Ferries were once vital UOV transportation link

·21 min read

Pembroke -- For 65 years now a bridge has been the link which joins the area east of Pembroke in Ontario with Allumette Island in Quebec.

But before that bridge was opened in 1956, ferries during ice-free times, and in the dead of winter ice bridges, were what connected the communities on both sides of the Ottawa River.

The pre-bridge era was a colourful part of the history of the area. However, maintaining those links was not for the faint of heart.

The SS Pontiac

Let me tell you all the story of the SS Pontiac,

It would take us all to Pembroke but would always take us back.

Those are the opening lines of a ballad penned by Chapeau, Quebec resident Brian Adam as a tribute to the steam-powered boat which plied the waters of the Ottawa River between Pembroke, and Desjardinsville on Allumette Island during the years he was growing up. He was 11 in 1956 when the opening of the interprovincial bridge spelled the end of ferry service in the Upper Ottawa Valley.

“Of course, we called it the furry,” he recalls, referring to the Ottawa Valley accent spoken in the area. “The boat left Desjardinsville on the hour for the 15 to 20 minute trip, and left Pembroke for the return trip on the half hour.”

The boat could accommodate 13 vehicles at one time. These could be a mix of passenger cars, trucks, and horse-drawn farm wagons which could be transporting chickens and fresh produce to be sold at the Pembroke farmers’ market, conveniently located close to the ferry dock where the Pembroke Marina is located now.

“There was also significant walk-on traffic,” said Mr. Adam. “The pedestrians didn’t have the luxury of sitting in a vehicle to shelter from the weather. Some could crowd into the captain’s cabin when the weather was really bad.”

The steam to power the boat was produced by a wood-burning boiler. The only amenity was a toilet adjacent to the captain’s cabin.

Pembroke’s waterfront at that time was an industrial hub.

“There was a whole series of lumber businesses,” Mr. Adam recalled. “There were lumber piles along the whole waterfront.”

Today, as you stand at the waterfront and look across to Allumette Island, you can see large barn which stands near the wharf where the ferry docked.

“The barn was attached to a huge hotel,” Mr. Adam said. “It had been built by a man named Desjardins. This was a fancy hotel – not a drinking place. There were luxurious rooms, and a dining room with silver and linen. There was a place for horses, sleighs and wagons. It was all within spitting distance of the water. The ferry service was vital. ”

The complex also included a livery service, a grocery store and a post office.

“It was the depot for everything in the 20s, 30s, and 40s,” he said remembers.

The ferry was a vital link for people on the Quebec side of the river seeking out medical care in Pembroke.

“Many women in labour were rushed to hospital on the ferry,” Mr. Adam noted.

Only between April and December, though.

“The ferry would start to run in April if we were lucky,” he said. “It usually quit in early December and certainly never went past Christmas.”

The First Ferries

According to The History of a Transportation System In and Around Allumette Island, a book by historian Noreen Lowe commissioned by the Municipality of Allumette Island Tourism Committee, the first ferries connecting Allumette Island to Pembroke, Chichester and Waltham were small boats that were rowed. Morrison Island had a ferry service powered by a horse walking on something like a treadmill. The interprovincial bridge, starting at the Ontario end, spans a narrow channel and crosses Cotnam’s Island (also in Ontario) and then crosses another narrow channel onto tiny Morrison Island which belongs to Quebec. From there it continues to Allumette Island.

The longest-running ferry service for Allumette Island was on the Desjardinsville-Pembroke stretch. It was initiated by George Warren and his associate, F. Winter, who both owned property on Allumette Island. For a time, Charlie Warren and his sons, Fletcher and Sheldon, rowed people across in a small boat.

They hired Nazaire Emond in 1870 and he rigged the small boat with a sail. Born in Quebec in 1848, he had gained his sea experience in the Gaspé on fishing vessels and by working on deep-sea vessels.

