By Ted Rafuse
During the tourist months of the 1920s, upwards of 70,000 passengers were carried. Most of these were excursionists who flocked to the two boats to take advantage of the sights and shopping in communities on either shore of Lake Ontario. And as indicated above, both vessels were hired out for private excursions, often to community groups such as the Shriners and Kiwanians.
In 1927 recognizing a relatively new form of land transportation, the BR&P initiated a new service. Designed to enhance passenger traffic, automobiles on flat cars were transferred across the lake on the rail ferries. Due to the surrounding terrain at Genesee Dock automobiles were driven onto flat cars by a ramp located at the end of Boxart Street. From that point the flat car was shunted down the side of the gorge and onto the ferry. These flat cars with auto were always the last to be loaded onto the ferry and then were also the first rail cars to be unloaded from the ferry. Three flat cars were fitted with 4 by 4 inch tire guards to ensure that the driver maintained a straight course on the flat car. In Cobourg a ramp was built beside the GTR freight house for the purpose of driving automobiles on and off a flat car. Cost of the service was ten dollars and some 350 vehicles were transported in the first year of operation of this service. By 1930 the accounts stated that automobile traffic had increased due to a Shriner's Convention. The following year automobile tariffs were reduced by 25% to $7.50, perhaps reflecting the worsening effects of the Depression on cross-lake automobile traffic.
At the beginning of the 1920s several bankrupt railways including the GTR were amalgamated into the government owned and operated Canadian National Railways. The CNR became the partner of the BR&P in the OCFC. By the end of the 1920s a similar fate befell the BR&P. A number of corporate suitors attempted to gain control of the BR&P and on March 1, 1929, the directors of the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road approved the purchase of 84.8 % of the outstanding shares of the BR&P. The Interstate Commerce Commission approved the acquisition and control of the BR&P formally passed to the B&O on February 25, 1930. The merger proved an efficient one as the BR&P for many years had track rights on the B&O into Pittsburgh. As with the CNR the B&O now was a corporate partner in a rail car ferry service across Lake Ontario.
In 1925, 12,863 loaded railway cars were carried, primarily loaded coal hoppers moving north to provide coal for CNR locomotives. One interesting rail movement southbound was the shipment of flour from Quaker Oats in Peterborough. During the winter months when the port of Montreal was closed due to ice, Quaker Oats shipped carloads of flour south to New York City for export. These shipments would have used the former Midland Railway of Canada (Port Hope Lindsay & Beaverton Rlwy) track between Peterborough and Port Hope, transferring at the latter town to former GTR track to Cobourg and thence from the mainline to the harbour on track of the former Cobourg & Peterborough Railway.
During the 1920s the OCFC paid significant dividends to each of its parent companies: $25,000 in 1927, $50,000 in 1928 and $75,000 in 1929. In 1929, 786,195 tons of cargo was brought north to Canada, 635,532 of that total being coal. The Depression had an instant affect on rail car transfers. By 1933 only 197,208 tons of cargo came north. CNR northbound coal had been crossing for 50 cents per ton but in May 1930 that cost was reduced to 35 cents per ton. In 1931 only one vessel operated for most of the year.
Perhaps the car ferries were the original Love Boats. Crewman Clarence Gallagher stated, "There was more than one romance that occurred behind the life boats!" "There was a ladder that went straight down to the boiler room from the boat deck. It was an escape ladder. We would take a peek sometimes just to see those couples having fun. I recall a woman in one of the staterooms and the story was told that she had about thirty different fellows visit her during the trip."
