Great Lakes Car Ferries – The River Ferries


Cross-river railroad ferry operations were conducted between Michigan and Ontario for over 130 years.

In the year 1853 the first railroad to reach Windsor, Ontario, from the east was the Great Western Railway of Canada. The gauge, or distance between rails, of the Great Western was 5’6”. The standard gauge used by the United States railroads was 4’8.5”. Because of the difference in gauges the railroads were forced to remove their cargo from the railcars and then ship them across the river to Detroit on ferries. Once in Detroit the cargo was once again loaded onto railcars for further transit. The same process was used in both directions and was very time consuming. The first three ferries that were used for rail cargo were the Ottawa, Windsor, and Transit. The Ottawa and Windsor were side-wheelersand the Transit was propeller driven

Great Western Coverts to Standard Gauge

The Great Western added a third rail to its tracks in the 1860’s, making them a dual gauge. This greatly increased the efficiency of transfer as the cargos did not need to be broken down to ship them across the river. To take advantage of the same gauges the Great Western ordered ferries with rails mounted n the decks. This allowed the railcars to be loaded directly onto the ferries for ease of transportation. No longer did the shipments need to be broken down and then reloaded onto the railcars. The first railroad car ferry ordered by the Great Western was aptly named the Great Western. The Great Western was fabricated in Scotland on the Clyde River. Once fabricated the entire vessel was disassembled into ten-thousand parts, shipped to Windsor, and then reassembled. The Great Western was launched in 1866, was dual gauge, and at the time was the largest steel or iron vessel on the Great Lakes. In 1882 the Great Western Railway wholly converted to standard gauge. Not long after, in the same year, the Great Western was absorbed by the Grand Trunk Western railroad.

Grand Trunk and the Swing Ferry at Sarnia

The Grand Trunk Western had previous experience running ferries at Sarnia, Ontario across the river to Port Huron, Michigan. The Grand Trunk began by using a menacing type of ferry called the swing ferry. The ferry was anchored by one thousand feet of chain to the American side of the river in Port Huron. Once loaded the ferry, tethered to shore by the chain, was set adrift and the river current would swing the ferry to the other side of the river. After a few incidents the ferry was deemed unreliable and discontinued.

The International II was ordered by the Grand Trunk and placed in service in 1872. The International II beat the Great Western’s Transit into service by a month, thereby achieving the distinction of being the first propeller driven car ferry on the Great Lakes. The International II was nicknamed the Peggy and ferried three to four hundred rail cars a day while only burning two cords of wood.

St Clair Tunnel

A tunnel was built under the St Clair River in 1891 and the ferries Huron and International II had been mothballed. In 1897 the Wabash railroad acquired trackage rights on the Grand Trunk between Detroit and Windsor. Due to the increased traffic the Huron was sent to Detroit to join the Lansdowne and Great Western. Together they transferred 540 rail cars a day.

After completion of the tunnel in 1891 the Grand Trunk suspended ferry service until forced to reinstate the service in 1971 due to clearance problems in the tunnel. In 1995 a larger tunnel was completed under the St Clair River and the ferry service was once again discontinued. This made the Grand Trunk’s river ferry operation the last of the Great Lakes Car Ferries.

Michigan Central Railroad

One of the predecessor railroads to the Michigan Central was the Canada Southern Railway. The Canada Southern reached the Detroit River in 1873, six years after the Great Western, and immediately began a cross river ferry service. A ferry slip was built in Gordon, Ontario and another in Grosse Ile. The Gross Ile slip was connected to mainland Michigan by a series of bridges. This arrangement lasted until 1883 when the Canada Southern Railway was absorbed by the Michigan Central. The same year the Michigan Central opened a ferry service from Windsor to Detroit and by 1888 the Gross Ile to Gordon ferry service was shut down. The Michigan Central built a tunnel under the Detroit River and in 1910 the tunnel opened to traffic. The Michigan Central ended cross river ferry operations and eventually sold all of their ferries.

Canadian Pacific Railway Ferries

The Candia Pacific Railway completed tracks to Windsor in 1890 and opened a cross river ferry service to Detroit the same year. The ferries Michigan II and Ontariowere put in service in 1890. Both of the ferries were steel paddle boats and the Michigan II had the record of being the largest paddle ferry to see service on the Great Lakes. By 1916 the Canadian Pacific reached an accord with the Michigan Central and shifted all their freight and passenger traffic through the Michigan Central’s tunnel. Both of the Canadian Pacific ferries were sold. The Michigan II sank in a storm in 1927 and the Ontario sank in 1943.

Pere Marquette—Chesapeake and Ohio Rail Ferries

The Pere Marquette began ferry service from Sarnia to Port Huron in 1902. In 1898, in anticipation of the ferry service, the Pere Marquette bought the International II from the Grand Trunk Railway. About the same time the Pere Marquette purchased trackage rights from the Canadian Pacific Railway for the Detroit to Windsor ferry operation. In 1904 the Pere Marquette launched a new ferry, the Pere Marquette 14, and the ferry was sent to Port Huron. The trip was full of mishaps due to a thick ice pack and after four days she had not even made it half way to Port Huron. Another attempt was made and the ship broke a rudder. The captain unpinned the rudder, tuned the ship around, and backed all the way to Port Huron. In 1905 the Pere Marquette 14 was moved back to Detroit. The Pere Marquette 14 served the Pere Marquette and then new owners Chesapeake and Ohio railroad until 1956 when she was sold to the Wabash railroad. Unfortunately the Wabash sold the Pere Marquette 14 for scrap in 1957. The Chesapeake and Ohio (Pere Marquette) negotiated with the New York Central (Michigan Central) for traffic through their tunnel and suspended ferry operations. All the remaining ferries were transferred to Port Huron.

Ferry operations continued in Port Huron until 1974 at which time the Chesapeake and Ohio, later CSX, converted the ferries into a tug-barge arrangement. The tug-barge arrangement lasted until 1994 when CSX shut down all river operations.

Wabash Railroad River Ferries

When the Wabash railroad arrived in Detroit in 1897 it contracted with the Grand Trunk Railway to use their ferries for cross river traffic. When the Michigan Central completed their tunnel under the Detroit river the Wabash acquired three of the Michigan Central’s ferries, the Transport, Transport II, and the Detroit. The Wabash railroad eventually became Norfolk Southern after a series of mergers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties and operated ferries until 1994.

A Century of Service

For over a century the cross river ferry business thrived at the Port Huron—Sarnia and Detroit—Windsor crossings. Grand Trunk Western, Canadian Pacific, Pere Marquette, Wabash, and Michigan Central were all major railroads that used ferries to transfer rail cars across the river from the United States to Canada. Sadly all that remains of the once glorious fleets of ferries are barges, scrap metal, and the forlorn abandoned ferry slips that dot the shoreline of Detroit, Windsor, Port Huron, and Sarnia.