He moved to Allumette Island in 1870 and spent the next 53 years on boats on the Ottawa River. In April of 1884 he obtained his captain’s papers and thereafter worked as captain, mostly on ferry boats.

Another long-serving captain on the ferry boats was W. L. Murphy, who was born in Petawawa in 1866. In 1901 he obtained his papers as captain, and by 1912 he was a partner with James Higgins in owning the ferry between Pembroke and The Island. He was a colourful character, and in 1918 his employer, the Allumette Island West Council, received a letter detailing Captain Murphy’s conviction of trafficking in intoxicating liquors on his boat. They would have dismissed him had they been able to find a replacement, says the history book.

The late Thomas (Tommy) Morris was the last captain of the S.S. Pontiac and served in that capacity for the boat’s last eight years. He had been working on the boat as a purser, collecting the fees for the passengers and vehicles under Captain Eli Sawyer before he went away to earn his captain’s papers.

Captain Morris’s daughter, Janet Retty, who lives in Sheenboro, remembers growing up in the family’s Cecelia Street, Pembroke, home and bicycling down to the wharf at noon to deliver her dad’s lunch to him.

Technically the first ferry left Desjardinsville at 7 a.m. daily except Sundays, and the last trip of the day left Pembroke at 8:30 p.m. On Sundays, the first boat departed from the Quebec side at 8:30 a.m. and the last boat left Pembroke at 9 p.m. But Alex Morris, a son of the captain, said on weekends the boat ran much later and in summer as late as 3 a.m.

“The bars – Fred’s, Keon’s, and Sikorski’s -- in Quebec stayed open pretty much as long as there were customers,” Alex said. “The ferry would run until the last of the Pembroke customers were back home.”

When he returned after achieving his captain’s qualifications, Captain Morris did double duty as captain and purser.

Once the boat was on its way, he would collect all the fares.

“He had about five minutes to sit down and take a break before the boat docked and the whole process started over,” Alex recalled.

There were three chairs in the captain’s cabin: one for the engineer, one for the fireman (who stoked the wood-fired engine to generate the steam that powered the boat), and one for the captain to sit down when he could. Invariably he would find a passenger sitting in his chair. So he drilled a small hole in the seat of the chair and connected a small water pipe from the warm water pipe on the engine to the hole. If the person didn’t move when he came to take his break, he would just crack open a tap which let the water flow through the pipe. The passenger, who likely had been drinking, would think he had had an accident and would vacate the chair.

Captain Morris lived in Pembroke but the rest of the boat’s crew lived on the island. So after he had collected the fares for the last trip for the day to Desjardinsville he would jump off the boat in Pembroke and go home. The crew would take the boat to Desjardinsville and after the passengers and vehicles had disembarked, park the scow for the night. The next morning the crew would load the boat for its first trip of the day to Pembroke. Captain Morris would be waiting at the wharf and would board the boat and collect the fares before the boat was unloaded.

Alex Morris explained the SS Pontiac was a scow: square at the front with a large flat area to accommodate vehicles.

“The front part could hold 10 cars,” he said. “You could put two more cars down one side. However, the slab wagon with the wood to fire the steam engine was parked on the other side so only one regular car could fit there. But they could fit a small car in with the one regular one.”

There was one customer with a small Jeep who would wait until the 13 vehicles had been loaded and then be fitted into the remaining small space.

We’d watch the boat go back and forth,

Her beauty was supreme.

We knew she took just thirteen cars

But we’d end up with fourteen

- says the Brian Adam song.

Oil Truck Landed In River

At that time most of the supplies required by residents of Allumette Island and neighbouring communities came from Pembroke. This included fuel oil.

“One time an oil truck that had completed its deliveries was waiting for the ferry back to Pembroke on the hill at Desjardinsville when its brakes failed,” Alex recalls. “It ran down the hill, across the dock, and overshot the ferry, crashed the barriers, and landed in the river. Because the tank was empty, the truck floated. The ferry towed it to Pembroke and a tow truck pulled it out of the river there.”

