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Crossing the Red River — when a new operator took over the ferry a significant improvement in service was noted
Jul 04, 2013

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
A reporter for the Manitoban wrote a June 28, 1873, article about his experiences with the Winnipeg and St. Boniface Ferry. “The man at present in charge of the ferry,” related the reporter, “who receives wages to the extent of three dollars per day for the performance of his duties, is simply unfit for the post when he tells people who want to cross, to wait his leisure — and no time should be lost in finding a more active man for the place.”
If the ferry failed to appear, the only other option to get across the Red River was for travellers to journey five kilometres to Point Douglas where a ferry was first launched on June 27, 1872. While downtown Winnipeg-based residents and business owners considered having to use this ferry an inconvenience, the path used by the Point Douglas ferry was virtually the same route taken by the railway bridge that would be built across the Red River in 1881. 
Winnipeggers also considered the existing location of the ferry landing an inconvenience. Newspapers reported that numerous petitions had been sent to V.J. Beaupre, the superintendent of public works for the provincial government, to have the ferry landing moved north of its location from the mouth of the Assiniboine River at The Forks toward the centre of the city.
The April 5, 1873, Manitoba Free Press commented that “it would be of immense advantage to the general public were the Red River ferry removed to some point lower down the river — say Notre Dame Street.
“Such a change would be an accommodation to those who use the ferry most, and would entail crossing of one instead of two rivers, between Winnipeg and St. Boniface.”
In the spring of 1873, the government gave into public opinion and moved its location to the foot of Notre Dame East (today’s Pioneer Avenue and William Stephenson Way), which at the time ran to the foot of the Red River. The St. Boniface landing remained where it is was located since the 1860s at the western terminus of the Dawson Trail from Eastern Canada (today’s Provencher Boulevard).
With the awarding of the Winnipeg and St. Boniface ferry licence to James Ryan, new rates were posted, which included two-cents per foot passenger, 10-cents per mule or horse and rider, 15-cents for each buggy, horse and driver, and 25-cents for each wagon with one or more animals as well as the driver. There were some exceptions that allowed for no fees, such as foot passengers crossing the river either way between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sundays. But passengers on Sundays between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. were each charged double the regular fee.
Despite the many public complaints, Ryan felt the blame for dissatisfaction with the ferry service was the fault of the Manitoba government. In April 1875, Ryan wrote a petition to the provincial government accusing John Norquay, the minister of public works, of failing to fulfill the obligations of his 1873 contract. He said Norquay had arranged a tender of $20 for the scow and $10 for two other boats and promised that the department would put them into good working order. Ryan said this was never done “while I was running it,” and accused the minister of “dishonesty” and throwing many obstacles in his way that prevented him from earning a livelihood operating the ferry.
“I had to have a man every day regularly at $2.00 per day on the row boats, as I worked the scow myself,” Ryan stated in his petition. “I had to dig a bank away forty feet long, eight feet deep, and ‘9’ nine feet wide, with many other expenses, repairing boats, etc., all I received for my forty days labor, paying a man $2.00 per day, and the expense of digging a bank, was $51.50.”
Ryan’s petition to be reimbursed was not granted, and he was still seeking compensation for losing the ferry contract as late as 1878. 
The ferry contract was awarded to Thomas Jeffers in 1874, and newspapers noted a great improvement in service.
In September 1874, the Manitoba Free Press published George Babington Elliott’s promotional pamphlet entitled, Winnipeg as It is in 1874: And as It was in 1860, which described how the ferry operated under Jeffers.
“As we approach nearer the river (on the St. Boniface side of the Red) we believe that our driver intends to drive full tilt into the reddish, muddy waters of the stream; but soon discover that he unearthed a curious looking contrivance, half wharf, one third scow, and the remainder raft. This machine we are informed is the Winnipeg and St. Boniface Ferry.”
Elliot wrote that the ferry had a capacity to carry two horse teams and 20 or 30 passengers.
Its mode of propulsion was: “A wire rope ... stretched across the river, and the ‘scow’ is fastened to this by means of ropes and movable wheels. It is controlled by two hands — one fore and the other aft. When the men want to cross they push into the current and the ropes and movable wheels do the rest, as the motion is directed in a straight line between the opposing forces, and the nondescript (craft) reaches the wharf opposite to from which she starts, without any apparent effort.”
The Free Press on May 23, 1874, reported that the ferry was providing satisfactory service for the first time in its history. The newspaper noted that the ferry was propelled across by the river’s current using an “ingenious and simple contrivance.”
Only the large scows used the current to cross to the other side of the river and were limited to carrying  wagon  and animal traffic. Foot passengers boarded row boats, which were praised by the newspaper for being “kept in good order.”
