reached a speed of about 15 m.p.h., although she was designed for a speed of 13 m.p.h. on a full-loaded draft of 16.25 feet. She was then taken to Cobourg and ran a trial cross-lake round trip on September 16. She did not enter regular service until October 1st, 1915 and as soon as the new boat was commissioned, ONTARIO NO. 1 was withdrawn for a thorough refit. ONTARIO NO. 2 continued in service during the winter of 1915-1916 carrying only freight and in the spring of 1916 the finishing touches were put to her passenger quarters to ready her for the summer passenger and freight service which resumed at the end of May. At that time, ONTARIO NO. 1 was placed back in service and the two boats ran the route together.
While both ferries plied their route without major accident, both made the news on several occasions. On January 25, 1920, both ferries encountered heavy ice conditions and became stuck in the Genesee River near Charlotte Dock. Then on March 28, 1923, ONTARIO NO. 1 and ONTARIO NO. 2 were in collision during a fog and both ships were considerably damaged.
The closest scrape for either of the boats came in January 1924 and involved ONTARIO NO. 1. The ferry sailed from Charlotte on January 6th and encountered a heavy gale which was sweeping Lake Ontario. Capt Redfearn decided that it would not be prudent to try to enter Cobourg harbour in the heavy seas and he headed his ship westward toward Toronto. With the help of beacons specially lit along the shore, the beleaguered ferry finally found refuge off Port Credit, west of Toronto, where she rode out the gale the following day.
ONTARIO NO. 1 then entered Toronto Bay where she was pumped out, having taken on considerable water through her car deck, and tons of ice were chipped from her superstructure. She finally made port at Cobourg on January 8 and the townsfolk celebrated her safe arrival.
The year 1924 also brought problems for ONTARIO NO. 2. On August 5th, she was returning to Cobourg with an excursion party of 930 members of a church organization. A very thick fog had set in while the ship was on the lake and Capt. Forrest had reduced speed and was attempting to guide his boat to the pierheads with the assistance of the foghorn ashore and his leadline with which soundings were continuously taken. The ferry, however, just missed the harbour entrance and slid onto the sandy bottom so smoothly that it took several minutes for those on board to realize that the ship was no longer moving. No damage was occasioned to the steamer and her passengers were duly removed by barge and deposited upon the pier, none the worse for the surprise ending to their outing. The subsequent enquiry held by Dominion Wreck Commissioner Demers found that the ship had probably been blown a bit off course by a light southwesterly breeze which had been prevailing at the time and in addition found that the foghorn on the pier was placed in such a position that its signals could be misleading to approaching ships. The ferry's crew was exonerated of all responsibility for the grounding but Demers did recommend that the boat's standard compass be moved to a position atop the pilothouse for it to be "dependable and efficacious". A look at the subsequent photograph of ONTARIO NO. 2 reproduced on our photopage will indeed show that the binnacle had been remounted on the pilothouse roof.
It is not often that ice becomes a problem on Lake Ontario but on March 17, 1934, ONTARIO NO. 1 managed to take three days to cross the lake due to the heavy ice conditions. The crossing was normally a matter of only five hours! The same ferry made the news again later in the same year for on the night of September 8th, while the ship was on an excursion out of Rochester with a load of 550 passengers, she was caught in the trough of a very heavy sea produced by an unexpected gale. The steamer, Capt. Redfearn in command, rolled so heavily that several lifeboats were ripped from their moorings on the boat deck. According to contemporary accounts, 65 passengers required medical assistance after having been bowled over by tables, chairs, beer barrels and a portable bar that were thrown about the deck! The Coast Guard responded to the ferry's distress calls but she was able to make port on her own.
The next ship to make the headlines was ONTARIO NO. 2 when on February 26, 1936 she stranded 2 1/2 miles from Rochester in blizzard conditions. She was freed by the NO. 1 on March 6th and suffered only minor damage in the mishap.
During the life of the Ontario Car Ferry Company Ltd., the controlling interests in the line changed as amalgamations took place. The Grand Trunk operations in Canada were eventually absorbed by the government-owned Canadian National Railway Company. Similarly, the old Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad was merged into the Baltimore and Ohio in 1932.
The traffic patterns effecting the Ontario Car Ferry Company also changed as the years passed. Both passenger and freight traffic had increased through the teens and the twenties and the company had even started to transport the automobiles of travellers by loading them onto flatcars and rolling them on the ferries. But then came the Great Depression and during the hungry thirties both passenger and freight traffic dwindled. To keep them busy, both boats were made available for the excursion trade. They often appeared on the run between Toronto and Port Dalhousie's Lakeside Park on days when big picnics were booked and the regular Port Dalhousie boats, NORTHUMBERLAND and DALHOUSIE CITY, could not cope with the crowds. The ships visited Port Dalhousie each year while carrying Canadian National employees on their annual picnic and similarly both ferries helped out early each June when the De La Salle picnics were held at Port Dalhousie. One of the boats came to Toronto with an excursion for the Royal Visit of May 1939 and ONTARIO NO. 2 even took a C.N.R. excursion from Picton to Oswego on Wednesday, August 18, 1948.
But the company continued service through the forties. In August 1949, ONTARIO NO. 1 was laid up at Cobourg and, as it turned out, she would never again raise steam. As a result of the NORONIC disaster of September 17, 1949 at Toronto, the Canadian government adopted rigorous new standards for ship safety, regulations which would have required much rebuilding for the car ferries to be brought into conformation with the standards. As both freight and passenger traffic had taken another nosedive after World War II, the Ontario Car Ferry Company decided that it could not afford to update either of its steamers. ONTARIO NO. 1 remained in lay-up at Cobourg as she was by then out of class and could not have been reactivated without drydocking, inspection, and the refit necessary to bring her into compliance with the new regulations. ONTARIO NO. 2 remained in service and made her last lake crossing on Sunday, April 30th, 1950, the day on which her certificate expired. When she arrived at Cobourg that day, steam was let down for the last time and the Ontario Car Ferry Company's service died.
The ONTARIO NO. 1 was sold to A. Newman and Company, St. Catharines, for scrapping and Newman resold the ferry to Richard E. Dwor of Marine Salvage Ltd., Port Colborne. ONTARIO NO. 1 was towed into Humberstone on July 9. 1950 by the Toronto Towing and Salvage Company's wooden steam tug H.J.D. NO. 1 and was moored in Ramey's Bend. Dwor contracted with the E. B. Magee Company of Port Colborne to assist with the demolition, and scrapping of the vessel was completed by October 31, 1950.
On July 5th, 1950, ONTARIO NO. 2 was towed into Port Dalhousie harbour, she also having been purchased by A. Newman and Company. She was tied alongside the old N.S. & T. passenger sheds (formerly used by NORTHUMBERLAND and DALHOUSIE CITY) and there her upperworks were stripped off down to the main deck. After this operation was finished, the hull was towed to Hamilton, Ontario, for breaking up by the Steel Company of Canada Ltd. Scrapping was not completed until July 1952.
Today, nothing much remains of ONTARIO NO. 1 and ONTARIO NO. 2 except the memories of Cobourg and Rochester residents who daily saw the comings and goings of the big ferries. Fortunately, the large and ornate brass builder's plate from ONTARIO NO. 2, once displayed proudly on the front of her pilothouse, has been preserved and is now housed in the Marine Museum of Upper Canada at Toronto where it can be seen by visitors to remind them of the only lake-type carferries Lake Ontario ever had.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.