Several timetables and brochures were printed in the 1930s by the BR&P to illustrate the ease of connecting with the boat trains to other places. Pittsburgh residents could board BR&P train #50 at 10:30 pm for an overnight journey with arrival at Lincoln Park station for a guaranteed meet with BR&P boat train #407 at 8:51 am for arrival at Genesee Dock at 9:20 am. Five minutes later the ferry sailed. Breakfast on board cost 50 cents while luncheon and dinner cost 75 cents! Arriving in Cobourg at 2:25 pm this mythical traveller could access Canadian National or Canadian Pacific pool trains to Montreal, Toronto, or the Kawartha Lakes district. Pool train #5 departed Cobourg at 3:26 pm arriving in Toronto at 5:15 pm. Eastbound pool train #10 departed Cobourg at 4:16 pm arriving in Belleville at 5:20 pm. At Belleville connection could be made with pool train #6 for Montreal or Ottawa. Similar train and boat connections could be made for a southern journey.
During the early years of the Depression the OCFC held no annual meetings. These reconvened in June 1936 and at that meeting S.J. Hungerford, CNR President, suggested that the time was opportune to consider the future of the OCFC having regard to the losses sustained in the previous three years, the use of only one vessel for much of the time, and in light of the aging conditions of both boats. Discussion followed noting the decline in revenue as due to several factors. CNR was receiving coal from Nova Scotia rather than Pennsylvania, commercial coal traffic had declined due to the introduction of self unloading bulk carriers on Lake Ontario and the all rail route for anthracite coal through Niagara all impacted adversely on the cross lake movement of hoppers.
Despite these negatives Mr. G. Shriver, VP of the B&O, argued for the continuance of the operation for several reasons. US-Canada trade was improving under new agreements, there was an element of prestige associated with the marine venture and the service would be useful during times of congestion or emergency. In a typical Canadian response, but perhaps not an American one, a committee was formed to investigate the issue and was to report back to the Directors.
Before that report was tabled, the outbreak of World War II and Canada's declaration of war against Germany in September 1939 intervened and created the emergency that Mr. Shriver anticipated. The U.S. remained neutral and that created a quandary in trade relations between the U.S. and Canada. Under international neutrality laws shipments of goods by boat from a neutral state to a belligerent state was prohibited. This was not the case for shipment of goods by train. An imaginative U.S. Customs official resolved this problem with an ingenious solution. He reasoned that since whole trains were carried on board the ferries the ferry was in fact a train and not a boat. Once again the OCFC experienced a first when its boats were declared to be trains. Service continued uninterrupted throughout the Second World War.
With America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the boat train from Rochester to Genesee Dock was discontinued commencing with the 1942 summer season. Locomotives and cars found more essential use elsewhere. Nonetheless the Ontario Car Ferry Company continued to advertise its summer excursions. One 1943 brochure stated that one way fares were three dollars per person or $10.60 for a car and driver with the additional notation that "fuel is not drained from motor car tank before being placed on the steamer." Even with the absence of the boat train 45,000 passengers were carried on the ferries that season.
Fire constitutes a mariner's worst fear. Fortunately for crew and passengers alike the only major fire to an OCFC vessel occurred on Christmas Day 1943 while Ontario No2 was moored in Cobourg's harbour for the holiday. Most of the skeleton crew on board had just seated themselves in preparation for an early afternoon meal. One crewmember thought he smelled smoke and upon investigation was confronted with flames in several locations. With a west wind the fire quickly spread throughout the promenade deck. The volunteer Cobourg Fire Department was called but the distance of the ships from a fire hydrant hampered their efforts. The fire was eventually extinguished but the dining room, wireless room, and cabins from the bow to the galley were all destroyed. On the boat deck the pilothouse and captain's quarters were consumed. The heat had been so intense that steel beams were twisted.
The fire flamed rumours of wartime sabotage. Other rumours also circulated. An investigation into the cause of the fire failed to substantiate any war-related connection to the disaster. Rather the investigation revealed a more mundane source. An apparently faulty electric toaster had been left plugged, had overheated, and a short circuit resulted. By New Year's Day sufficient temporary repairs were made to allow Ontario No2 to sail to Port Dalhousie where repairs amounting to $100,000 restored her to service several months later.
Most of the crew on board the two ferries lived in Cobourg or the surrounding villages. In a remarkable loyalty to the OCFC not one member of the crew who was interviewed in relation to my research had a negative word against the company; on the contrary all remembered their experience on board as a wonderful time in their life. During interviews with them they often had interesting anecdotes to relate.