The SS Pontiac was docked at the Pembroke Marina for the winter. In order that the expanding ice would not collapse the sides of the boat, the ice around it had to be cut from time to time.

The SS Pontiac’s first day of service was July 5, 1943. Ironically, its last trip, on October 14, 1956, nearly ended in disaster. During the final crossing the propeller shaft broke and the scow began drifting downstream out of control. However, long before it reached the rapids in the area of the interprovincial bridge, its anchors were dropped to secure it until tugboats could be dispatched to bring it back to the Pembroke wharf where it could be salvaged. The steam engine was removed using a sledge hammer and the hull was sold and towed upstream past Petawawa to be used as a floating dock. Alex Morris thinks it may have been bought by the ICO (Upper Ottawa Improvement Company) which ran the log-driving operations on the Ottawa River from 1868 until 1999.

The last paying passenger on the SS Pontiac was Pat Donnelly of Pembroke, now deceased.

Once there had been enough cold weather for the ice to be safe, an ice road was created and maintained. However, its route did not follow that of the ferry. It came ashore in Pembroke east of where the Canadian Tire gas bar is located now.

The alternative for women in labour and others needing medical care during the time between the ferry shutdown and ice road opening was to drive one hour east to Portage du Fort and cross the bridge to Ontario at Cheneaux. The closest hospital from Cheneaux was in Renfrew, but since their doctors were likely in Pembroke the parallel trip west would have added close to another hour.

Or, if they were lucky and Spotswood’s ferry at Waltham was still running, they could have cut their travel time by half to get to Ontario that way and then proceed to Pembroke by way of Westmeath. The river at Waltham is down to one channel from the two encircling Allumette Island and the current is much stronger, all of which extended the ferry season significantly.

Spotswood’s Ferry At Waltham

The ferry at Waltham was always known as Spotswood’s because it was operated by four generations of the Spotswood family since its inception about 1840. William Spotswood, along with his wife and first-born son and an uncle and two brothers, settled on a 58-acre farm at the end of what is now known as Rapid Road, formerly called River Road. William built the first of two ferries that would be the core of the business. The Spotswood property was about 10 km north of Westmeath to Waltham, just off “the foot” or downstream end of Allumette Island.

Lorne Spotswood, whose father, Jack, was the last operator of that ferry, recalls one medical mission of mercy as referenced earlier. For context, let it be noted there were no set operating hours for this ferry. Rather a run would be set into motion whenever a car horn sounded on either side of the water.

“My dad’s brother, Gerald, was working with my dad and he was taking the night shift,” recalls Lorne. “It was near midnight and I guess Uncle Gerald didn’t hear the horn right away. When he got dressed and got over to the Waltham side there was a taxi (Chapeau had a taxi service) which was trying to get a woman to Pembroke to the hospital to give birth. By the time the ferry got there, the baby had been born in the back seat of the cab.”

The ferry took the taxi and its now three occupants across to Ontario and then the taxi proceeded to the hospital in Pembroke.

Medical traffic went both ways, however.

“Some people remember Dr. Woods who was based in Westmeath,” said Mr. Spotswood. “There was no doctor on the Quebec side so the ferry took him across for house calls and even to deliver babies.”

The two-car ferry was particularly busy when churches held their annual suppers or picnics.

“Dad could move 12 cars an hour,” said Lorne. “On a picnic or church supper day, there could be 10 to 15 cars waiting in line.”

The Spotswood ferry had a role in the construction of control dams in the tributaries of the Ottawa River which were part of the hydro power generation system.

“The ferry would take loads of lumber across,” Mr. Spotswood said. “A Beaver plane would land beside the boat and take the lumber to where it was needed.”

The first ferry was winched along by pulleys and cable. Jack Spotswood took over the operation of the ferry about 1940 and later built a second ferry, the two-car, 40 x 14 footer. This one was propelled by a pointer boat powered by a Ford Model ‘A’ engine.

