River Ferries From Hand To Steam ( Originally Published 1910 )


Era Of Steam - Early Hand Ferries - Horse Ferries - First Steam Power Ferries On St. Lawrence And At Toronto - Detroit River Ferries Of Early Times - The Windsor - Its Burning-Modern Steam Ferries-Incident Of Winter, 1887—other Ferries At Port Huron And Mackinac.

THE era of steam, in which there has been witnessed the greatest advance in the mechanical arts since the early civilizations, has wrought many and great changes in the modes of navigation throughout the world. One evidence of this is the remarkable development in the past century of the steam tonnage upon the high seas. From the little side-wheel steamer Brittania, which was the first vessel propelled by steam to make regular trips across the Atlantic, to the giant Mauretania, there is a wide transition. From the first steam frigate, the Princeton, of the United States navy, to the indomitable battleship Florida, there is shown an evolution of power almost beyond belief. From the Hudson River steam-boat, the Clermont, to the stately Hendrick Hudson, there is manifest a vast improvement in respect to speed and accommodations for travelers. Coming inland, as between the Walk-in-the-Water and the latest leviathan of the passenger fleet on the Great Lakes, no comparison can be drawn. The only feature in common possessed by them all is a power plant, the motive energy of which is steam. Beyond that there is no similarity either in model, materials, or construction.

Upon no inland waters of the world is there to be found a marine comprising so many and varied types of steam vessels as that of the Great Lakes of America. In this generation many of the old-timers are objects of curiosity to the landsman, while the salt-water " tar " looks upon them, and also the modern types of the lake craft, with astonishment and scorn. The habitual traveler on the lakes, however, and perhaps the casual tourist, view the big freighters, the giant ore carriers, and the speedy passenger steamers with reverence, wondering the while what cargoes and power installations are carried in their cavernous holds. If they inquire what practical reasons there may be for some of the strange and novel types, in all probability they will be told that in a general way the fresh-water craft are better adapted to the special and peculiar uses of the lake service than any other types of ships would be.

As evidence of this fact the steam barge and its " hookers " towing wearily behind, sometimes to the number of five or six, have never been equaled as economical carriers of lumber and other products of the forest. Likewise, the little " rabbit," a modified type of the barge, is most economical in the freighting of salt, stone, coal, and other heavy, coarse commodities between ports, the shallow channels of which bar the modern steel freighters. The great ore carriers of the lakes are the largest bulk freight vessels upon any waters of the globe, and they transport larger cargoes and at a lower rate, considering the short haul, than any vessels ever built. The splendid package freighters of large cargo capacity and speed maintain regular schedules from end to end of the lakes, regardless of storm or gale. The through rates from the West to the seaboard, in connection with the Erie Canal, are so low as to be beyond any railroad competition. Another type not before mentioned but of exceeding interest is that of the railway car ferries, which for about thirty years have been familiar to travelers, at least on the connecting rivers between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Within recent years they have become important factors in a vast commerce flowing from the West across Lake Michigan.

But long before these big black transports had been devised, or even thought of, the rivers were crossed and recrossed by other and simpler means. In the days of the Revolution a ferry was maintained on the Niagara River, at Black Rock, and was the first of authentic record above the great cataract. It was a hand ferry and consisted of a flat-bottomed scow, propelled by long sweeps moved by human strength. The landing on the American side was the historic " black rock," — a broad flat rock about one hundred feet wide, extending into the stream nearly the same number of feet. Its top was four feet above the surface of the water, and formed an excellent landing place for the birch-bark canoes and the light bateaux of the early explorers. Here La Salle and his little band of intrepid followers embarked in the Griffin, and, with a salute of the brass guns and musketry, sailed away to join Tonty in an expedition for the discovery of a new passage to the Pacific. From the same spot the first steamboat, the Walk-in-the-Water, breasted the swift current with the aid of the " horned breeze," and steamed out into Lake Erie to the astonishment alike of the natives and the inhabitants along the shore.

