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All Aboard The Ontario Car Ferry!

April 10th, 2013

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station, Rochester, NY. [PHOTO: Provide by Al from Wolcott, NY]
I get a ridiculous amount of email here in the Rochester Subway. Most of it isn’t really worth sharing but occasionally I get a diamond in the rough. So here’s one from the mailbag…

Al from Wolcott, NY sent me this great photograph today along with a question. He writes, “Someplace on the internet I recently ran across a comment that the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburg Railroad terminal was the place where people boarded a passenger train for Charlotte and then got on a boat for a trip to Cobourg, Ontario. Can you confirm this?” Yes. Yes I can. But first, let’s look closer at this photo…

That's Nick Tahou's restaurant today. [PHOTO: Provide by Al from Wolcott, NY]
The image Al sent is of a steam train at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station (formerly Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburg Railroad) here external link on West Main. You may recognize the station building as Nick Tahou’s.

The photo was taken by Al’s friend and fellow Kodak employee sometime before 1965, because, he says, that’s about when Al printed it from the negative. But we don’t exactly when it was taken. There is a billboard sign for Neiman’s Liquor Store in the background. I found liquor license notices and ads for Neiman’s (at 288 West Main St.) from 1966 going back as far as 1939. And the automobile seem to be early 1940′s vintage.

Al thinks the photo was taken from the B&O freight house; but the freight house is actually in the shot, to the left of the tracks. From the angle I’d say this was taken from the Brewster Gordon and Company building on Canal Street. Today it’s known as the SoHo Center external link, and at one time it was Eastman Kodak Camera Works Building W. Maybe that could offer a clue as far as the date? When was Kodak in this building? I have no idea.

If you think you can pinpoint the date drop a comment below.

Now, back to Al’s original question: was there a passenger ferry from Rochester to Cobourg, Ontario, and did this railroad line bring passengers to the ferry?

Yes.

Vintage view of car ferry Ontario no. 1 at night.
This page at CobourgHistory.ca external link does an excellent job detailing the history. So I’ll just list a few of the highlights…

Car ferry Ontario no. 2. c.1927. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
The Ontario Car Ferry Company was a joint venture by the Grand Trunk Railway (Canada) and the Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway (U.S.). It was set up primarily to offer speedy export of coal shipments from Pennsylvania to Montreal. Rochester was immediately chosen as the southern ferry terminus, and after some deliberation Cobourg was chosen as the northern.

Crowd of people, including a band, in the bow of the car ferry Ontario I, as the boat leaves Charlotte. The group is the Rochester Common Council on an outing in Coburg. July 26, 1912. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
ONTARIO No. 1 sailed from the Genesee Dock (where Turning Point Park external link is today) for the first time November 19, 1907, with 28 cars of bituminous coal.

Group of city clerks and their families on board the ferry Ontario I during the Rochester Common Council outing at Coburg. August 4, 1912. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
The company did not immediately advertise for passengers, but in 1909, began to carry them between Memorial Day and the end of September. For the most part, the company adhered to a schedule sailing from Rochester at 9:00 A.M. and returning in the afternoon. ONTARIO No 1 was fitted with berths for 90 people, buffet facilities, a music room, and what were by the standards of the car ferries, ample public accommodations. She was licensed for 1000 deck passengers.

According to this article external link in City Newspaper, a round-trip ticket on the Cobourg ferry cost $2.30 in 1948, which is equivalent to roughly $18 today.

Crowd on docks in Coburg waving as the car ferry Ontario I leaves. Rochester Common Council outing in Coburg. August 4, 1912. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
The Ontario Car Ferry Company was the only car ferry line on the Lakes to have a regular boat train connection. Beginning in 1909, with the opening of passenger service, the BR&P scheduled a boat train out of its Rochester station half an hour before sailing time. The boat trains, number 407 northbound and 406 southbound, were well patronized during the summer months and ran for 33 seasons.

The car ferry Ontario I grounded in the Genesee River due to ice. c.1928. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
The Ontario Car Ferry Company was financially successful and in seven years of service, ONTARIO No. 1 had logged 2,000 trips with no major accidents. Traffic had increased to a level that justified a second ferry, and in 1914, the company ordered ONTARIO No. 2 from the Polson Iron Works of Toronto for $458,000. With the arrival of ONTARIO No. 2 the company began to operate passenger service daily except Sunday from July 1st through the Labour Day weekend, with three weekly trips in June and September.