Bill Thompson commenced his career as a crewman as the Captain's Bum Boy. "The Captain's Bum Boy does whatever the Captain says he is going to do. And that included wheeling the ship, serving his guests, making his bed, picking out the right food for the Captain. I also spent three days in the coal room passing coal for the boilers. I went around with the oiler/greaser but meanwhile I kept waiting on the Captain. I did every job you could think of."
Occasionally nature created rough seas. Thompson as a young crewman enjoyed the turbulent ride to the consternation of the Captain. "At the bow was a little room called the anchor room. Two of us got in there. While we were coming across we stood in there and watched the boat go up and down. The bow would go down and we would watch the waves come up. When they got parallel with us we would step into the anchor room and shut the door and the waves would break over the deck. As soon as we started back up again we would open the door and watch. We were in there and I couldn't figure out why the whistle was blowing so much until I looked up at the pilothouse and saw Captain McCaig-yelling. We had to cut it out. He didn't like what we were doing. We would hit the waves and we were ploughing right into them and the waves within a few feet of the ship's superstructure.
Thompson also worked on board as a steward. One recollection of his concerned the freshness of the white fish served on board. "I was coming on board one day and I see this box marked John Lavis, Cobourg. So I carried the whitefish on board and handed it to the chef and asked him what this was all about. He said it was a special deal we have on. The fish the OCFC bought it in New York and we were serving it as fresh caught whitefish. But it was caught in Cobourg! So I saw John Lavis and I said, "How come we're serving your fish on the boat?" He said, "What do you mean?" I took him back the case and said, "These are your wooden cases." He started to laugh and said, "I sold those fish to the Ontario Fish Market in Toronto who shipped it to Montreal because that's where all the whitefish went. They sold it to New York. It was bought up there by Canada Steamship Lines and shipped back to be sold in Cobourg as fresh caught whitefish."
Throughout the forty-three year operational period of the OCFC most of the crew were Canadian citizens. An unusual twist to this is that these Canadians collected a small pension from U.S. Social Security if they made a claim for such. This situation occurred because the crew received part of their pay from the BR&P/B&O. One crewmember that collected the stipend redirected it to support children in the third world.
All five of the OCFC's captains were Canadian. Captain Forrest, the Company's first captain, was employed with the GTR fleet of car ferries that operated between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. He became the first captain of Ontario No1 when she was commissioned. With the launch of Ontario No2 Forrest transferred to the new ship. He remained in that position until he suffered a fatal stroke on March 29, 1925 while in his bathtub aboard Ontario No2. When Forrest moved to the Deuce Charles E. Redfearn was apponted captain of the Ace. Redfearn had gone to sea at age sixteen and had seen service throughout the Great Lakes in a variety of seafaring capacities. The Company granted him two extensions beyond their mandatory retirement age and Redfearn left the OCFC on November 30, 1936.
Captain Samuel H. McCaig held the longest tenure as Captain with the OCFC. He joined the Company as a second mate when Ontario No.1 was commissioned in 1907 at which time he also held his captain's papers. He went to sea as a cabin boy at age nine and sailed on all the Great Lakes. He was the youngest sailor on the Great Lakes to hold his Master Mariner's papers. In 1935 McCaig became captain of the Ace when Redfearn was appointed captain of the Deuce following Forrest's death. At the time of his appointment McCaig had already crossed Lake Ontario more than 10,000 times logging more than 500,000 miles. With Redfearn's retirement in 1936 McCaig joined Ontario No2 as Captain a position he retained until his retirement in 1947.
Far left: Captain Samuel McCaig with binoculars in hand stands pensive outside the pilothouse of Ontario No1. Captain McCaig had a storied career on the Great Lakes earning his Captain's papers at an early age. The four stripes on his sleeve denote the captain's rank. McCaig began his career as an officer on Ontario No.1 and was eventually captain on both ships. He was the longest serving captain in the employ of the OCFC.
