By Ted Rafuse

The town of Cobourg is not unique in being situated on the northern shore of Lake Ontario but a century ago it was unique as the northern port of an international rail marine ferry service on Lake Ontario. Commencing in 1907 the town became the northern terminus of a rail car ferry operation that endured until after World War II. Cobourg thus became the only Canadian port to provide a water-borne rail car interchange on Lake Ontario.

In 1905 following joint discussions, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and the Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) jointly in partnership formed the Ontario Car Ferry Company (OCFC). The OCFC was organized as a Canadian company; port of registry was Montreal, that city being the corporate home of the GTR. This was the only car ferry company on the Great Lakes to be registered in Canada – all other similar Great Lakes car ferry operations were of American registry.

This joint venture complemented the operations of both rail companies. The GTR at the time sought a quicker means of bringing coal, primarily for use in their own steam locomotives, to central Ontario and Montreal. The BR&P sought a new outlet for the output of its coalmines in Jefferson and Indiana counties in the Western Pennsylvania coalfields of the Reynoldsville-Clearfield districts. These mines were owned by the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company which was a subsidiary of the BR&P. Following a business investigation both the GTR and the BR&P concluded that a rail ferry operation across Lake Ontario would allow coal shipments to arrive in central Ontario four to seven fewer days faster than the then current time it took for deliveries through the Niagara Frontier rail connections.

Each rail company was responsible at their own expense to establish and maintain a physical connection whereby the rails would connect to a ferry dock. As well each railway company was to establish necessary arrangements for passenger traffic and to supply the necessary equipment for the transport of coal. The OCFC was to receive 35 cents per ton for each ton of coal carried and there was to be no charge for each company’s empty coal cars provided the number of empty cars was equal to each company’s full cars in any twelve-month period.

For the BR&P, the choice of a port was determined quickly. By the end of the nineteenth century Charlotte, just north of Rochester New York on the Genesee River, had become the principal coal port on the south side of Lake Ontario. Upstream two and one half miles from Charlotte the BR&P constructed its terminal facilities on the west side of the Genesee River.

The GTR selection necessitated greater investigation of possible sites on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Port Hope was originally considered but for reasons not stated in corporate records Cobourg was selected by the GTR to be the northern terminus of the ferry operation. While Cobourg lacked a natural harbour at the time it had two concrete piers that formed a large artificial port. The rail connection from the harbour to the mainline was an easy grade compared to the rail connection from Port Hope’s harbour to the mainline in that community where there was a significant grade differential between the rail connections there. Also a consideration was the fact that Cobourg was marginally closer to Charlotte than was Port Hope.

The size limitation of the Welland Canal locks, coupled with the size of the vessel, required that the order for the construction of the vessel be given to a firm with a dry dock facility on Lake Ontario. The design of the ship was essentially a replica of that of the Ashtabula, a Grand Trunk Western ship that operated on Lake Erie. The most significant difference in function and appearance to the new ship was the addition of an upper passenger deck.

The Canadian Shipbuilding Company of Toronto commenced construction of the ship as hull #106 Canadian register #125983. Launched in April 1907, the vessel measured 317 feet long, with a beam of 54.2 feet, a draught of 18.7 feet and gross tonnage of 5,146 tons. The ship’s Port of Registry was Montreal the homeport for the OCFC. Four tracks on the car deck allowed for the transfer of 28 hopper cars. Four single ended boilers powered twin screws that allowed the perfunctory christened Ontario No1 to attain a top speed of 15 knots.

The ship’s bow was designed to allow the ship to ride up on ice and by its own weight crush the ice as the ship was expected to operate through the winter months. No sea gate on the stern was constructed so that in rough water, the ship had to face into the waves and wind to prevent water crashing onto the car deck and possibly overwhelming the vessel. Her maiden voyage did not take place until November 1907. Christened the Ontario No1 she claimed the unique distinction of being the largest vessel on Lake Ontario at the time.

