What do you do these days if you decide you want to go visit Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan? Obviously, the answer is to head across the bridge and (unfortunately) head through customs, a simple enough process that probably won't take much time. But what if that bridge wasn't there? As discussed before on this blog, the International Bridge was only constructed by the early 1960s.
Well, if you had some business in Michigan before then your only option was to take the local ferry, which regularly moved people, vehicles and even some animals between the twin cities. The service in general was around for even longer than the bridge has been today, so it has quite a bit of history to it we can explore. And should, as it is far more fascinating than you might think a few boats can be.
There were numerous ferries servicing the Soo throughout the late 1800s, owned and captained by a variety of businesses and local entrepreneurs. Prominent among these were Captain James Ripley, whose grandson would actually go on to serve as chairman of the International Bridge Authority. These were obviously all small business ventures, something that would come to an end with the creation of the newly formed International Transit Company. For the hefty sum of $80,000 dollars they purchased a modern ferry, the Algoma, the assets and land of the current holder, Sault Ste. Marie Ferry Co, and a lease to Perry Dock in Sault Michigan. This would be a bit less than three million dollars today.
The Algoma was definitely an improvement to the ferry service overall, but it was far from perfect. Since it came into service in 1903, it was not designed to carry cars, with the only vehicles allowed being horse-drawn carriages (which, incidentally, paid a hefty quarter for the fare in 1915). It also only had a steam engine, rather than the diesel ones which came after, meaning it had a harder time than them at making its way across the river during the winter
months. That says something, as even the diesel-powered ferries had to sometimes be rescued from ice by the coastguard, and in the late 1920s a small emergency boat was even employed if the larger vessel was stuck.
The Algoma was succeeded by the Agoming in 1926, a ferry that was equipped to carry automobiles. It needed to, as they had become more commonplace between those two dates; the Sault was growing, and the ferry was forced to grow with it. ITC's ferry originally had its last trip for the day at eight o'clock at night, but gradually this was expanded to nine o'clock, eleven o'clock, and then finally full twenty-four-hour service in the late 1950s. New ferries would also be purchased to address the growing demand for service: the James W. Curran, and the John A. McPhail.
While the construction of the bridge was almost certainly an inevitability, what helped to hasten it along was the relationship between the ferry and cars. The article most of this information is from discusses it at length, but to put it simply, over the years the option of carrying cars across the river had become a necessity, and this necessity had changed into an incredible nuisance by the 50s and 60s. Not only had the increased size of cars cut down on how many the ferries could move (the Agoming could apparently carry twenty-four then-modern automobiles, which was cut in half at best by the time of the ferry's closing), but the need for cars to queue up to be loaded on was harming the city's traffic flow. At its busiest period there are horror stories of people being unable to get out of their driveways and tourists ending up stuck in the queue by accident. If you compare some of these images of the gridlock to the downtown of today, it becomes quite clear why the International Bridge needed to happen.
But one might wonder: even if the bridge was needed to accomodate cars, why not still keep the ferries around for foot traffic, as they were originally used for? That has to do with business,
unfortunately. In order for the International Bridge Authority to amass funding for the bridge's construction they had to sell bonds, and to sell them they needed to guarantee there would be no ferry within five miles. Investors obviously didn't want any possibility of not making their money back, and a competing service that close by could have split profits. Therefore, a few years before the bridge's construction was finished, Ontario's government purchased all of the International Transit Company's shares, ultimately closing the service afterward. Both parties seem to have made out fine from the transaction; all told the province spent $1,650,000 on the purchase, surely enough to satisfy the ITC, while they kept whatever profits the ferry made in that time as well as the ferry boats.
That's certainly more history than you might have expected a few boats with only one route to have, isn't it? It certainly surprised me. The ferry's disappearance might be considered a bittersweet end to an era, but its legacy is still somewhat present thanks to numerous tour boats that have used the freed up route. They aren't meant to take people from point A to point B, of course, but taking a day out on one may well give you an appreciation for a form of transit that didn't use to be only for leisure.