Detroit, Belle Isle & Windsor Ferry Company, Detroit, Michigan. The work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies.


The history of the ferry business on the Detroit river, from the day of the Indian canoe to the present day of powerful, speedy and commodious steamers, is fairly illustrative of the rise and progress of lake and river navigation throughout the entire chain of inland waterways. Prior to the war of 1812, and, indeed, for several years thereafter, there was little need for any systematic running of boats between the American and Canadian shores; but as this country began to fill up with emigrants and with people from the eastern States the Canadian border also received its quota of newcomers, and hence it was that for some years prior to 1830 Louis Davenport owned and operated as a ferry line a number of large canoes, charging for each passenger carried a shilling, equal to sixteen and two-thirds cents. He employed three men who were afterward connected with the steam ferries, namely: Capt. Thomas Chilvers, Capt. James Clinton and George Irwin. These canoes carried freight as well as passengers, moving the bulky articles in an emigrant's outfit by lashing two canoes together, and even horses were transported in this manner. In winter time, when the river was solidly frozen over, the canoes were placed on runners, the men pushing them along by hand. At length it became apparent that some more comprehensive scheme of transportation must be provided and what was called the "Horse-Ferry" was put into service. This craft was a large scow having paddle-wheels on the sides connected with and geared to an upright shaft in the middle of the boat, the shaft being moved by a horse traveling slowly around in a circle on the deck. A brief announcement in one of the Detroit papers dated May 4, 1831, states that "The Horse-Ferry has been thoroughly overhauled and is again ready to transport freight across the river at reasonable rates."

The contrivance, however, does not seem to have been very long-lived, for about this time Captain Davenport brought out the steam ferry Argo, the first steam vessel to ply regularly between the two shores of the river. The Argo was of the very crudest description, consisting of two large canoes fastened together, forming a catamaran, over which a deck was placed to hold the machinery, which comprised a small boiler and an engine having two six-inch cylinders with ten-inch stroke, connected to a main shaft, turning paddle wheels on either side of the boat. The power was so limited that the boat was unable to make any headway against the current of the river when the wind blew down the stream, and horses and sometimes oxen were employed to tow her along the banks to her dock. Encouraged by the tolerable success of his first steamboat Captain Davenport built the United, a boat 80 feet long with 20 feet breadth of beam. She was also a side-wheeler, and at the rates charged, eighteen cents for each passenger and one dollar for a horse and wagon, he did a large business and made money. The United was in service only four years when she was made into a tow-boat and sold to Capt. John Pridgeon, who changed her name to the Alliance. Later on she was sold to Capt. William P. Campbell, father of Walter E. Campbell, now president of the Ferry Company, and her name again changed, to the Undine, but after two or three years she was abandoned, as having outlived her usefulness.

The ventures of Captain Davenport had attracted the attention of others to the ferry business and Dr. George B. Russell put on the route a more pretentious craft, named the Argo No. 2. This was also a side-wheel boat, 100 feet long, 20 feet beam, and operated by more powerful machinery than either of her predecessors. She was also equipped with side cabins and some effort was made to provide for the comfort of the passengers. With the exception of two white men the entire crew, including the engineer, consisted of negroes. The Argo No. 2 was in service for thirty-two years and was a profitable investment. Dr. Russell soon after built the Windsor, which was subsequently sold to the Detroit & Milwaukee railroad, and which burned at her dock at the time of the depot fire in 1862. He also built the Ottawa, but having too many boats for the traffic she was afterward used for towing.

Next came the Mohawk, owned by Capt. Thomas Chilvers, one of the first three iron boats built on the lakes. Her machinery, like that in the first Argo, was not powerful enough to handle the craft against both wind and current, and landings had frequently to be made with the aid of horses. She was later turned into a lumber barge and ran between Saginaw and Tonawanda, being ultimately wrecked off Point aux Barques.

In 1858 Capt. William P. Campbell brought out the Gem, commanded by Capt. Thomas Chilvers, which ran between Detroit and Amherstburg for a year, when Captain Campbell announced his intention of engaging in the ferry business. Dr. Russell at this time owned the Ottawa, Windsor and Argo No. 2, and in order to keep Captain Campbell off the route he secured control of all the dockage on the river between the Detroit & Milwaukee and Michigan Central depots. Captain Campbell, however, managed to obtain the city dock at the foot of Woodward avenue, which was just large enough to accommodate the Gem, and hanging up a sign reading "One cent fare - no monopoly," he began a lively warfare in the carrying of passengers and freight, eventually getting the cream of the patronage. This was the entrance of the Campbells into the ferry business, and they have been engaged in it, father and son, ever since. Early in 1860 the side-wheel ferry Essex, built by Henry and Shadrach Jenkins at Walkerville, made her appearance, being by far the best boat built up to that time. She was sailed by Capt. George Jenkins until 1877, when she was sold to Port Huron parties and put on the route between that city and the opposite port of Sarnia, Ont., continuing in that service for several years; she was later sunk on the St. Clair river below Port Huron.

