by Jean Turnbull Elford writing in Canada West’s Last Frontier
The earliest ferry to run between Sarnia and Port Huron was a sailboat. A Sarnia named Crampton got a license to run her in 1836. In the 1840s a horse-powered ferry began to run with George Moffat in charge. Julius P.B. McCabe, a historian, in his description of Port Sarnia in 1848, wrote:
“…A ferry boat owned by Mr. Davenport of Port Sarnia plies regularly between that village and Port Huron. It is decidedly an object of curiosity, being a simple looking but ingeniously constructed (Yankee fixing) of 2 Canadian Pony-power, resting on 3 canoes, and being so multi-angular in shape, that I very much doubt whether it would not puzzle one of the shrewdest nautical characters to define her bow from her stern. Under the skillful management of her Captain, however, she floats well, carries heavy freight, and makes speedy trips across a strong current.”
Joseph Osborn reminiscing on this period recalled that:
“Though Mr. Moffat did what he could to accommodate the people of Sarnia and Port Huron, opposition soon sprung up. Then began the “tug of war.” The picture at that time would be of two scows, the one propelled by four horses and the other by four mules, making their way across the St. Clair, the whip applied vigorously in both cases.” “The advantage in speed lay with the mule boat, perhaps in the prow of the scow being of a sharper build.”
Moffat put the steam ferry United on the run in 1850. He replaced her in 1860 with the paddle-wheeler Sarnia, said to be the slowest thing afloat. He paid ten pounds a year for a license to run her daily between sunrise and sunset. His fares ranged from two shillings and six pence for every two-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse to three pence a head for sheep and swine.
Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, a Sarnia historian, wrote that:
“With some kind of hard work to do and some children to mind, one could spend a very pleasant afternoon riding back and forth on the Sarnia.”
Competitors for the Sarnia’s business ran the G.A. Brush and the Fanny White in the 1860s. Then in 1877 the Sarnia paper noted that:
“The two American boats, the Sarnia and the Dormer have had the ferrying all to themselves this season until last week when a competitor the Mystic, 65 feet long, the fastest of three and Canadian, began to run.”
The Sarnia burned in Port Huron in 1879, and the service was carried on by the Grace Dormer and the James Beard. In 1882 the newly built Omar D. Conger was added to the fleet. These were all small wooden ships. The Grace Dormer, for instance, was only 70 feet long.
After the Erie and Huron built a line along the west side of Lambton in 1886, the river traffic Dresden and Sarnia ceased, and the ships used on the run, the J.C. Clark and the Hiawatha joined the ferry fleet. Business was good judging by a report in the Sarnia paper saying that the Clark carried 13,000 people during the month of August, 1891.
In that year the port Huron ferry company was organized by Nelson Mills of Port Huron with Henry McMorran, also of Port Huron, the principal shareholder. This company gave ferry service until 1937 when the Michigan Bridge Commission bought it. Service had begun with the Omar D. Conger, Hiawatha, James Beard, Grace Dormer, and the J.C. Clark. The Clark burned in Black River in 1905. In 1917 the company added the 27 year-old City of Cheboygan to the fleet. She was renamed the City of Port Huron in 1924.
Ferry business expanded considerably in 1921when the ferries began to carry automobiles. The west end of Cromwell Street was fitted up to accommodate them. With a view to benefitting from the increased traffic, Sarnia and Port Huron interests brought the Louis Philippe, a steel vessel, 170 feet long, to Sarnia. She could carry 35 cars and 500 passengers, but she only ran one season. The Lawrence came at the same time but she stayed.
The Conger blew to pieces at her dock in Port Huron in 1922 when her boiler exploded killing four of the crew. To replace her the ferry company acquired the 40 year-old City of Sarnia in 1923. This ferry was 107 feet long and could carry 42 automobiles and 1,000 passengers. With her capacity the Grace Dormer, James Beard and Hiawatha were no longer needed and were withdrawn from service. By 1927 only the City of Sarnia, City of Port Huron, Ariel and Lawrence were left, and the latter was taken off in 1934.
In the prosperous years of the late twenties, most passengers were Sarnians. Port Huron was the larger and more progressive city then, and providing the exchange rate was favourable and the customs officers not too vigilant, much shopping was done there. Many Sarnia women worked in Port Huron and crossed daily on the ferries. One of them who was still working there after the bridge was built said:
“Things weren’t the same taking a bus over the bridge. The ferries were kind of exciting. Sometimes we’d sit out in the river for an hour stuck in the ice. A collie dog used to cross with us every morning and come back at night. What he did all day in Port Huron nobody knew. And news! You’d hear more gossip in five minutes when we got together on those ferries….”
These small white ferries left the dock at the foot of Cromwell Street in a cloud of black smoke every twenty minutes from seven in the morning until after the Port Huron theatres closed around midnight. In Port Huron they docked up in Black River, and beginning in the thirties at a dock on the St. Clair north of Black River. In 1937 the Sarnia paper reported that in the previous year 1,174,846 passengers including both those in cars and those on foot had crossed on the ferries, and that in the same period they carried 220,555 automobiles, 1,222 trucks and 267 motorcycles.
On holiday weekends, cars would be lined up from Cromwell Street, north along Front Street to London Road, and back London Road to East Street waiting for passage. On Labour Day weekend, 1929, some 10,000 autos went across. Their occupants had a wait in Sarnia of an hour and fifteen minutes on the average. While they waited, local boys went into business selling them papers, pop and candy.
The ferries ran for less than a year after the Bluewater Bridge opened. The City of Port Huron sank at her dock in Port Huron in April of 1939. The Ariel and City of Sarnia were laid up, and then sold for scrap in 1941 and 1953 respectively.
The bridge was eight years old when a Sarnia ferry company began a cross-river passenger service with two converted landing barges. One was named the City of Sarnia and the other the City of Port Huron. In their peak year of operation, 1953, the two of them carried about half a million people. Their passengers were largely Sarnians taking advantage of Port Huron’s liquor outlets, bingo parlours, or of its shopping facilities. These ferries ceased operation in 1957.