Following sea trials the $375,000 ship was accepted by the GTR as finished and she sailed to Genesee Dock, just upriver from Charlotte. Her unheralded docking was delayed, as there was insufficient water depth to allow the ship to ease into the apron and dock. Several hours of frantic activity eventually enabled the ship to moor without further incident. The facilities at Genesee Dock cost the BR&P $51,787.01. Part of this expense was no doubt attributed to the unorthodox four-track layout on the apron. The turnout to the port wing track came off the starboard centre track: similarly the turnout to the starboard wing track came off the port centre track.

Caroline Strahoff image, Author’s Collection

The above image captures Ontario No 1 under full steam somewhere on Lake Ontario, in the 1940s.

Twenty-eight hopper cars, each loaded with 70 tons of bituminous Pennsylvania coal were carefully shunted aboard. Once on board the cars were covered by the promenade deck on which were the passenger facilities. Each hopper car was then ‘tied down’ to secure it from moving or rocking during the crossing of Lake Ontario. Each car, once in place, was secured by chains, one end attached to the car deck and the other end affixed to the car. A series of six screw jacks, one at each of the four corners and one on each side of the car allowed the body to be tightened and chains secured to the car deck and the car body to prevent it from shifting upon its trucks. The hand brake on each car was turned to engage the brake and once a line of cars was loaded the car line, which was connected to the ship’s compressor, was attached. Railway wheel stops were bolted onto the rails in front of the wheel sets to prevent the car from rolling on the tracks. Old wooden ties placed between the rails and the wheel sets were added at certain times as well.

Although no corroborating evident exists to support the statement several crewmen related to this author that entire hopper cars loaded with coal were occasionally lost from the stern during bouts of severe weather. One can only suppose if such incidents occurred the tie down procedure had not been properly followed. How the crew might have explained such an incident would make for an interesting report!

Unheralded the ship sailed north on November 14, 1907 on her maiden commercial venture. Painted a stark, glistening white she eased away for her dock into the Genesee River. Twin raked funnels, one behind the other, each painted buff with black rings around the tops, emitted wispy puffs of smoke as she manoeuvred in the river to commence her northward voyage.

Four single-ended boilers powered twin screws that allowed the Ontario No.1 to easily maintain her cruising speed of 13 knots, although she was capable of 15 knots. Northbound, loaded, the trip was schedule to take five hours. On this maiden voyage her entry into Cobourg harbour was also delayed but this time not due to a landing issue. Arriving at noon it a delay of four hours occurred due to the late arrival of several GTR officials and a subsequent brief ceremony. After a competent turning of the ship in the harbour with the aid of the tug Brant the Ontario No1 eased into the apron. As the crew gained skill the tugboat was no longer required to assist in docking.

Image courtesy Charles Cunningham, Author’s Collection.

This 1909 image of a GTR locomotive servicing the Ontario No1 was taken at the Cobourg apron. The large round can suspended in the centre of the image is one of two counterweights used to move the apron up and down according to the height of the water. Locomotives were not permitted on the apron, hence the idler flat cars to move cars on and off the ferry’s car deck.     

Cost of the Cobourg arrangements is unknown but it must have been considerably less than that of the more expensive BR&P facility. At both ports dedicated idler cars, usually three flat cars were used to allow locomotives to reach cars in the ferry hold without the locomotive’s weight being placed upon the apron. Care was exercised in loading/unloading cars to prevent the ship from severely listing, or worse, from flipping over. Each side of the ship was loaded/unloaded alternately, one or two cars at a time. The centre tracks were loaded/unloaded once the outside tracks had been loaded/unloaded. At both ports a six-track yard was dedicated to car ferry use.

Rail cars were shunted on and off at the ship’s stern. Loading and unloading cars requires repetitive action. Attention to procedure was however absolutely necessary. Idler cars (frequently flat cars, sometimes other freight cars) were employed at both ports so that the weight of the locomotive did not have to rest upon the apron leading to the ship or on the ship itself. Each side of the ship was loaded/unloaded alternately, one or two cars at a time, so as to maintain the ship’s vertical integrity. The centre tracks were similarly loaded/unloaded once the operation on the outside tracks was completed.

The Ontario Car Ferry Company proved an immediate commercial success. In the first seven and one half months the OCFC earnings exceeded expenditures by $27,000. For the full year’s operation in 1908 the OCFC paid $12,500 in dividends to each of its parent rail companies. Transfer coal was certainly profitable for the fledgling company.