Courtesy Jeff McCaig. Author's Collection
Near left: Captain William Bryson photographed by his daughter. The Corona cigar in his fingers was not part of the captain's uniform but no doubt provided him with many minutes of relaxation while sailing upon Lake Ontario. Courtesy Caroline Strahoff, Author's Collection.
William Bryson, a native of Ireland, circumnavigated the world fifteen times. On one of his Atlantic crossings he met a woman on board and followed her to North America. He married her and settled in Montreal where he worked aboard tugboats. In 1937 he joined the Company as captain of Ontario No1. When only one ship operated at times during the 1930's Depression Bryson continued to operate usually as First Mate. Eventually he succeeded McCaig on Ontario No.2 when the latter retired. Bryson remained with the Company until it ceased operations.
The final captain employed by the OCFC was Robert Wright. Born on a farm in Grey County, Ontario, he became a sailor at age eighteen. He had experience on the North Atlantic and all of the major waterways in Canada. He joined the Ace as First Mate and when Bryson moved to the Deuce in 1947 Wright became captain of Ontario No1. When Ontario No1 tied up for the last time in Cobourg in 1949 Wright remained with the Company as the ship's keeper until it was removed for scrap.
After the war ended revenues rapidly declined. Coal hopper transfers, the primary reason for the ferry service, had declined by more than 400 per cent by 1949. By the late 1940s the volume of other freight and passenger revenues had declined to such an extent that the service was marginal. The OCFC operated at a loss of $189,054 in 1948. A number of factors foreshadowed the demise of the car ferry service.
The increased use of the motorcar following the Second World War precipitated a significant decline in the excursion business as vacationers sought alternative destinations. Canadian National Railways increased its use of Canadian coal, particularly from mines on Cape Breton Island. Coincidentally the coalfields in western Pennsylvania were in decline and subject to increased competition from coalmines in Virginia. New coalmines in the American west made coal shipments through the Niagara Frontier more appropriate with fewer car moves. As a consequence of these new realities, Ontario No1 was tied up in Cobourg on August 1, 1949, ostensibly in preparation for a refit but in reality she never sailed again.
The final death knell for the car ferry service came as a result of the Noronic fire in Toronto harbour. The large loss of life attendant with that fire resulted in a swift revision of Canadian safety standards for all Canadian registered passenger-carrying vessels on the Great Lakes. The estimated cost to refit the boats to the new standards was $950,000 while scrap value was estimated at $75,000. Faced with the new inspection and safety regulations the Ontario Car Ferry Company decided not to seek extensions to the ships sailing certificates.
That decision immediately ended Ontario No1's career. Ontario No2's certificate was due to expire on April 30, 1950. Her last voyage north from Genesee Dock occurred on April 30, 1950. A photographer snapped a picture of her as she sailed past the upright arms of the Stutson Street Bridge in Charlotte. Unlike her first entry in the harbour in Cobourg in 1907 there was no throng on hand to greet her. Without ceremony she tied up along side her sister ship and her boiler fires were extinguished. Neither vessel sailed again under their own steam. Thirty railway workers and station masters in Charlotte and an equal number in Cobourg were forced out of work.
Anonymous donor, Author's Collection;
The above image depicts the Ontario No.1 and Ontario No2 moored alongside the centre pier after both boats were taken out of service. Photographed in May or early June 1950 the image reveals how much has changed in the harbour environs in half a century. Long gone are the oil tanks, the custom's house and the Bird-archer buildings that once encompassed the harbour lands. Not long after the photograph was taken, the two ships also disappeared from Cobourg's harbour completing the fact that this view would never again be possible.
Both vessels were too large to exit the St. Lawrence River to tidewater due to the size of the locks on that river's canal system. That fact may have had an influence on potential bidders for the vessels as none was forthcoming. Repairs to the vessels were estimated at $950,000 and their scrap value was estimated at $75,000. With no bids and other costs prohibitive the OCFC directors sought leave to terminate and discontinue the car ferry operation.
