Fast ferry, past and future 

The Rochester-Toronto fast ferry has faced its fair share of controversy. But if fast-ferry service between Toronto and Rochester starts in May 2004, something sweeter may fill the air. And it won't be the smell of Pennsylvania coal. It'll be nostalgia.

            In March of 1954, four years after the last voyage of the car ferries from Rochester to Cobourg, Ontario, Arch Merrill of the Democrat & Chronicle wrote a proverbial obituary for passenger service on Lake Ontario. In his usual folksy but magisterial way, he brought down the curtain on an era by listing several of the steamships that plied Lake Ontario through the late 19th and early 20th century.

            The Sylvan Stream was a side-wheeler with a route between Charlotte and the Thousand Islands; its heyday was the 1880s. The Alexandria actually ran the St. Lawrence rapids to go from Charlotte down the river to Quebec between 1909 and 1912. The Norseman (later rebuilt and renamed the North King) and its sister ship the Caspian ran between Charlotte and the Canadian cities of Cobourg and Port Hope until 1914.

            The inimitable Merrill brought his story to a close by noting that the Sam Leary's Steamboat House on River Street in Charlotte had recently changed its name to Leary's Window Bar.

            In anticipation of the arrival of the oft-debated fast ferry, here's a shortlist of factoids and anecdotes that help place the new boat in a historical context. (Disclosure: CATS partner Thomas Riley is a City Newspaper board member.)

• Between 1915 and 1950, the Ontario I and II carried cars and passengers to Cobourg, Ontario, directly across Lake Ontario from Rochester, rather than making the longer trip northwest to Toronto.


• The Ontario II and her sister ship were not only ferries, but also carried Pennsylvania coal across the lake for Canadian railroad engines. They were loaded with pulpwood for the return trip.

• Recent news reports have emphasized the massive size of the fast ferry, but the Ontario I was 514 feet long, could carry 1,200 passengers, and 30 railroad cars full of coal. The new catamaran ferry is 284 feet long and will carry 774 passengers and 238 cars.

• The new diesel-driven ferry will be considerably faster than the old steamships. The Ontario I and II only made 14 knots (16 mph) and took five hours to make the trip to Cobourg, a shorter distance than the one to Toronto, which the Canadian American Transport System (CATS) ferry will cover in under 2.5 hours at 42 knots (48 mph).

• A round-trip ticket on the Cobourg ferry cost $2.30 in 1948, which is equivalent to roughly $18 today. CATS plans to charge $50 to $56 for round-trip walk-on tickets on the fast ferry. Typical round-trip car fare (with three passengers) will be roughly $140.

• The summer of 1943 was a record season for the Rochester-Cobourg car ferries; it was typical for more than 1,000 people to be aboard during a single run. In 1947, Canadian Steamship Lines was still optimistic about expansion of its passenger ship routes to eastern Canada along the Great Lakes. In the late '40s, the company operated the largest freshwater fleet in the world, with 80 passenger ships and freighters in the water. But the SS Kingston, a 50-year-old sidewheeler, made its last run to Toronto in September 1949 and the car ferries stopped running in the spring of 1950.

• In September 1949, Joseph Smith, mayor of Cobourg, and Dr. F.G. Robertson, Liberal member of Parliament, made a futile visit to Rochester in an effort to convince Rochester city officials and representatives of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that the car ferry should continue. But, as the Democrat and Chronicle noted (March 5, 1950), "As paved highways have encircled Lake Ontario, the passenger ships which formerly swarmed in the lake have lost business and have been retired from service or sold to be employed elsewhere."

• In addition to the advent of the automobile age, the demands of the Second World War postponed maintenance, updating, and replacement of passenger ships and ferries, so by the late 1940s their operating costs were becoming prohibitive. Canadian Steamship Lines also suffered after several lives were lost in fires on board two of the company's vessels.

• Another reason cited for the historical demise of the car ferry and passenger ships was the relatively short season on Lake Ontario; lake traffic was severely curtailed in the winter. The CATS ferry, in contrast, will be able to operate year-round. Between 1929 and 1943 the car ferries did not make the trip during the winter, but the demands of the war-time economy forced them to resume winter trips after 1943. They made daily trips in July and August and ran on a four-day schedule in May, June, September, and October. The SS Kingston left Rochester for Toronto at midnight three times a week between Memorial Day and September.

• In June 1957, the Cayuga Steamship Company announced plans to re-institute passenger boat service between Rochester and Cobourg "on an experimental basis." These plans were then scaled back to a single excursion on Labor Day weekend. The trip on the SS Cayuga would take seven hours and cost $6. On August 18, the experiment was cancelled when only 200 reservations had been made out the 1,000 that were available.

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