In 1800 an enterprising boatman, named O'Neill, living in a log hut near the " black rock," built and operated a hand ferry from this historic landing to the Canadian side. Six years later Major Frederick Miller took the ferry and conducted it until 1812. From that time until 1821 another sturdy pioneer in the business, Lester Brace, conducted the convenient ferry, and it was only displaced by a new and more novel power boat which appeared in 1826. This was the first horse-power ferry on the lakes, and was put in service by L. B. and Donald Fraser. The machinery consisted of a horizontal wheel the width of the boat, and it was operated by horses treading at each side.

About 1844 another horse ferry was established by Privatt Brothers between Toronto and the small island across the harbor. The boat was named the Peninsular Packet, and was a side-wheel affair, operated by two horses. The first power appliance was so constructed that the horses trod on a revolving platform or table, which, by an arrangement of crude gears, transmitted its energy to a shaft. At the ends of this shaft were secured the paddle-wheels. In operation the horses remained in a stationary position, treading away very much as in the old threshing machine outfits where the beasts continually climbed a hill. After about two years of service the cumbersome mechanism 'was altered so that the horses followed a circular path on the deck of the boat, a principle in use to-day in the simplest power appliances. In this form the boat was operated until 1850. In that year Louis J. Privatt built the little steamer Victoria, of twenty-five horse-power, to run from Robert Maitland's wharf at the foot of Church Street. It maintained an hourly service from ten o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock in the evening; and continued on the passage until 1855.

The introduction of steam in the ferry service on the St. Lawrence River was coincident with the appearance of iron vessels in those waters. This was in 1843 when the pioneers of that class, named the Prince Albert and the Iron Duke, were put on the service between Montreal on one side and St. Lambert and Laprairie, on the south shore. The original Victoria Bridge had not yet been built, and the passengers from the south by the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railway were conveyed across the river to their destination by these steamers. They were built in Scotland, brought across the ocean in sections, and put together in Montreal. In 1845 some small market boats were put on to run between the city and Sorel, a point some distance down the river on the south side, in order to enable the farmers there to market their produce. From this small beginning there has developed the largest transportation line in the St. Lawrence system.

The ferries on the Detroit River date from 1825, at which time the scow Olive Branch was put on between Detroit and Windsor. It was a primitive affair, and in an advertisement of the ferry it was stated, " for the purpose of transporting wagons, horses, cattle, and passengers across the Detroit River." The passenger traffic then must have been the least important to the boatmen. About 1830 this ferry was displaced by a steamboat named the Argo, under the command of Captain Burtiss. It was a side-wheeler and continued in service until 1834, when a rival for the popular patronage appeared, named the Lady of the Lake. Two years after, Louis Davenport built and put in service a larger steamer equipped with a high-pressure engine, which he named the United. This ferry registered seventy-one tons. In operation, the exhaust from the engine gave such a penetrating sound as to be heard a long distance in clear weather. In 1853 the United was enlarged and converted into a wood barge, and plied the lakes for twenty-six years. It was finally sunk in collision at the St. Clair Flats, in 1879.

Contemporary with the United, as a ferry, were the Alliance, which was added to the course in 1842, and was known a few years later as the Undine; the Argo No. 2, built in 1848, which soon exploded, killing Captain Foster and several others, but was rebuilt and sailed for twenty-four years by Captain Forbes; and the Ottawa, of three hundred tons' burden, built by Dr. Russell, and which ended its career on the Maumee River. In 1856 the side-wheeler Gem, of about two hundred and fifty tons, built by W. P. Campbell, was put on in connection with the Windsor, a steamer of about the same dimensions which came out that year. These steamers maintained the service with some competition for a number of years. The Windsor was chartered in 1866 to operate the connecting link of the river for the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, carrying both freight and passengers to and from the Great Western Railway docks in Windsor.