An aerial photo of the car ferry Ontario II in winter. c.1934. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
The company never carried passengers between October and May, apparently preferring the flexibility in dispatching of freight-service-only for the seasons when storms and ice descended on the Lakes. The long approach to Genesee Dock up the river was frequently an operating problem, and on January 25, 1920, both ferries were caught in pack ice for several hours. The company continued its admirable freedom from major accidents, however. The photo above is circa 1928.

Passenger excursions declined after World War II, and the aging ferry boats eventually became too costly to maintain. Service was ended in 1950 and both vessels were scrapped.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 at 7:58 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester Images, Train/Railroad Stuff, Transit + Infrastructure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “All Aboard The Ontario Car Ferry!”

  1. erik stoneham says:

    please express to the person that emailed this to you I enjoyed this article.

    Great read and FIND!

  2. Chris Brandt says:

    Great story! I was completely unaware of this. I would be curious to know if there are any Rochesterians who got the chance to ride the Ontario Car Ferry and the Fast Ferry, and what their opinions might be on the later attempt to recreate this wonderful amenity.

  3. Ben Martin says:

    The vehicles all look to be 1930s or early 40s in vintage, and steam passenger service generally was phased out by the early 50s, so I would say you’re likely looking at the 40s for this photo.

  4. erik stoneham says:

    I agree it would be very interesting to get someone’s opinion or perspective on both ferry services. how cool would that be.

    I am surprised I never heard of this before during all the ferry service discussions and media hooop-la a few years back.

  5. Jimmy says:

    Based on the cars, it looks like it must be the summer of 1941 or 1942. Some of those sedans I think are mid to late 1930s. The trucks look a little newer though

  6. chase tyler says:

    There is a display at the Charlotte lighthouse about the ferries. Attendence is low, when I visited there was only one other family there.

  7. Justaguy says:

    I, by shear chance, took the Fast Ferry about 3 days before it was officially shut down. I decided to ride my motorcycle around the lake (via the 1000 Island’s Bridge) and by the time I arrived in Toronto the cost of the ferry sounded better than another 4 hours on the bike. It cost $62 dollars for myself and my bike to cross. $62. One way.

    I also spent about 6-8 hours around 1999-2000 with about 20 other Rochester firefighters extinguishing the last remnants of the old coal car loading ‘bridge/trestle’ at Turning Point Park. Someone decided that a hot summer afternoon would be a great time to get all of the old creosote covered heavy timber going and we spent from 4pm til well into the night trying to wrestle hoses in knee deep mud while the local Coast Guard vessel stood offshore unable to assist because their supervisors in CG Station Buffalo would not allow them to be ‘out of service’ (required while pumping with their onboard fire pump. That is one of the reasons why the RFD has repeatedly asked for a fireboat of any kind and it has been shot down repeatedly….).

    My grandfather worked for the NY Central Railroad out of Charlotte from the 40′s to 1975 and while seeing things like the removal of the Hojack Bridge and Seneca Park Zoo rails (where he derailed a train as conductor!) removed makes me sad, I was in no way upset that those old timbers were finally gone.

  8. John Zicari says:

    I remember my mother talking about having taken this ferry back in the thirties. If I remember correctly she said it was for a senior trip in high school.

  9. June Codding says:

    I took trips on the ferries many times. It would leave the Rochester dock about 8:30 AM return about 8:30PM the same day from Cobourg.Our grammer school class made annual trip. We used to do the Virginia Reel (a type of square dance) on the forward deck every year. We would wander around Cobourg for the time it was docked unloading the coal cars. It also carried personal vehicles. In later years when we had a cruiser docked on the river everyone would wave as the ship went by. In the late 1950′s we were camped on the Welland Canal in Canada and saw the remains of one of the hulls tied up along the shore. Lote of happy memories!