The BR&P quickly recognized the revenue value of carrying passengers especially during the summer months. Ontario No1 was originally designed to carry 350 passengers on board. Accommodation for passengers included staterooms and cabins for 90 persons, a large parlour room, a music room, a 32 seat dining salon, a ladies lounge and several heads (rest rooms). All passenger facilities were above the car deck on the promenade deck. Above the promenade deck was the boat deck where lifeboats were fastened and this deck was also available for passenger strolling. Four lifeboats was the original complement but following the Titanic sinking in 1912 more were added!

It was not until 1909 that the OCFC commenced advertising to tap the tourist and transit market. The tourists were attracted by the opportunity to visit a foreign country and return to the U.S. in one day. The transit trade appealed to people, especially family members, to visit relatives and friends in either country. In preparation for this season the Company refurbished the ship disbursing $2,200 for a new canopy deck and $1,400 for wicker deck chairs, live boats and rafts. The new arrangement allowed for passenger accommodations for up to 1,000 persons.

Initially passengers were carried only between the U.S. Memorial weekend in May until the end of September. While there were modest alterations in departure time, passengers departed Genesee Dock about 9 am with a return departure leaving Cobourg about 3:30 pm. This arrangement allowed for a seventy-five minute turnaround time that in the summer months was extended to accommodate the American excursionists.

After the first year passengers were carried all year round although the service was only advertised in the summer as a scheduled one commencing in 1909 with the BR&P’s first printed pocket brochure. That year the BR&P scheduled a ‘boat train’ from Rochester’s City Centre to Genesee Dock to operate in season in conjunction with the ferry departures on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Ontario No1 was unique as having the only passenger train serving a car ferry on the Great Lakes. BR&P train #407 northbound and train #406 southbound were both well patronized from their inception.

Train #407 departed the BR&P’s Oak & Main Streets Station thirty minutes prior to the morning departure of Ontario No1. It moved to Lincoln Park station and through Brooks Avenue yard onto the tracks of the Rochester Belt Line thence north to the Genesee Dock Branch. The locomotive moved from the head of the train to the rear as this was necessary to allow the train to descend into the river gorge with the locomotive in advance of the passenger cars. The same arrangement held for passenger trains leaving the gorge. This lessened the possibility of a runaway passenger car or train and the consequent damage to equipment or perhaps worse, a loss of life. No accidents were reported during the life of this service attesting to the safety precaution initiated. Ferry departure was scheduled for 9 am and this continued with only minor variations throughout the service of this boat train. The summer only schedule continued through to World War II when it was discontinued to allow the locomotive and passenger equipment to be used for various war related services.

In 1908 the BR&P constructed a 16 by 32 foot passenger station adjacent to the dock at Genesee Dock. A waiting room, ticket and telegraph office and a freight room were contained within the structure. Later the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service partitioned a portion of the freight room for use.

Passengers arriving on #407 detrained at the station. South of the station a 150-foot long canopy with bench seats provided protection to waiting passengers from the sun and rain. At the south end of the canopy was a privy. Passengers arriving from Lake Avenue streetcars or motor vehicle walked or drove to the end of Boxart Street that ended on a cliff above the river gorge. There a series of stairs and platforms allowed these passengers to reach the station.

CN image 12573, Authors collection

The Ontario Car Ferry Company with the Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway had the only scheduled ‘boat’ train that operated on the Great Lakes. In this company photo the train has just arrived at Genesee Dock from downtown Rochester. Perhaps that is one of the captains on the flying wing of Ontario No.1 watching over the passengers about to board his ship. Notice the canopy protection afforded the travellers at Genesee dock; no such similar protection was provided at Cobourg.

To board the ship passengers walked across the rails to a staircase at the top of which was a landing. A gangplank allowed access to the promenade deck of Ontario No1. This arrangement for boarding passengers did not interfere with the process of loading freight cars onto the ship. Standing on the promenade or boat deck at the ship’s stern passengers could enjoy watching the locomotive shunting cars onto the ferry while awaiting the ship’s departure. This arrangement also allowed for shunting operations to take place without endangering the public.