Cobourg’s Rail Car Ferry History – Part 2

By Ted Rafuse

In 1917 the Genesee Dock area received a substantial revision to its passenger facilities. The original canopy was removed and a 35 by 30 foot immigration house was constructed to the south of the Genesee Dock station. From the immigration house a covered stairway was erected west of the track and a covered walkway permitted passengers to cross the tracks above the train to a landing platform. This landing platform could also be accessed by covered staircases from north and south, the north staircase commenced to the east of the station and on the east side of the track. From the covered landing passengers boarded the promenade deck as was the case with the original arrangement.

By comparison the passenger facilities at Cobourg were meagre. An elevated, unprotected, landing allowed passengers to embark and disembark the ship from the promenade deck. From the open platform an open staircase descended to ground level and trackside. No passenger station was ever built for the car ferry service. A Custom’s House was often assumed to be a station due to its similar appearance to a railway structure. Excursionists here, unlike at Genesee Dock, were met by hacks for hire for a tour of Cobourg’s downtown and waterfront. Most passengers preferred to walk the two blocks to the downtown business district or to the local sandy beach. No boat train operated on the north side of the lake but by 1913 passengers could hire a hack for a short ride to any one of the three transcontinental railway lines then in operation. The Grand Trunk Railway, The Canadian Northern Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway all had their own stations in Cobourg. Using any three of these railways a traveller could connect to points east and west in Canada.

1910 witnessed a decline of 10% in the OCFC’s revenues this being attributed to a coal miner’s strike in Pennsylvania. Ontario No1 was taken off April 10 that year and did not resume sailings until late May. A decrease of 40,066 tons of coal was carried that year for delivery to the GTR. Despite fluctuations in net revenues the OCFC proved a financial success to its owners in the early years. In 1912 the Company paid each of its two owners a dividend of $12,500.

The Ontario No1 successfully alleviated the Niagara Frontier bottleneck even though coal tonnage moved varied from year to year according to the prevailing economic climate. At the Company’s annual meeting in 1913 the Directors discussed the possibility of acquiring a second vessel and in 1914 tenders for a second car ferry were let. Several tenders were submitted with the Polson Iron Works of Toronto receiving the contract.

Ship register #137978 was built at a cost of $547,718.58 and was christened Ontario No2. She was slightly larger than her sister ship with a length of 328 feet and a beam of 56 feet drawing a draught of 16¼ feet. At 5,568 tons she replaced her sister vessel as the largest on Lake Ontario. When fully loaded she carried 30 hopper cars. 1,200 passengers could be accommodated, two hundred more than her sister which had been altered in 1909 to increase her passenger carrying capacity. Top speed for Ontario No2 was 15 knots but her operating speed was 13 knots under load. Ontario No2 also became the flagship of the company when she entered into service. Like her sister, Ontario No2’s port of registry was Montreal. This proved another unique situation for both boats as never once did either ship visit their homeport as they were too large to enter the St. Lawrence canal system of the time.

The two ships appeared similar, but as parents with twins, those who knew them well could distinguish differences between the two vessels. Ontario No1 as built had an open pilothouse.  This was later enclosed to provide the same amenities as on Ontario No2 which was erected with an enclosed pilothouse. The windows of the enclosed pilothouse on the Ontario No1, affectionately known as The Ace, differed in number and appearance from those on the Ontario No2, known affectionately as The Deuce. The Ace had a staircase on either side of the bridge from the promenade deck to the boat deck. The Deuce had a single mid ship staircase in front of the pilothouse from the promenade deck to the boat deck. The Ace carried seven lifeboats on either side of the boat deck while the Deuce carried eight per side. Two large air of vents rose from the deck of the Deuce on either side of the bow staircase but none were visible on the prow of the Ace. The Ace had a clean rake from her bow to just in front of the pilot house while the Deuce had a short rake line from the bow which scalloped to a lower level and continued to the pilot house. Along the beam the Ace had twinned supports between the promenade and boat decks while the Deuce had single supports.