‘The greatest promptitude is observed, and people and teams do not, as has been the case in former years, have to wait from fifteen minutes to an hour to suit the convenience of an indolent ferryman.”
A typical ferry crossing was three minutes, although in bad weather the crossing could take up to 30 minutes.
Jeffers’ operation of the ferry did not always go smoothly. On August 31, 1874, the Daily Nor’Wester reported that the ferry’s cable was cut by the steamer Prince Rupert. Since the ferry was halfway across the river when the cable was severed, the newspaper commented that the lives of the passengers were imperiled. 
It was the second time that the cable had been cut by a steamboat.
Captain John Smith of the Prince Rupert was arrested and charged with “unlawfully and maliciously damaging and cutting the wire rope of the Red River ferry, the property of the Government of Manitoba,” but was discharged when “the evidence failed to prove the existence of malice.”
Although Jeffers had improved ferry service, there was no guarantee he would be awarded the 1875 franchise. To make his case for the renewal of the ferry licence, Jeffers began soliciting signatures for a petition to be presented to the provincial government.
The Daily Nor’Wester on February 8, 1875, mentioned that the ferry “could not be in better hands, and we trust that Mr. Jeffers will be successful.” If Jeffers was successful, the newspaper reported that he intended to run the ferry night and day during the summer of 1875.
In April 1875, the government passed an act “to enable a ferry worked by steam power to be established between the city of Winnipeg and St. Boniface.” Under  the terms of the act, the ferry operator could receive a five-year licence, and was obliged to take on all financial risks of providing the ferry service.
The new licence for a steam ferry was awarded to J.W. McLane, who had earlier been a flatboat operator on the Red River and thus earned the nickname “Flatboat” McLane. In 1873, he had the steamboat Alpha built, but failed to get a licence to operate on American waters, so he was forced to sell the steamer to an American-based company. In 1876, McLane would go on to build the largest steam-powered flour mill then existing in Winnipeg.
Beaupre sent out notices to local newspapers containing the new “tolls to be collected on the Red River Ferry,” which were significantly higher than the tolls imposed in 1873. Foot passengers were each charged five-cents for a one-way trip. The two-way rate was also five-cents. The rate for a rider on a horse or a mule was 10-cents, a cart with one animal and a driver was charged 12 1/2-cents, while the cost for a driver and cart with two animals was 15-cents, the same cost for a buggy or wagon with one driver and one animal. A horse, oxen or mule team of two animals pulling a wagon along with a driver cost 25-cents, while the same confirmation, but with more than two animals cost 50-cents. The charge for a carriage with two animals and a driver was 25-cents.
Before McLane established his steam-powered ferry, he joined two boat hulls together and planked them over in order to transport larger cargoes. Two other boats were used to transport foot passengers.
McLane built his steam-powered ferry at the dockyard at the St. Andrew’s Rapids (St. Andrew’s lock and dam was built in 1909, allowing steamers to travel to Lake Winnipeg unhindered by the hazard to navigation). It was launched on July 8, 1875, to provide ferry service that summer between Winnipeg and St. Boniface. As with the previous service, the ferry used a cable system to cross the river. When the cable broke during the operating season, McLane purchased another cable for $660.
“It (the steam ferry) was considered a great boon,” wrote Alexander Begg in his book, Ten Years in Winnipeg, published in 1879.
The ferry’s operation was not without the periodic tragedy. In one case, Eli Benoit, on July 5, 1877, fell off the ferry when a rail gave out and he drowned. Benoit had apparently been sitting on the rail and had his foot upon the lever that pulled a pin releasing the “falling leaf.” During the journey, his foot pushed the lever and the leaf dropped, sending him overboard. Benoit was swept away by the current and beyond the reach of would-be rescuers on the ferry.
The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of accidental drowning, but added in its statement: “Nevertheless we are of the opinion that the manner in which the lever supporting the apron is secured is very defective and dangerous. In the evidence given to us it appears that several persons previous to this accident fell overboard in a similar manner, which we think should have caused an alternation in the same, and more caution being used.”
The jury also found that the ferry operator had not followed government regulations as he had failed to have a small boat attached to the ferry’s side in order to rescue individuals who fell into the water. According to the witnesses, Benoit could have easily been saved if a boat had been available alongside the ferry.
The jury recommended that the government ensure “that all boats carrying passengers should have proper boats and appliances to save lives in case of accidents.”
In another incident, the Red River froze so suddenly on November 27, 1878, that the ferry became stuck in mid-stream. Of course, the ferry could not operate as long as there was ice on the river, so its season was relatively short and usually limited to the spring, summer and early fall.
While the government had owned previous ferries used between Winnipeg and St. Boniface, McLane owned his steam ferry under the terms of the licence issued to him by the province. As the owner of the vessel, he offered the ferry for sale in 1877.
(Next week: part 3)