Captain Campbell brought out the Detroit in 1862 under command of Capt. Thomas Chilvers. This was another side-wheeler with the engine on one side of the boat and the boiler on the other, and she was in service until 1875, when she was sent to the bone yard. About this time the attention of everybody engaged in the business was directed to the necessity of some better means of overcoming the obstructions due to ice in winter, and for several seasons the Clara, a screw steamer, was used during the winter months, running the summer between the city and Fort Wayne, and carrying back and forth the troops quartered there. In 1867 the Favorite, a screw steamer owned by John Horn, Jr., and sailed by Captain Lew Horn, made her appearance, but after running for a short time on the ferry route she was used as a tug and river steamer. Another side wheeler, the Hope, was built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company for George N. Brady, in 1870; this boat was subsequently changed to a propeller and was in service a number of years.

Two years later Capt. W. R. Clinton, of Windsor, son of James Clinton, who years before swung a large paddle in one of Davenport's canoe ferries, built the Victoria, a boat constructed on almost entirely new lines and especially well calculated to force her way through the very heaviest ice in winter. Her engines were large and powerful and her performance was equal to the anticipations of the Captain. How well he knew what was needed is tested by the fact that the Victoria is one of the seven ferryboats in service today, equal to any winter demands that are made on her, and with some slight modifications which experience has shown to be necessary, her model has since been followed in the building of new boats. From this time the building of additional boats went on as follows: 1875, the Fortune, owned by the Campbells; 1876, the Excelsior, and 1880, the Garland, owned by the Horns; 1881, the Sappho, owned by Hiram Walker; 1892, the Promise, and 1895, the Pleasure, owned by the present ferry company. Of the last two boats it may be said that the shape of the hull has been changed from former models so as to offer but little obstruction in passing through ice, and also to enable them to crush the ice from the sides as well as the bow of the boats.

For two or three years prior to 1877 there were a number of rival interests in the ferry business, but in that year the more important ones were brought together under a corporation known as the Detroit & Windsor Ferry Association, which controlled the Hope, owned by George N. Brady; the Victoria, owned by Capt. W. R. Clinton; the Fortune, owned by Capt. Walter E. Campbell, and the Excelsior, owned by Capt. John Horn. This arrangement continued for about four years, when, in 1881, in order to satisfy the claims of the Detroit Dry Dock Company, the Excelsior and Garland were sold at marshal's sale, and the Dry Dock Company organized the Detroit, Belle Isle & Windsor Ferry Company, with Frederick Schulenburg as manager. In 1883 Capt. John Pridgeon obtained a controlling interest in the company, which he retained until 1891, when he sold out to the present management. The new owners immediately began extensive improvements and additions to the service, overhauling hulls and machinery, repairing docks and arranging routes so as to best accommodate the public; and their efforts were so well directed that the prejudices against the ferry company which existed a few years ago has disappeared and the public gives an enormous patronage to the superior line of boats running to Belle Isle Park and to various points along the river front. These steamers are largely used for excursion parties to Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, the St. Clair river, and the many islands above and below the city. The latest addition to the fleet, the Pleasure, is by far the handsomest boat, both in general design and in finish, to be found in similar business on the lakes. She is 140 feet in length, breadth to beam, 39-1/2 feet, at water line 34-1/2 feet; breadth over guards, 52 feet; draught, 14 feet. The Pleasure is provided with a powerful three-cylinder compound engine, the cylinder diameters being 24, 32 and 32 inches, with a 24-inch stroke. The engine is in the hold of the vessel, so that the space usually devoted to the engine room only shows the top of the cylinder heads. The complete fleet of the Ferry Company as at present constituted is as follows: Victoria, Capt. John Foster; Excelsior, Capt. William Carolan; Fortune, Capt George Horn; Sappho, Capt. John Carey; Garland, Capt. Michael McCune; Promise, Capt. John Wilkinson; Pleasure, Capt. George Shanks. The following are the officers of the Company: President and general manager, Walter E. Campbell; vice-president, Darius N. Avery; superintendent, Albert P. Clinton; chief engineer, Nicholas Huff.