Connecting Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula
Established in 1921 by three Owen Sound businessmen and owners of the North American Bent Chair Company, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) operated the chair manufacturer’s steamboat SS Michipicoten for procuring materials along the north shore of Lake Huron and Manitoulin Island and delivering finished products from Owen Sound.
In 1926, OSTC purchased a steel-hulled steamer, Madjeska, operating it briefly as an excursion boat between Sault Ste. Marie before refurbishing it with cabins and staterooms to accommodate 150 passengers. The following year, renamed the SS Manitoulin and Captained by Norman McKay, she made weekly excursions to Killarney, Manitoulin Island, Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island. In 1928, OSTC added the SS Manasoo, an excursion and cargo ship.
By 1931 there were four companies operating passenger, vehicle and freight ferry services from Owen Sound when OSTC launched the MS Normac, named after their general manager, Captain Norman McKay. Also that year, OSTC purchased a competitor’s service and their steamer, with Henry Pedwell renaming it the SS Kagawong.
For 30 years the MS Normac provided seasonal ferry service between Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula and South Baymouth, Manitoulin Island. During that time OSTC merged with the Dominion Transportation Company, added a new ship, the SS Norisle with a capacity of 50 automobiles and 250 passengers and in 1963 added the diesel powered MS Norgoma to handle increased traffic.
In 1974, Ontario northland Transportation Company (ONTS) acquired OSTC and launched the state-of-the-art MS Chi-Cheemaun (“Big Canoe”) capable of transporting 600 passengers and close to 150 vehicles with a crossing time of less than two hours.
Today, after separating from (ONTC) in 2002, Owen Sound Transportation is an Operational Enterprise Agency of the Province of Ontario, headquartered in Owen Sound and owner of the MS Chi-Cheemaun and MV Niska 1. The company is also contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to provide year-round transportation service to Pelee Island on Lake Erie.
The History of Ferry Service to Pelee Island
Transportation to and from Pelee Island from the early 1800’s until well into the Twentieth century was dependent on private trade.
In the summer of 1821, American surveyors working on the Western Basin islands in Lake Erie hired the Sylph, the first “named” vessel, to stop at Pelee Island. A decade later the Schooner Adelaide provided a regular link from Pelee to the mainland. By the 1840’s, several schooners including the Chapman, Comet and Ambush were servicing Island residents with supplies.
The first attempt to bring a scheduled service to the Island arrived in 1870 with the short-lived run of the steamboat, SS Valley City. Other steamers also made attempts during this period including the Lake Breeze and Bob Hackett. Over the next 30 years, Pelee residents would see service from the Erie Belle, Queen City, City of Dresden, Telegram, Lakeside and Imperial.
With the turn of the century, Island residents decided it was time for a more reliable service and formed a stock company to purchase the SS Saugatuck. Renamed the Alfred Clark, the steamer provided transportation stability during the period from 1909 to 1913 until the Windsor and Pelee Island Steamship Co. of Amherstburg commissioned the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company to build a vessel for Pelee Island trade.
Named the SS Pelee, the vessel was an engineering feat, a very reliable freight and passenger steamer comfortably accommodating 500 people. Constructed of steel with a triple expansion jet engine delivering 500 hp and a mean speed of 14.5 miles per hour, over the next half century the SS Pelee would easily accommodate local needs.
Other vessels including the Islet Prince and the SS Waubic serviced Island trade during the same years as the Pelee, followed by the MV Avon in 1951 and the Leamington in 1957. However, the longstanding tradition of lake trade would soon come to an end.
Safety and Reliability: The New Priorities
Within a few years, the Canadian government legislated more stringent safety requirements increasing operational and liability costs which limited private sector competition. Responding to a shortage of ferry operators, the federal government constructed the MV Pelee Islander in 1960. With a capacity to transport 16 vehicles and 285 passengers, the Islander was operated by the Pelee Shipping Company and subsidized by its owner, the Federal Government before being transferred to the Provincial Government for one dollar.
The MV Upper Canada with a capacity of 12 vehicles and 100 passengers was added in 1977 to supplement the Islander. Over the next decade, economic growth and the changing needs of Island residents increased service demand and uncertainty as to the vessel’s future effectiveness.
State-of-the-Art Technology Meets Rising Demand
By the late 1980s the return of viticulture drew interest from tourists, more people were establishing summer residency on the Island and by the early ‘90’s the Island was becoming a weekend destination to escape the traffic jams and bustling cities within a few hours drive. All of these factors made it clear that the existing transportation system was no longer adequate.
The provincial government responded to this new Island vibrancy with the construction of a larger vessel, the 61 meter (200’) MV Jiimaan. Built at Port Weller Shipyards in Ontario, the Jiimaan made its maiden voyage in August 1992. With capacity to transport 400 passengers and 34 vehicles, the impressive structure featured modern navigational aids including a computerized pilot’s house, surveillance cameras and on-screen fire detection system. Passenger amenities included an onboard gift shop, cafeteria and art gallery.
Today, the MV Jiimaan and MV Pelee Islander continue with safe and dependable service in support of Pelee Island’s economic growth, the transporting of farm products, and large construction equipment and a growing seasonal residency and tourism industry.