  10. I received some comments from Ted Rafuse about the Cobourg ferry via email. Ted lives in Cobourg, Ontario and self published a 96 page book on the topic of the car ferries entitled “Coal to Canada: A History of the Ontario Car Ferry Company.” Here is our email exchange…

    From Ted:

    Fabulous site! Thoroughly enjoyed viewing the images and studying the detail therein.
    I would particularly like to know more about the images taken on board with many people captured on the film. Was this a special excursion? It seems likely so with so many people on board. Do you have any idea as to the date the images were taken?
    The aerial photograph of one of the Ontario’s breaking the ice at Charlotte is also intriguing. My guess it was taken about 1928, but can you provide any further information regarding the date and circumstance of the photograph?
    The image depicting awaiting passengers on the wooden raised platform was taken in Cobourg, likely in 1912. In the background to the right is the clock tower of the Municipal Hall. To the left the long brick wall contained the local jail erected in 1906. Both buildings still stand and are in operation: City Hall still uses the 1860 structure while the jail is now a restaurant.
    The car ferries carried passengers in the ‘off’ season. One took a chance however as they did not then operate on a schedule so departure and arrival time could be any time. May Canadian’s went south to Rochester to shop and visit relatives there and in other communities by using the ferries.
    In the year 2000 following research and writing, I self published a 96 page book on the topic of the car ferries entitled “Coal to Canada: A History of the Ontario Car Ferry Company.” In addition to the history of the company the book contains 105 b&w captioned images, several diagrams, 3 maps and a full citation of references. Unfortunately for current visitors to the site, the book is out of print and I do not foresee it being reprinted at any time soon. The central Rochester Public Library and the Charlotte Genesee Lighthouse Historical Society held copies of the book although I do not know if they are still in circulation.
    Congratulations on this fine effort in reviving an interesting aspect of international travel from decades ago!

    From RocSubway:

    Hi Ted,
    Thanks for reading the blog and for the wonderful compliments. You can click on any of the images in the post and they will open, larger and with a caption. The dates you guessed were correct according to the captions. The photo of all the people on the boat deck was a “group of city clerks and their families on board the ferry Ontario I during the Rochester Common Council outing at Coburg. August 4, 1912. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]“
    If there’s any more information you’d like to share that I didn’t cover, feel free to leave a comment under the article.
    Thanks again!

    From Ted:

    Thanks for the advice on accessing further information on the images. If I recollect from my research Albert R. Stone was a long serving photographer of one of Rochester’s daily newspapers. I accessed some of his collection of images at the Rochester Museum and Science Centre. I did not see some of the photos you have on the web page, particularly the aerial photo which I think is stupendous.
    I apologize for sending the e-mail this way rather than from the web page. I am not a computer guru as I use the computer primarily for e-mails and as a glorified typewriter. I use g-mail as my internet access but if I use imbedded e-mail response forms such as on your web site it wants to use a microsoft internet access which I have never used. Hence the indirect way I am using here.
    A woman, many years deceased now who helped me immeasurably in my research in Rochester and Charlotte was Lillian Roemer. She had travelled aboard the boats and wrote a cirlux bound booklet of 73 pages including photos and titled Remembering the Ontario No.1 and the Ontario No.2. Her book was printed in 1995 and is a completely different treatment of the topic than is my book. Hers is a reminiscence of the boats while mine is more a history of the company. I tried for the most part to avoid using any images she used in her monograph. In addition to the Stone collection the Charlotte Genesee Historical Society also has a large collection of images of the two vessels. Incidentally I was fortunate to be able to acquire a copy of her book but it took several years of diligent searching to obtain it.
    I made several trips to Rochester in the years 2000-2001 to speak to various interested groups concerning the ferries. Ironically I never was on board the boats and never saw them in Cobourg. My family did not move to Cobourg until 1956. My interest in the vessels stems from my hobby of model railroading and I wanted to learn more about the rail marine connection that once operated. One thing led to another and my book was the result of that interest.
    Feel free to copy either this e-mail or my previous one if you wish to add it to your web page. Perhaps it will elicit additional comments.
  11. June Codding says:

    There is a book possibly still in print for sale at the Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse on the history of the car ferries with many photos written by Lillian Roemer called “Remembering the Ontario N0. 1 and the Ontario N0.2.” She has passed away. Check with the lighthouse, her son may have some copies too.

  12. Mike Shea says:

    I picked up a copy of “Remembering the Ontario No. 1 and the Ontario No. 2″ at the New York Museum of Transportation in Rush last Sunday. There were still a couple left on the shelf.

  13. Mary Schneider says:

    My 93 year old mom was just telling me about this ferry last night. I had never heard of it before. She said they would go shopping and have lunch in Corbourg and then dance on deck all the way home!


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