With two ships loading and unloading rail cars the need for a locomotive at each port increased as well. In Cobourg the GTR assigned a dedicated switcher to service the ferries and the local community commercial customers. A minimal engine facility was located about one mile north of the harbour adjacent to the GTR mainline between Toronto and Montreal. Some of this facility was based upon remnant tracks of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway. A wye was constructed for turning locomotives. A water standpipe allowed for the tender tanks to be filled with water. To fill coal into tenders, the black nuggets were hand shovelled from hoppers that dropped the coal onto the ground. This was then hand bombed, shovelled, into large buckets that were then hoisted by a steam-operated crane to a height that allowed the bucket to be swung over the tender bunker. In that position a fireman tilted the bucket so that the coal fell into the tender. This was repeated until the tender bunker was filled with coal.

Caroline Strahoff image, Author’s Collection

The above image captures Ontario No2 while under full steam somewhere on Lake Ontario in the 1940s.

A 1949 employee timetable notes, “that all movements (in Cobourg) over highway crossings between main track and wharf in both directions must be protected by member of crew. In addition whistle must be sounded and bell rung for all crossings.”This protection would have been necessary from the era before there was ferry service at the harbour as well. Indeed for many years there was a protection guard’s shanty on the southeast corner of King and Spring (Railroad) Streets to protect road traffic from train movements.

With the general increase in coal traffic in the first years of the 20th century both the BR&P and the GTR ordered large quantities of new hopper cars. The increase in demand was not only due to cross-lake traffic but also to the increased need for coal as a result of the increase in economic activity. The BR&P in a short time span ordered 4,500 steel hopper cars from a variety of builders including Standard Steel Car Company, American Car & Foundry Company, Cambria Steel Car Company, Pressed Steel Car Company and Pullman. For its part, the GTR also ordered a substantial number of steel hopper cars from Pressed Steel Car Company and Canadian Car & Foundry Company. Many of these cars built in the first two decades of the century lasted in service until the 1960s and 1970s as company ballast cars.

Both rail companies were safety conscious and this concern extended to their maritime offspring. The safety record of the OCFC was impeccable. Both boats were the first boats on Lake Ontario to receive shipboard wireless telegraphy. This equipment proved especially beneficial during the tribulations Ontario No1 encountered as a result of foul weather in 1924. On January 6 the ship left Genesee Dock unaware that a ferocious gale was brewing on the lake. Shortly after leaving the Charlotte breakwater the ship encountered seventy-five mile per hour winds that whipped the water into twenty-foot waves. Captain Redfearn after sailing but 1½ miles in an hour determined to run into the wind for the safety of Toronto’s harbour. Throughout the ordeal the ship was navigated from an open pilothouse. Constant danger prevailed as swells frequently broke over the open bridge threatening to wash the crew into the frigid water. All hands however endured.

Both ships are moored at the Cobourg harbour on a bitterly cold winter day sometime in the 1930s. Rarely was ice so thick as to prohibit the sailing of either vessel in ice as both were fitted with reinforced steel bows to allow for ice breaking.

Both ships were the first on Lake Ontario to be fitted with radio, wireless telegraphy. During the storm this equipment allowed Redfearn to remain in contact with the OCFC’s Cobourg office to ensure that lighthouse keepers maintained their beacons along the north shore to assist in navigation. However the lighthouse keepers at both Newcastle and Bowmanville were unable to reach their lamps. This was also the situation at Port Union, but here the local CNR agent in a moment of imagination arranged to light a series of fusees, flares, along the shore to aid the distressed ship in its navigation. Early the following day Ontario No1 arrived off Toronto harbour but heavy swells prevented her from reaching the shelter of the harbour. Eventually anchoring off Port Credit the ship anchored until the winds abated. Ice three feet thick had accumulated on her spar deck and over a foot of water had accumulated in the hull. On the third day following her departure from Genesee Dock Ontario No1 steamed safely into Cobourg harbour with all her twenty-five crewmembers thankful that their ‘regular’ five-hour trip was over! Recognizing the danger posed during the ordeal the Ontario No1 that summer had her pilothouse enclosed.

Ontario No2 also suffered a harrowing experience due to winter weather that almost ended her career. During a lake blizzard on February 26, 1936, the Deuce became trapped in ice 2½ miles west of the Genesee River. There she remained for ten days all the while taking on water at the rate of one gallon per second. OCFC officials determined that they could use quick drying cement to close the gaps in the steel plates where the rivets had popped. Once the cement had set, Ontario No1 with assistance from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter was able to free the ship. Both boats returned to Cobourg where the Deuce was temporarily made seaworthy. Following repairs in Kingston, Ontario, totalling more than $100,000 she resumed her career.

