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Story courtesy of Don and Marilyn Macklin

In most respects, the Ontario Car Ferry Company was similar to the Lake Erie car ferry lines. Like them, the company was a joint enterprise of an American and a Canadian railroad, and was designed mainly to bring American coal into Ontario, principally for use in locomotives. Thus, the prosperity of the enterprise was tied to the fortunes of the coal industry in the same fashion as the Lake Erie lines. In addition, the OCFCo was characterized by the same heavy preponderance of northbound traffic that made the Lake Erie lines more or less "one-way" operations.

car ferry mapSouthbound movements, largely of pulpwood, lumber, feldspar and syenite [corrected - see Footnote 2], built up a somewhat larger traffic than any of the Lake Erie routes enjoyed, but it amounted to only a small fraction of the northbound coal movement. The parallel with the Lake Erie lines ends with passenger traffic, for the OCFCo took advantage of a large population at its southern terminus to build up a considerable passenger volume in the summer months. In addition, the OCFCo was a Canadian firm, and registered its ships in Canada. They were, in fact, the only car ferries of the cross-lake type in Canadian registry on the Lakes.

The Ontario Car Ferry Company, Ltd., was established in 1905 by agreement of the Grand Trunk Railway and the Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway. The two roads had a nice complementarity; the Grand Trunk received a great deal of coal at the Niagara frontier, and the BR&P was mainly a coal hauler, receiving some two-thirds of its traffic from the central Pennsylvania coal fields. The Grand Trunk sought a faster and cheaper route for coal from the United States, and the BR&P was interested in a further outlet for northbound coal. It was hoped that a car ferry would shorten the haul from the Pittsburgh area to Montreal by four to seven days.

Car Ferry ontario 1Ontario No. 1 shown here early in her career, operated without the benefit of a seagate.Rochester was established immediately as the southern terminus, and after some deliberation Cobourg was chosen as the northern. The town had no natural harbor, but two concrete piers provided a good artificial shelter. For a ship, the company wanted a ferry modeled closely in mechanical details after the recent Lake Erie ferry ASHTABULA, but equipped for a substantial number of passengers. The company considered ordering the new ship from the Great Lakes Engineering Works, which had built the ASHTABULA, but concluded it would be impossible to bring her through the Welland Canal as it then was.

Consequently, the OCFCo ordered the ship from the Canadian Shipbuilding Company of Toronto. Great Lakes Engineering built her engines, however. She was named ONTARIO No. 1 and was launched in April, 1907. She had a capacity of about 30 cars and a top speed of 15 miles per hour. Her route was 55 nautical or 63 statute miles, and she was expected to make two round trips a day when traffic was sufficient. She cost about $370,000.

The BR&P built a slip on its Charlotte extension at Genesee Dock, about two and a half miles from the mouth of the Genesee River. The ferry had an orthodox four-track layout, but the apron was built so that the turnout to the port wing track came off the starboard center track. Similarly, the turnout to the starboard wing track came off the port center track This unusual arrangement (which had previously been used at Conneaut), had the advantage of a less sharp turnout for each wing track, but placed a diamond in the center of the apron.

Ontario 1 in Rochester harbourAbove is a postcard showing Ontario No. 1 at dock in the Rochester port (Charlotte).The BR&P spent $52,000 on the Genesee Dock terminal facilities. The Grand Trunk built an orthodox apron and slip in Cobourg.

ONTARIO No. 1 was ready for service by fall. She sailed from Genesee Dock for the first time November 19, 1907, with 28 cars of bituminous coal for Grand Trunk locomotives. Cobourg, which now had visions of becoming a major port, celebrated greatly when the ferry arrived. In the afternoon, Captain F. D. Forrest, her first master, took her south with 28 empty hoppers.

The company did not immediately advertise for passengers, but in 1909, began to carry them between Memorial Day and the end of September. At first, service was offered four days a week. leaving Genesee Dock at 9:15 A.M. and leaving Cobourg at 3:30 P.M. on the return trip, after a 75-minute lay-over. The trip was scheduled for five hours northbound and four and a half south-bound, presumably in the expectation that the ferry could make better speeds with the lighter southbound cargoes. In later years, there were minor changes in schedule, mainly to allow more lay-over time in Cobourg. To the end, however, the company adhered to the general practice of a summer passenger sailing from Rochester in the vicinity of 9:00 A.M. with return in the afternoon. ONTARIO No 1 was fitted with berths for 90 people, buffet facilities, a music room, and what were by the standards of the car ferries, ample public accommodations. She was licensed for 1000 deck passengers.

The Ontario Car Ferry Company was the only car ferry line on the Lakes to have a regular boat train connection. Beginning in 1909, with the opening of passenger service, the BR&P scheduled a boat train out of its Rochester station half an hour before sailing time. The boat trains, number 407 northbound and 406 southbound, were well patronized during the summer months and ran for 33 seasons.

