The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Doreen Rice
The opening of the new International Bridge between Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, on October 31, 1962 brought to an end an era that began 76 years ago when the first ferry, Grace, transported passengers (four per trip) across the St. Marys River between the “two Soos.” The late Captain Charles Ripley of Soo, Michigan, who was connected with every ferry on the St. Marys except the last two, built the Grace in 1873. The boat had a steam engine amidships, was 24 feet long and compared in size to the standard lifeboats carried on the Great Lakes freighters of today. The crew consisted of Captain Ripley, George Masters, chief engineer, and his wife, who assisted as pilot. They operated the Grace for several years at about the same terminals as the present ferry docks.
Before Captain Ripley entered the ferry service there is record of a steam ferry Dime — a 30-foot, wood-fired boat operated by a Soo, Ontario, hotel owner.
The next boat in ferry service was larger, and was called Louise. She in turn was followed by the Antelope, which was used not only as a ferry but also as a salvage vessel, sailing to shipwrecks nearby. She was sold to the Government for work on the River. Captain Ripley then purchased the Flora Holden, which he operated about ten years until she was condemned. The Camilla, Elizabeth Payton, Courier and Lady May were all small ships and only used a short period of time.
Captain Ripley’s next acquisition was an 80-foot steam ferry, International, built in Buffalo, New York, in 1889. The captain, his wife, and an engineer sailed the boat from Buffalo to the Soo. At this time the J. J. Beckwith was put into service — the first competition for Captain Ripley. However, after a year the two operators joined forces, using both boats. Finally the Beckwith was sold, converted to a tug, and was later wrecked on Lake Superior. Two smaller ships, Ivanhoe and Mascot, combined with the International to make a fleet of three ferries in service between the two Soos (three ferries which were not used again for over fifty years until the John A. McPhail was added to the James W. Curran and Agoming in 1955). The Ivanhoe ended her career as a ferry by burning at the dock, and the June Hagarty was purchased to be used with the Mascot. About the same time the Soo Ferryboat Company was formed. Captain Ripley retired as an active ferryboat
captain and took the International on an excursion to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. He also operated an excursion and cargo service on the St. Marys River. The International was sold to a group operating in Lake Superior and met her fate by fire at the dock in Houghton, Michigan.
The Thomas Friant was next in line and was used both as a ferry and an excursion boat but was sold when the International Transit Company was formed in 1901. Before the formation of the new Company, the Mascot and Hagarty were sold, the Fortune was purchased, and Captain Ripley became dock manager of the new firm. This new company purchased the Algoma, a side-loading steamer built in 1899 in Toronto, Ontario, and used her along with the Fortune until 1910, when the latter was sold. The Algoma carried on the ferry service between the two Soos until 1926. She was 124 feet long with a beam of 26 feet, and after her busy career as a ferry she became a package freighter on the St. Lawrence River, At one time during this period the fare for foot passengers crossing the St. Marys was ten cents each way, and for horned cattle, twenty-five cents.
The first diesel carferry, Agoming, was built in Collingwood, Ontario, and went into service in 1926, ending operations with the opening of the new International Bridge in 1962. More automobiles, improved highways and an ever-growing tourist trade, along with the increasing population of the two Soos, soon made additional ferry service a necessity, thus the James W. Curran and the John A. McPhail were added in 1947 and 1955, respectively, both terminating service with the opening of the bridge.
The Ontario Government purchased the ferry service for $1,650,000.00 in June 1960. (The original ferry company also operated street cars to the ferry docks.) In order to sell the bridge-building bonds, a guarantee of no ferry system operating within five miles of the bridge had to be established. While the Province was operating the ferries June 1960-October 1962, the greatest number of cars ever carried crossed on August 18, 1962, when 3,425 cars were transported across the St. Marys River. At first, the Agoming could carry up to 24 cars but as they increased in size she finally was limited to 12 to 16 cars per trip.