Winter weather was not the only cause of weather related problems. Summer fog also presented occasional havoc for the ships. In August 1924, with 930 passengers on board, Ontario No2 went aground on the sandy lake bottom near Cobourg. The cause of this beaching was attributed to the faulty interpretation by ship personnel to the signal blasts from the foghorn then in operation at the harbour.

The Roaring Twenties proved to be the commercial heyday for the ferries. The Company operated 364 days of the year Christmas Day being the only time the ships did not sail. While both ships did not operate every day the OCFC paid out in excess of $400,000 in dividends to the BR&P and GTR in the period 1925-1930. While the majority of profit originated with the transfer of hopper cars passenger revenue provided additional profit as well. Some 600,000 passengers were carried during the decade with most of these carried during the summer tourist season. An extensive promotion program led to the use of the boat as an excursion boat hired by various American and Canadian organizations for a summer cruise on either side of the lake.

Excursions were always popular with passengers. In such situations one of the boats would be chartered by an organization and its members would then have exclusive exercise of the vessel. An early and consistent organizer was the Rochester Common Council that chartered one boat for a northern voyage to a foreign land. The Citizen’s Band of Cobourg similarly chartered the vessel for a similar southbound sail. Most day cruises plied between Cobourg and Rochester but other lake ports such as Oswego and Port Dalhousie also witnessed a car ferry in their harbour.

For several decades Shriners enjoyed excursions on the ferries. Cobourg citizens always warmly received them as a welcome harbinger of summer. They often paraded to the accompaniment of their own band through the streets of the town. Children followed them Pied Piper fashion extending their hands for the candies distributed by these southern visitors. Once at Victoria Beach they participated in a variety of games and athletic competitions as their band played a concert at the beach band shell.

Shriners were also extremely popular with the crew. A task looked forward to by the young stewards was assisting these men on board with their food and liquor provisions. Such provisions were usually stored in one or two box cars on board especially for this purpose. Crewman Alex Greenhorne   recalled one of their excursions. “They used to bring all their booze and food and liquor and slot machines-everything on board. On the back end they used to have stairs that you could put down to the car deck. We used to help them carry their booze on board. Some of the crew, and I was one of them, used to help. We would have two or three guys line up here and hand them a can of beer or wine and they would take it down below. The Shriner’s never missed it. They were always a good deal.”

Other excursions were more memorable for different reasons according to Greenhorne. “The Company often put two empty box cars on board. Patrons would get pie-eyed and they would get fighting on deck. Then the deck hands would go and put these guys in box cars if they were too drunk.” Crewman Hawley Hoselton in a similar manner recalled of some Canadian excursions. They would get into a port, an American port, and just get drunk, so drunk. We used to dread those trips. They threw chairs overboard, they threw up all over. Just terrible. I remember three or four of us throwing drunken guys up into empty coal cars because they were so out to lunch. We were told to just throw them in there-they’d sober up by the time we got home. They were as black as chimney sweeps when we got back.”

In the Twenties a new twist was added to the excursion trade. In 1921 the Cobourg Concert Band sold 667 tickets for an event advertised as a moonlight cruise along the shores of Lake Ontario.” Under the direction of band leader J.J. Goldring and the vocal renditions of C. McDonough those on board enjoyed an evening of dancing under the moonlight This first midnight cruise spawned many subsequent similar charters throughout the life of both vessels. These remained popular during the life of the ships.

Jack Laurie of Port Hope recalled how early in the days of the Depression he and a colleague decided to organize a midnight cruise’ Laurie was assigned the task of publicity and selling tickets. Publicity involved tacking advertisements to telephone and hydro poles throughout the area. They sold all the tickets for their midnights cruise. “Everybody took a bottle with them. And I had a couple go with us. You had to go up the walkway onto the ship. One woman had a little packet bottle, a bottle of gin. She stubbed her toe when she was going up the step and the damn thing fell right down into the harbour bottom. A full bottle of gin.”