The Ontario Car Ferry Company was financially successful. In 1912 it began to pay each of its two owners an annual dividend of $12,500. By the winter of 1915, ONTARIO No. 1 was able to mark up her two-thousandth round trip. In seven years of service, she had encountered no major accidents. Traffic had increased to a level that justified a second ferry, and in 1914, the company ordered ONTARIO No. 2 from the Polson Iron Works of Toronto. She was designed by William Newman, and cost $458,000. In most respects. she was very similar to ONTARIO No. 1 being also designed for 1000 day passengers. The company hoped to have her ready for the 1915 passenger season, but as is so frequently true, she could not be completed in time, and was put in service only on October 1, 1915.

Car Ferry Ontario 2Ontario No. 2 had ample passenger accommodations and - as one might expect of a ship that was ordered two years after the Titanic disaster - boats for all.With the arrival of ONTARIO No. 2 the company began to operate passenger service daily except Sunday from July 1st through the Labour Day weekend, with three weekly trips in June and September.

The company never carried passengers between October and May, apparently preferring the flexibility in dispatching of freight-service-only for the seasons when storms and ice descended on the Lakes.

The long approach to Genesee Dock up the river was frequently an operating problem, and on January 25, 1920, both ferries were caught in pack ice for several hours. The company continued its admirable freedom from major accidents, however. [See Footnote for another news item about an ice jam in 1918].

ONTARIO No. 1 managed to avoid disaster on a particularly perilous passage in the mid-1920’s. On Sunday, January 6, 1924, she sailed from Genesee Dock in a strong wind, but on a sea that was initially calm. Once out of the lee of the American shore, the ship found herself in 20-foot waves, driven by a gale that reached 75 miles per hour. Captain C. E. Redfearn found that his ship was making only about one and a half miles per hour into the gale, and concluded he did not dare try to put into Cobourg. He decided to proceed west to Toronto to take advantage of a better harbor and possibly calmer seas.

ONTARIO No. 1 was equipped with radio — she had been the first ship on Lake Ontario to have it — and Redfearn was able to stay in communication with the company office at Cobourg and with ONTARIO No. 2, which was southbound in the same storm. ONTARIO No. 2, he learned, made Genesee Dock by nightfall. Redfearn told C. H. Nicholson, the company's port captain at Cobourg, to alert the lighthouse keepers along the Ontario shore to Toronto. Since the season of navigation had closed, the lighthouses were normally not operating. At Newcastle and Bowmanville, the seas were too heavy to permit the tenders to reach the lighthouses to start them. At Port Union, the Canadian National Railways agent put out fusees along the shore as an aid.

By 2:00 A.M. Monday, ONTARIO NO 1 was off Toronto but the seas were so heavy and visibility so poor that Redfearn decided against putting in. The lights at the Eastern Gap had been dismantled for the season, but the harbormaster had lit the Gibraltar light. Being unwilling to chance an entry under these conditions, Redfearn had his ship cruise off Fort Credit until dawn, where he brought her into Toronto with all hands and cargo safe. Three feet of ice had formed forward on the spar deck and huge icicles had formed on the promenade. The car deck had been periodically flooded by waves, and there was about a foot of water in the hull.

The ferry anchored in Toronto harbor, pumped out her hull and otherwise made ready for sea again. On Tuesday, she left for Cobourg, arriving in the afternoon. As she entered Cobourg harbor, the city rang the bell in the city hall in celebration, and the bells of St Peter's Church played the Doxology.

At this time, the two car ferries differed mainly in that ONTARIO No. 1 had an open upper pilot house and ONTARIO No. 2 an enclosed one. For reasons of visibility, Ontario No. 1 during her harrowing trip to Toronto, had been navigated largely from the open pilot house, where her officers and wheelsman had suffered greatly from the elements. As a consequence. the company enclosed the open pilot house changing ONTARIO NO. 1's profile noticeably.

In 1925, Captain Redfearn moved up to the ONTARIO No. 2, which was considered the line's flagship, when Captain Forrest died. Forrest had moved to the newer ferry when she was completed. Redfearn was replaced on ONTARIO No. 1 by Samuel H. McCaig, who had been first mate on the ship since she came out. He had made over 10,000 crossings for OCF, more than any other man, and had logged over 550,000 miles in the company's service.

The middle 1920's were prosperous years for the company. It had begun carrying automobiles on flat cars (having no direct highway access to the apron at Genesee Dock), and was developing a tourist traffic to supplement the old day-excursion trade. The line carried about 70,000 passengers per season in the mid-20's, and in 1925, ferried 12,863 loaded railroad cars. The mid-Pennsylvania coal field on which the BR&P was so dependent, was declining rapidly in the 1920's, but the car ferry's traffic was still largely coal in hoppers. The OCFCo paid dividends to each owner of $25,000 in 1927, $50,000 in 1928, and $75,000 in 1929.

The Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh suffered heavily from the depression, and in 1932 was absorbed by the Baltimore & Ohio, with which it had worked closely for many years. The B&O had provided the BR&P with its entry into Pittsburgh, and was its principal traffic interchange. The merger was doubtless wise, since a line so dependent upon a declining coal field was no longer viable as a separate entity. The change, like the absorption of the Grand Trunk into the Canadian National a decade earlier, made little difference to the car ferry line.

The OCF continued operations as before. The B&O continued to operate the boat train through 1942, but then dropped it. As late as 1945, the company carried over 43,000 passengers in each direction. Thereafter, passenger traffic declined rapidly, falling to about 22,000, or half the 1945 level, by 1949. The excursion business fell away before the increased supply of automobiles after the war, or the convention or mass-outing business that the company had cultivated for many years had largely drifted away. The company’s route was not geographically placed to carry the heavy movements of motorists that the Lake Michigan lines enjoyed.

The decline of freight traffic went along at about the same rate. In 1945, the OCFCo carried 854,916 tons of cargo, of which 601,073 were coal. BY 1949, all traffic was down to 425,651 tons, of which only 192,773 were coal. For the first time in the company's history, all other cargo amounted to a greater volume than coal. The Canadian National was increasingly dependent on Canadian coal from Cape Breton Island, and its American sources now were farther west, so that the Niagara gateway was more appropriate than the car ferry line. The OCF's profit of $10,071 in 1945 was its last. By 1948, its deficit reached $189,054.

In addition to economic factors which would have killed the Ontario Car Ferry Company in any case, the line was confronted with a technical problem that made it urgent to quit. By 1949, ONTARIO No. 1 was 42 years old and ONTARIO No. 2 was 34. As a consequence of the Noronic's burning in Toronto harbor on September 17, 1949, the Canadian authorities increased their inspection standards to a level that the OCF felt its ships could no longer meet. ONTARIO No. 1 was laid up for lack of traffic in August, 1949, and the company decided against trying to extend her certificate. ONTARIO No. 2 was operating under a certificate due to expire at the end of April, 1950, and the company decided to give up beforehand. In December, 1949, it petitioned the Inter-state Commerce Commission for permission to abandon, and received it. On April 30, 1950, Captain William Bryson brought ONTARIO No. 2 into Cobourg for the last time. The company operated as long as the law allowed.

The two ferries were too large to go through the St. Lawrence to salt water, and there was no demand for them for further service on the Lakes. The company estimated that they had a scrap value of $75,000, but they needed some $950,000 in repairs to be able to return to service. Since car ferries of the triple expansion type were obsolete by 1950, there were no buyers, and both ships were scrapped. ONTARIO No. 1 was cut apart at Port Colborne in 1951. ONTARIO No. 2 was stripped to the car deck at Port Dalhousie in 1951, and scrapped at Hamilton in July, 1952.


Footnote 1

A news story in the Cobourg World Friday February 15, 1918.

When car ferry Ontario No. 1 left Rochester on Friday evening about 6:30 o’clock, Capt. McCaig and crew did not expect to be held up for the night a few miles from shore by an ice jam, but such was their unpleasant experience. About three miles off shore the ferry ran into what seemed to be almost a solid field of ice, which could not be seen from the surface and they were forced to remain in that position until seven o’clock on Saturday night, the wind and ice taking them practically where they would.

The ice, it is stated, could be seen a long way down beyond the bottom of the boat. At one time during the night the ferry was taken twelve miles off its course. The large two ton anchor was dropped upon the ice in order to break it, but without effect. The ferry finally got clear of the jam by running cars towards the stern and thus allowing the boat to slip off backwards. It was an experience they will not care to have repeated. [Return]

Captain Samuel Herbert McCaig was a resident of Lakeport.


Footnote 2

Not cyanide but "syenite," as in nepheline syenite, a mineral used in glass and pottery production.

The source of the nepheline syenite was a mine operated by Canadian Nepheline, Ltd., at a location known as Blue Mountain ridge, in Methuen township, Peterborough County, about 30 miles northeast of the town of Peterborough. From 1938 to the end of the ferry operation in 1950, the American Nepheline Corporation, a subsidiary of the Canadian company whose plant was located immediately south of the ferry dock at Rochester, received this material in 4-inch chunks, ground it to the consistency of fine flour, and then shipped it either in bags or in bulk to several potteries and glassware producers in the northeastern U.S. [Return]

Correction thanks to Mike Shea.


More Detail and Information:

Coal to Canada: A History of the Ontario Car Ferry Company, 2000: Steampower Publishing, Port Hope, Ontario.
by Ted Rafuse. Out of print but copies available at Cobourg Library