In the days before refrigeration, the ferry also served to transport live cattle to the lumber camps to be slaughtered as needed to supply fresh meat to feed the workers. Cattle were purchased by buyers and moved on the hoof to the ferry where they were herded into a corral. Youths in Westmeath were hired to ride herd on a herd of possibly 50 head down the unfenced River Road. Should an animal break away and head into the woods, it had to be followed. If it could not be persuaded to return to the herd, it had to be slaughtered on the spot.

The ferry could accommodate only eight head at one time. It was the duty of the young herdsmen to guard against any animal leaping overboard, and the side railings were not very high. If this happened they were required to get the animal back out of the river. Again the animals had to be corralled after crossing the river until the entire herd had been re-assembled and the drive could continue on to the lumber camps.

The drive up to the camps on the Black River was 30 to 40 miles and took several days of travelling 24/7. They couldn’t stop because they had to stay ahead of hungry wolves looking for an easy meal.

The ferry was designed to be lower in the centre section than at both access points. It saved on the cost of lumber and was possibly safer for transporting cattle. It made its crossings, winched along by pulley and cable.

Jack Spotswood and his brother-in-law, Cecil Pappin, created an ice road just upstream of the ferry route once the ice was safe.

“They put up a rope gate and collected $1 from each car on the Ontario side,” said Lorne. “Then the authorities told them they weren’t allowed to collect a toll in Ontario. So they towed an old unused chicken coop across the river and set it up as a toll booth there and collected the toll in Quebec.”

LaPasse Ferry

The LaPasse, Ontario link with Fort Coulonge in Quebec was established at the beginning of the 1900s by Fred Oiseau, according to local historian Evelyn Moore Price.

“The current was very swift and the ferryman (leaving LaPasse) had to steer a diagonal course upstream several degrees, if the ferry was to arrive at its destination in Fort Coulonge,” she wrote.

By 1910, Theophile Vaillancourt took over the ferry and advanced to a larger type of gas engine, no doubt the better to resist the current, and a wooden scow. Ten years later Raoul Labine took over the operation of the service, using an inboard motor with side wheels added. This continued for two years until the business was purchased by Fred Laporte whose son, Arnel, became owner in 1939 and who operated it until its demise in 1960. Arnel’s steel scow could transport six cars at the same time.

His ice bridge in winter was a tribute to his resourcefulness and a feat of ingenuity. He had a gasoline-powered water pump and a hose to wash down the scow during the summer. The same apparatus was used in winter to flood the ice road, speeding up the freezing process.

Arnel’s nephew, Rick Cahill, who grew up in Fort Coulonge and still resides there, recalls his uncle using a tugboat to position still-floating pieces of early-forming ice to configure them into the future ice road. Once they were in place, he would “flood” the road using the aforementioned equipment. When the ice of the road had a thickness of eight inches he declared it safe for transportation.

As a child, Rick spent a great deal of time with his uncle on the ferry.

“When the ferry was running I would stay with him on the boat for as long as I was allowed to stay up,” he said.

As soon as he was able he would help blocking wheels to keep the vehicles from shifting on the boat and securing the loads with ropes and chains.

The worst part about the operation was sitting in the boat at the Fort Coulonge side waiting and hoping for one or more “fares” to make the return trip to LaPasse worthwhile. The landing area was surrounded by swamp where mosquitoes were plentiful.

“There were so many mosquitoes they’d just about lift the boat out of the water,” quipped Rick.

The official business card for the LaPasse-Fort Coulonge ferry listed the hours of operation as 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. But Arnel, who lived on the LaPasse side, was available any time he heard a car horn summoning him, from either side of the river.

“He must have been a light sleeper,” said Rick. “In any case, he didn’t need much sleep.”

He learned how to “read” the ice.

“Black ice is stronger than white ice. ‘Fall ice falls, and spring ice springs,’ they used to say. So you would cross your heaviest loads later in the winter. But you had to be aware that in spring the ice along the shore would deteriorate first.”