Before it had been long in service, however, the ferry was lost in one of the great marine disasters, by which the annals of the Great Lakes are filled. On the night of April 23, 1866, the steamer burned in the river, with a loss of thirty lives. Many other passengers were picked up by small boats, which put off from the dock, and the ferry boat Detroit, which happened to be making a landing near by. That the whole water front of the city was not engulfed in a sea of flame was due to the heroic and quick action of Captain Innes, of the ferry Detroit. The venerable captain for a number of years has been commodore of the Michigan Central fleet of transports. A graphic account of the catastrophe is told by the captain himself:

"You see it was this way. 'Long about eleven o'clock one night an explosion of oil occurred aboard the steamer Windsor, while she was tied to her wharf at the foot of Brush Street. I was captain of the old city ferry, the Detroit, at the time, and we had just landed at the foot of Woodward Avenue, with passengers from Windsor. I was standing at the signal ropes on the bridge leading to the pilot house when the Windsor took fire. In less than two minutes after the explosion she was a mass of flames from stem to stern. She had perhaps fifty people aboard, as I found out afterwards — passengers and deck hands. In about another minute I saw her lines ablazin' saw 'em part and saw the Windsor startin' to drift down in our direction. By this time the freight sheds on the wharf had caught fire, and I saw men and women leaping over the Windsor's rail into the water. I signaled our boys to man the life-boats, and shouted to 'em to make a line fast to her stern. This they did in short order. Then I sends a signal below to back her hard — runs into the pilot house, throws over the helm, and out and away we goes toward the middle grounds. I saw the men in our life-boats trying to rescue those people in the river — and they were surely doing their best. All at once, like the report of a gun, our tow line parted. The Windsor was a roaring furnace. We were then off the foot of Wayne Street, on the middle ground where the cross-current runs strong, and I knew unless we could do something to keep the Windsor off shore, that when she struck, the whole river front would soon be ablaze, in consequence of her drifting down with the current. But how to keep her out in the channel was sure enough a puzzler. First, I decided to ram her down the river. No, this plan wouldn't do. The Detroit would catch fire and then what of my passengers more than a score of 'em. On the other hand, the Windsor was drifting fast toward shore. We would have to ram her — and quick, too.

"My men being out in the life-boats left us short-handed only myself, the wheelsman, engineer, and fireman, and the latter two would have to stay below. Life-boats or no life-boats, we must run the risk. I gave orders to send her full speed ahead — shouted to the passengers and the men to wet down the decks and stand ready with the buckets. Well, in a couple of minutes we struck her. There was a crash of fallin', blazin' timbers. The sparks fell on our decks in a shower, and we were ablaze in a dozen places. But we held on to the Windsor, stuck to her, pushed her out into the river, fought the flames on board our boat and headed for Sandwich Point. All told, we must have been two hours gettin' her beached, where she burned to the water's edge.

"Next day a dozen or so Detroit citizens came aboard and offered me a purse of one thousand dollars in gold. Said I had to take it — that I had saved the river front. I refused and laughed 'em out of the notion. Why, anybody who was half a man would have done his best that night of the fire of '66."

The steamer Essex, built in 1859, ran for several years between Detroit and Windsor, and in war times many exciting scenes were enacted on her decks, and at the docks on either side, as the ferry at this point was frequently attacked by rebel refugees in Canada, attempting to pass back into the United States. The Essex after-ward was placed on the ferry between St. Clair and Court-right, on the St. Clair River. The ferry-boat Detroit was built at Algonac, in 1864, and was burned in September, 1875, at Sandwich, a few miles below the city on the Canadian side. The steamer Hope was built in 1870, but was soon after converted into a propeller for lake service. The only iron ferry-boat during this period was the Mohawk, operated by Captain Chivers. It was built about 1844 for the British Revenue Service, but years after was converted into a passenger steamer, and, after running a number of seasons on the ferry route, was lost on Lake Huron, in 1868.

The modern ferry-boats familiar to the present generation of lake dwellers, and which ply continually during the navigation season between Detroit wharfs, Windsor, and Belle Isle Park, are of recent construction, and are splendid steamers of their type. With their broad decks crowded with eager, pleasure-seeking people, and with bands playing, and flags flying from the peaks, the swift steamers add a touch of romance to the commercial life of the busy stream. The waters, so clear and of the deep blue tinge so entrancing to the landsmen, are constantly churned into swells by the passing and repassing and the crossing of the lanes of the huge car ferries, and the continual procession of lake freighters, so that they present at almost all times the surface of a large lake whipped into waves by lake breezes. But in the swift current the waters rush onward to the expanse of Lake Erie, and thence to the cataract of Niagara. When winter sets in and the surface is frozen, the stanch steamers continue the service every day, in the passage from the city wharf to the Canadian town across the way.

The earliest steamer of the present fleet was built by the Detroit and Windsor Ferry Company, in 1872, and named the Victoria. It was a notable advance in ferry-boat construction, inasmuch as the under bow was shaped to crush the ice and pass over it. It proved a great success and kept the channel open at all times during the winter. The steamer is still in service. It registers one hundred and ninety-two tons, and is one hundred and six feet long by twenty-eight feet beam. The ferry Fortune was built in 1875, on practically the same lines, but is one hundred and fourteen feet long and twenty-nine feet of beam.

The following year the steamer Excelsior was added to the fleet, — one hundred and twenty-six feet in length by twenty-nine feet beam, and registering two hundred and twenty-nine gross tons. In 1883, when the Belle Isle service was inaugurated, the steamer Sappho was built, of dimensions one hundred and sixteen by thirty-one feet, and of two hundred and twenty-three tons' register. As the island park, located three miles above the commercial centre of the river's activity, was improved, greater crowds of people were attracted by its beauties, and by 1892, the Detroit, Belle Isle, and Windsor Ferry Company built the steamer Promise, for that service. The new ferry was one hundred and thirty by thirty-eight feet in size, and accommodated almost two thousand passengers, yet it was far from large enough to carry the throngs of people who went to the park by the delightful water-way, during the hot summer months.

By 1894 the company was obliged to build the steamer Pleasure, of still larger proportions, being one hundred and forty by fifty-one feet. With this fine fleet of fast steamers a twenty-minute schedule is maintained from three landings in Detroit to the island park, and a ten-minute service between the city and Windsor. In 1902 a new service was opened to Bois Blanc Island, at the mouth of the river, eighteen miles below the city, and a mammoth new steamer, named the Columbia, was built especially for it. The Columbia is the largest and finest ferry steamer for the excursion business afloat upon any water in the world, and has a passenger capacity of three thousand, five hundred. It is nearly a thousand tons' register and measures two hundred and sixteen feet in length of deck. To round out the fleet and provide a large reserve steamer suitable for either the upriver or downriver service, the company, in 1907, built the steamer Brittania, which, though of slightly less dimensions than the Columbia, is licensed to carry four thou-sand passengers. The limit is reached almost daily during the busy summer months, when the tourist travel to and from the island parks is heaviest. The " City of the Straits " is the hub of the lower lake navigation, and from its broad wharfs there are witnessed more steamer arrivals and departures in a navigation season than at any other port in American waters. More than seven and three-quarter million passengers entered the port in 1907. Many of them were tourists and lake travelers attracted by the beauties of the historic river with its clear, pure water, the counterpart of which is not found on the continent.

A certain charm is lent the romance of the old waterway by the tales of exciting scenes and instances of valor and courage enacted upon its surface, but none can equal those told by the old river men, whose lives have been spent on the ferry-boats and along the water front. As told in their breezy way, which smacks of the freedom of the seas, they are none the less effective. The humorous element of the river lore is not lacking in the telling, as this tale told by an old ferry captain clearly shows :

"One afternoon during the Winter of '87 we roped a deer off'n the ice and pulled her aboard the ferry. We were out in the middle grounds headed full speed for the Windsor side when we sighted the animal. In less time than it takes to tell it every passenger was out on deck. I ran out on the bridge from the pilot house, where I was greeted with shouts from the passengers of 'Get after her, Cap'n! Get after her! Get out some ropes and we 'll have some fun.' At this time the animal was puttin' fer the Canada side at about forty knots an hour.

"The river was pretty well froze over, with here and there a break and 'wind-flow,' and Mr. Deer was about a quarter of a knot astern, headed due nor'east by east Decided, on a sudden, we could have some fun, so back I puts into the wheel-house, sends a full-stop and back-her signal below, throws over the wheel, sends another signal to give her full speed ahead, and down the river we puts. Just when we had turned, the animal runs plump into an ice floe, and in the river he goes kersplash.

"We held our course and soon came alongside. I sends another signal to stop her — orders my men to make ready with the ropes and clears the deck fer action. Out I runs on the bridge to give orders to my men, when, all of a sudden Mr. Deer raises his bow, hooks his anchors on to the edge of the floe, pulls hisself up and out of the water, and starts on a sixty-mile pace fer the Detroit side.

"Back I puts into the pilot house, orders full speed ahead; helms her to starboard and locks the wheel down tight. By this time those folks on deck were yellin' and shoutin' like so many wild Injuns. Thinks I to myself, ` I '11 give her whistle a blast,' and I did. A few short, quick ones, and then a long one, followed by a few more short blasts, and all at once Mr. Deer makes a few high jumps, stumbles, and falls and slides port side, anchors up, into another wind-break, and goes clear under and out of sight.

"I sends orders below to full-stop and back her hard, runs out on the bridge and orders my men to again clear the decks and make ready. Well, this time we managed to board her. One of my men jumps over the side, runs out with a rope, and just when the animal had again hooked onto the ice with his anchors, he throws his line over the critter's masts, makes fast, and signals my men to throw a 'bowfin-hitch.' I shouts to the men to get some planks over the side and for all hands to pull on the sheet ropes. Say, they could n't budge her. Back I puts and agin toots the whistle. Held her down for a long blast, and with the noise of the whistle and the shouts of the passengers, the animal gets scared, scrambles up atop the ice-floe, and then we thought we had our game sure dead easy. But, the critter drops his anchors and braces hisself so hard thet the men on the ropes could n't budge him. Finally, I orders the boys to make fast to the capstan and then we soon reeled him alongside. Some of the boys jumps over the side and helps to boost the critter over the side. Such yellin' and shoutin' I never before heard the likes.

"All hands then passed their opinions. Some said the animal was a brand commonly seen in the nor'west of Canada, and some 'lowed they had seen the brand in the nor'east'n section. We found out different, however, when we got ashore at the Windsor slip. There among the crowd waitin' to meet us, was a feller who had proof that Mr. Deer, 'Mike,' as he called him, was his property. Said he was a physician and that he lived in Detroit, and that Mike had jumped the back-yard fence the night before."

At the foot of Lake Huron, where the flow of the broad lake narrows to the St. Clair River, there is a ferry between the city of Port Huron and Sarnia, a town on the Canadian side. Since 1868, the little steamer Grace Dormer has maintained a ferry service, to which was added, in 1873, the ferry-boat James Beard; and in 1882 the new steamer Omar 1). Conger was built for the passage of the swift current at this point. The Conger is of two hundred gross tons' register, and is one hundred and two feet long by twenty-six feet beam.

Across the Straits of Mackinac at the head of the lakes, a large, powerful ferry — a veritable ice-crusher —plies in the- service between the town of Mackinac, the Island of Mackinac, and St. Ignace, on the north shore. It is the well-known steamer Algomah, built in 1881, of four hundred and eighty-six gross tons, and one hundred and forty feet in length by thirty-three feet beam. Through storm and gale, which are prevalent in the straits at all seasons of the year, the stanch steamer runs back and forth over the profitable route. In the depth of winter, when the ice in the straits is often piled high and badly windrowed, the Algomah is useful in keeping the channel open for the car ferries, which connect the north peninsula railroads with those of the mainland operating to the south.