Government regulatory authorities in both the U.S. and Canada were approached to allow for cessation and abandonment of the car ferry service. Agencies in both countries agreed to the request. Both boats were then tendered for scrap. Eleven bids for scrap value were received with A. Newman & Company of St. Catharines, Ontario, tendering the successful bid for scrap. Ontario No1 sold for $60,500 and Ontario No2 for $70,100.
Early in June both boats were towed out of Cobourg harbour. Ontario No1 was cut up at Port Colborne, Ontario, in 1951. When the two ferries departed Cobourg's harbour they took with them nearly a half a century of history with them. Few if any people were on hand to witness their exodus.
Ontario No2 was stripped to her car deck at Port Dalhousie the same year and used briefly as a barge. In July 1952 she was scrapped at Hamilton, Ontario. The Ontario Car Ferry Company surrendered its federal charter to the Canadian government in 1954.
Today only the charred remains of the apron, reflecting the damage from a fire in the early 1990s endure somewhat intact at the Genesee Dock site. The upper yard area at the end of Boxart Street is paved for use as a parking lot and the rail bed along the cliff to the shore has been paved and is used as a park pathway. There are few visitors to this 'lost' parkland and for those who 'find' the area most puzzle over the cement pylons of the former coal trestle unaware of the former rail and marine activity that took place there. The coal trestle was dismantled in the early 1970s and the Genesee Dock Branch roadbed has largely disappeared as a result of land alterations.
As in similar situations in many other communities little evidence remains today of this unique railway and marine operation in Cobourg. The rail connection to Cobourg harbour was removed in 1983 and no trace of its existence remains there. The former industrial harbour is now a recreational yacht harbour and sanctuary amongst the finest on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Very rarely at a local yard sale an item from one of the ships might appear but the appearance and significance of the artefact is lost to most persons.
During the course of its history the Ontario Car Ferry Company paid dividends totalling $1,095,000 to its parent rail companies. No mention of the demise of the Company appeared in the Cobourg press. By that time Ontario No1 and Ontario No2 no longer brought coal to Canada. No mention of the demise of the Company appeared in the Cobourg press.
Few today remember the once daily routine of the B&O/CNR ships as trains. Cobourg's unique international Great Lake rail-marine ferry service is now but a scant memory for a few and a tall tale for others.
For a more detailed account of the history of the Ontario Car Ferry Company and its ships, as well as a photographic record read Coal to Canada: A History of the Ontario Car Ferry Company by Ted Rafuse. A copy is available in the Cobourg Public Library. The book is out of print but occasional copies appear for sale at www.abebooks.com.
- Ashdown, Dana, Railway Steamships of Ontario,
Erin: The Boston Mills Press, 1988
- Canadian Railway & Marine World, various issues
- Cobourg Sentinel Star, various issues, 1905-1954
- Cobourg World, various issues, 1905-1954
- Dawson, D. & Greathead, P., Cobourg's Harbour Days,
Cobourg, Cobourg & District Historical Review 1, 1981
- Delanty, P., The Ontario Car Ferry Company,
Cobourg: Cobourg & District Historical Review 1, 1981
- Hilton, G. W., The Great Lakes Car Ferries,
Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1962
- The Ontario Car Ferry Company, Corporate Records
National Archives of Canada, RG30, 1 C 19, various volumes.
- Ouderkirk, Gerry, Ontario No1 and Ontario No2,
Toronto, The Scanner, Vol IX, No5, Feb 1977, Toronto Marine Historical Society
- Rafuse, Ted, Coal To Canada: A History of the Ontario Car Ferry Company,
Cobourg: Steampower Publishing, 2000
- Railway Life, Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway Magazine, various issues
- Roemer, Lillian, Remembering the Ontario No1 and the Ontario No2,
Rochester, Lillian Roemer, 1995.
For additional information regarding Ted's writing, self publishing and public presentations, his web site is www.steampowerpublishing.org.