Many amusing stories about the ferries have accumulated over the years. One, taken from a clipping from the Sault Daily Star, concerned an acrobatic horse. One winter, early in the century, a show troupe playing in Soo, Ontario, wished to return to Soo, Michigan, but did not want to pay the expense of shipping the animal across by train, so the ferry captain agreed to bring the horse across for $1.00, provided the troupe agreed to take the risk. The horse walked the gangplank onto the 15-foot yawl and was tied on each side and ferried across the open stretch of water on the Canadian side. Then, pulling a toboggan and carrying a rider, he trotted the remainder of the way to the American side, passing through Customs and Immigration Bureaus without any trouble!
Around 1900 the ferry docks in both Soos were located in such a way as to make the ferry route much longer than with the later-built slips. In 1915, adult fare for foot passengers was ten cents; for horse and rider, twenty-five cents; horse, vehicle, and driver, thirty-five cents; sheep and pigs, five cents each; horned cattle twenty-five cents per head. And in the early days ice was cut with a power saw to open the ferry channel in the spring.
The latter years of the ferry service provided their share of incidents too, such as the following:
A raw, cold, winter day was finally drawing to a close and the crew of workmen engaged in the building of the MacArthur Lock hurried to the ferry dock to catch the five o’clock boat, which would take them home to the Canadian Soo. As the ferry left the dock the ever-increasing cold aided the ice formations in their efforts to retard the boat, as she valiantly struggled through the shifting floes. Progress was very slow and eventually ice and ferry locked together part way across, to remain thus for the next twelve hours. Everyone retreated to the engine room, as it was the warmest place on the boat, and, as some army vehicles carrying supplies were on board too, enough food was available for all. Around five o’clock in the morning a tug with only one engine operating came to their assistance and the ferry was released to battle ice for another day.
Before 24-hour ferry service was established anyone wishing to cross the St. Marys River in winter after regular ferry hours had to walk the ice, following a row of evergreen trees stuck in the snow to mark a path. The water on the Canadian side being faster did not freeze as quickly as the remainder of the River so a small boat was used to ferry people across the open stretch of water. This proved to be a profitable business, especially on Sunday — the busiest day of the week. At first, ferry service operated only during the navigation season with the last trip at 8 PM This was changed to 9 PM, then 11, and finally 1 AM, before the 24-hour, 12-month service became a reality.
The ferry system has been a vital part of the history and progress of this area. During the past few years, prior to the opening of the bridge, the inadequacy of any type of ferry transportation became increasingly evident and, at the height of the tourist season, lineups congested streets in both cities, many people having to wait four or five hours to cross the River. Even as far back as the Locks Centennial in 1955 “ferry lineups” were a problem. Some tourists got in line by mistake and even though they intended to go to the Locks or take a Lock Boat Tour, found themselves headed for Canada instead.
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On May 8th, this year, the ferries J. W. Curran and the John A. McPhail left the Soo for a five-day trip to Kingston. The boats, owned by the Province of Ontario, had been tied together and were being towed by the tug G. W. Rogers, to receive major drydock repairs before being put into ferry service carrying passengers from Kingston to Wolfe Island. On the 9th, in Lake Huron, about 90 miles north of Sarnia, the two ferries were caught in the tail of a tornado. The Curran sank around 3 A. M., in about 200 feet of water. The crew of the Rogers tried to keep the McPhail afloat but the heavy tow cables connecting her to the Curran pulled her under at about 7 P.M. No one was aboard either ferry when it went to the bottom and the vessels do not present a hazard to navigation; a white oil drum marks the location of the sinking. However, the Marine Inspection Office of the U. S. Coast Guard in Detroit believes it may be possible to raise the vessels. The site of the sinking is about two miles offshore Point Aux Barques, close to Port Austin, Michigan, which is about 60 miles northeast of Bay City on the western end of Saginaw Bay.
Agoming, the third ferry to end service at the Soo with the opening of the International Bridge, is, at present, on standby duty in the St. Marys River for St. Joseph Island ferries, Ontario.
Although the ferries represent the end of an era and the bridge the beginning of a new one, the St. Marys River, which they both had to overcome, represents all eras — yesterday, today and tomorrow — as it fulfills its destiny as a link in our great “Inland Seas.”
About the Author: Mrs. Doreen Rice is a resident of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and a long- time, helpful member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, with a keen interest in the area about which she writes. Members of the Society and readers of INLAND SEAS will remember other articles regarding the ferries and the new International Bridge which she has contributed to past issues of this journal.