The Sound of Car Horns

Arnel Laporte’s daughter, Lynn McMullen, now living at Westmeath, recalls growing up in a household ruled by the sound of car horns. Like her cousin, Rick, she also spent a great deal of time on the boat, and the river was simply a part of their lives.

“I was able to swim by the time I was 2,” she said. “But we used to worry when he was out on the water when a storm came up, especially when there was thunder and lightning.”

Her father was always busy in between ferry runs, doing a lot of gardening and other work around their home.

“But when a car horn sounded, everything stopped,” she said.

Rick says the first of his many times of falling into the river was when he was six.

“We were heading out with the horses and sleigh on the ice to go to make maple syrup on the island the family owned,” he said. “When the horses came down the hill onto the river, one horse fell through, and I fell off the sleigh into the water too. The other horse kept on going and pulled the one that had fallen in back out and onto the ice. My brother pulled me out by the hair but I had lost my jeans and boots so I had to go back up to the house to get some dry clothes. I was really upset because they didn’t wait for me but went ahead to the island without me.”

He says “nobody got too excited” about the incident.

“I grew up with respect for the river, but no fear,” he said.

He recalls his growing up years as good times.

“Arnel was good with kids. But then, he was good with everybody.”

The interprovincial bridge was a boon to the residents of Pembroke and area and Allumette Island and points north such as Chichester and Sheenboro. But it foreshadowed the sad end of an era for Fort Coulonge and LaPasse, which historically had been linked as one community. Arnel LaPorte attempted to continue the service for the families with members on both sides of the river for whom contact would become a one-way trip of almost an hour instead of a 10-minute jaunt either by ferry or ice road.

However, by 1957 the writing was on the wall. Mr. Laporte wrote a letter to the Honourable Howard Green, Minister of Public Works, informing him that revenue had decreased by 75 per cent and that without a subsidy he could not continue the service.

No subsidy was forthcoming. In September of 1960 Mr. Laporte again wrote to the Department of Public Works:

“This is to inform you that my last day of ferry crossing will be September 25. The ferry does not yield sufficient profit to continue longer.”

So ended the days of interprovincial ferries in the Upper Ottawa Valley.

In the early 1980s residents of the LaPasse-Fort Coulonge community revived the ice bridge part of the connection. This continued for a number of years and then became more sporadic, as not every winter yielded dependable ice.

The ice road would be established by a native of the area who would initially walk the route with an axe and some twigs to chop holes at intervals to ensure adequate ice thickness and mark the route with the twigs. In consideration of growing liability concerns, those who initiated the crossing would keep a low profile. Once established, anonymous residents with snow-moving equipment would keep the road plowed and passable.

Access at the LaPasse end was right beside the public boat launch. On the Fort Coulonge end it was only a short rise up a fairly steep bank to the public road which still bears the name Chemin de LaPasse.

The route was used to connect friends and families, by minor hockey families travelling to tournaments, and just for pleasant drives to explore the “other” side of the river. For Ontario residents it was a treat to eat in Fort Coulonge’s small restaurants or to enjoy fine dining in the Spruceholme Inn and later Bryson’s Bistro.

In the early 80s, when the ice road was first revived, some of the motivation was a significant differential in gas prices between the provinces, which had Quebec residents flocking to Jimmy and Frances Lacroix’s general store and gas pump on the Ontario side.

This past winter a LaPasse family opened an ice road to access an island they own between the Ontario and Quebec mainland. But although the ice would probably have been adequate to continue all the way to the mainland, that can no longer happen. After record-setting spring floods in 2019, roads subject to flooding on both sides of the river were raised. That includes the Chemin de LaPasse. The bank is now too steep and high to navigate with a passenger vehicle.

The era of the ferry and ice bridge on the Upper Ottawa River is over. For sure, this time.

Marie Zettler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader