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Tales of Glenora Ferry among launch of Flashback February visions from our past

The ferry, circa 1940s

Story by Sharon Harrison
The County’s Flashback February 2020 Visions From Our Past celebrations brought Captain Brian Johnson with an interesting talk on the history of the ferries at Glenora.

Some 40 people filled the Milford Town Hall Sunday to hear Captain Johnson’s ferry tales. He spoke to the joys of operating a large vessel, the challenges he faced, but also the enjoyment it brought, as he shared some memories from his 50-year career. Johnson also welcomed colleague Captain Rick Wilkinson to answer questions.

Organized by The County Museums, Flashback February, now in its third year, highlights a series of events designed as a celebration of the history and heritage of Prince Edward County. The schedule is a varied one and includes many different locations through the County making it accessible for all, with talks, workshops, trivia, films, concerts and more, all centred around this year’s theme of ‘20/20: Visions from our Past’.

“Flashback February is made possible each year by the widespread participation of our sponsors and community partners,” said Diane Denyes-Wenn, curator at Mariners’ Park Museum.

“This collective community effort means we are presenting celebrations of history all over the course of the week, where there are different things going on everywhere.”

Johnson’s career began in 1981, and in 1988, he was promoted to captain of the Wolfe Island ferry. At one point in his career, he found himself working at Glenora.

“Loading was different up here, things were done differently, the boat handled like something I’d never knew anything about,” he said. “Captain Wilkinson took me under his wing and taught me how it’s done.”

Capt. Johnson began by asking: Why ride the ferry, why not just build a bridge?

“Hundreds use the free bridges to come to the County, and there’s a lot more that come across the highway and simply take the boat ride.”

The comprehensive slide presentation, with many old photographs and paraphernalia on display, talked about Capt. Johnson’s career and experiences, but also how ferries have evolved across the globe. He talked about the different types of ferries there are, how many now are built like cruise ships, how they have accidents and how they may even get lost in poor weather.

“If you had something that floated, it was required by the Court of the Quarter Session that it can carry at least two oxen and a loaded cart, and if it can squeeze a few people and stuff in beside as well, that’s good too,” Johnson said.

The old Danforth Road was contracted in the 1799 to American engineer Asa Danforth who was to blaze a smooth roadway along the front of Lake Ontario following the bay to Adolphustown, where people would then take the ferry across to Glenora.

The ferry, located at a very narrow part of the Adolphus Reach, runs less than a mile across this part of the Bay of Quinte. It runs from Ferry Point, also known as Dorland’s or Young’s Point in Adolphustown, to Glenora, formerly known as Van Alstine’s Mills and Stone Mills in North Marysburgh township in the County.

“Then the road would take you to Bloomfield, Wellington, Consecon and Carrying Place, and you travelled up along the river where all transportation was done.”

He described how Major Peter Van Alstine was given permission by the court to operate a ferry on condition that he supply suitable crafts and be available at all reasonable hours to provide service even if called upon to ferry a single passenger.

“We do that now with one or two, or a line of cars two miles long,” he said.

Operating the ferry proved not to be a lucrative venture in the 1800s. In 1895, service was described as “spotty and unreliable”.

“People were operating their own (illegal) vessels,” said Johnson. “If there was a crossing, and it was near a tavern and it was near the water, and they had a boat, they would take a few people across, and that’s how it was done.”

The Danforth Road in which the Glenora ferry pended was frequently impassable explained Johnson.

“Transportation was almost impossible in the springtime with the muddy roads, so all transportation back then was by the river.”

Captain Thomas Dorland rounded out the ferry service at Glenora in 1802, the year the Danforth Road was completed, by operating from the Adolphustown shore while Major Van Alstine ferried from the Marysburgh shore.

Van Alstine built a second mill at the foot of the Glenora cliff, the same building is there today, and the family gave up the ferry operation.

George W. Meyers, a son-in-law of Peter Van Alstine and part owner of his stone mill after 1812 and son of Belleville pioneer John Walden Meyers reported the ferry was kept up by the Van Alstines for a number of years and “that it was voluntarily thrown up, as not yielding a sufficient profit to make it an object of sufficient importance to occupy the time and attention of the proprietors”.

Captain Dorland also lamented the lack of profit for himself, as well as Van Alstine.

In 1905, a centre-paddle gas engine driven ferry was put into service by William Powless, sponsored by the Picton Board of Trade.

Ferry lands on Glenora shore, carrying pedestrians on its inaugural crossing of the Bay of Quinte. Shown walking off the ramp are Capt. James Haylock, left, and transportation minister George Doucett. – Photo from the collection of Margaret Haylock Capon

“In 1912, a paddle-wheel ferry sank because it was overloaded, but it was raised,” said Johnson. The vessel was taken over by Hugh McWilliams in 1918, and the engine changed to steam driven; Theodore Fraser took over in 1921.

The Ontario government took over the ferry service in 1936 and it became a free service. In 1939, a 12-car government ferry christened The Quinte replaced an old wooden vessel named the Nahomis, built in 1928. The vessel Quinte Loyalist was christened in 1954.

Transportation minister George Doucett, Filona Barker and Mrs. Norris Whitney, during the ribbon cutting ceremony. The ribbon was held by Mr. Doucett and Norris Whitney (not seen in photo) MPP. – Photo from the collection of Margaret Haylock Capon

“I remember her well,” said Johnson. “On July 23, 1954, Quinte Loyalist was christened with a bottle of ginger ale (by Bloomfield resident Filona Barker, a UEL descendant) while hundreds of spectators gathered for the ceremony.”

Captain James Haylock was the first captain.

“Captain Haylock also brought the Wolfe Islander II to Kingston in 1946, and he was a senior captain in those days for the Ontario Department of Highways.

‘Oh Canada’ was played as the ramp lowered and the crowd, including dignitaries, filled the ferry for its inaugural trip across the bay from Adolphustown to Glenora. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies included Picton mayor Harvey McFarland, and Mrs. Norris Whitney.”

Ferry Crew at time of christening of The Quinte Loyalist included, from left, Lyle Martin, engineer Paddy Neville, Capt. Stillman May, Capt. Keith Daubney, Sr. Ferry Captain, James Haylock, Capt. Harry Mitchell, Capt. Thomas Heffernan and engineer Ralph Conder. – Photo from the collection of Margaret Haylock Capon

Capt. Johnson described how the Glenora ferry came to be when the St. Joseph Island ferry, near Lake Superior, was put out of service because they were building a bridge.

“St. Joseph Islander ran steady up that way since 1954,” he said. “She was sent down and she became the ferry Glenora. The wheelhouse was built, and a bridge deck put on, and she became the Glenora ferry.”

As someone who worked on the vessel that was adapted in 1992 or 1993, Stewart Douglas picks up the story.

“The Glenora ferry was being stretched by 34-feet,” explains Douglas. “Pieces were made at Point Anne. We sailed her to Whitby, pumped all the water out, put her in dry dock, and they stretched her apart 20-feet according to new drawings,” he said.

They sailed her back to Picton when she was finished.

Capt. Wilkinson picks up the story again as he describes how they pulled into the dock, having travelled through the Murray Canal.

“When they lengthened the boat, they forgot about buoyancy, and here’s the boat and here’s the ramp, so they couldn’t hook it up.”

To solve the problem, they brought in railway ties and put them in the bottom explains Douglas.

“They are still there today, on both of them.”

In the 1990s, the free ride was to be finished, explains Johnson.

“The province expected to recover $1.7 million in operating costs by imposing user fees of the six subsidized ferry operations in the Kingston area, beginning on Jan. 1, 1994.”

The previously free service was going to charge $2 per vehicle one-way to use the Glenora ferry. Talk of building a bridge to replace the ferry service has come up over the years, but never amounted to much, due to costs, water levels and so on explains Johnson.

He says there was more talk of a bridge in the 1930s than there ever was in 1970, and then again in the 1990s, according to his grandmother.

“The fees was scaring most people because once you get the fares in, the sky’s the limit, but with meters already installed, it was coming and it was done deal, and some people had already moved off Wolfe Island.”

The public protested and fees never came, and the Glenora ferry service remains free of charge.

The Glenora ferry celebrated its 50th anniversary Sept. 18 and 19, 2004.

“The cars still keep coming no matter the bridges; ferries are continuing,” said Johnson. “The future has never looked brighter for ferry service and I’m thrilled about that.”

Flashback February’s eight-day run kicked off Saturday with a concert by Jeremie Albino at The Regent Theatre, the ladies of the house at Macaulay Heritage Park, and the dinosaur lady at the Milford Town Hall. Events continue all week, concluding on Sunday, Feb. 22. On the roster for the week are several talks on local history, a murder mystery, County trivia, a painting party, a heritage cooking class, comedy and more. The full events listing can be found at

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  1. Margaret Haylock says:

    In 1946, my father James Haylock left the package freighter Glen Alan to take a job on the Glenora ferry. At that time the ferry was run by Capt. Robert MacLeod who lived on the Adolphustown shore. Originally Capt. MacLeod had operated an old wooden ferry called the Nohomis.

    At Capt. MacLeod’s death, dad became senior ferry captain (circa 1951). A few years later he was sent to Erieau during the construction of the Quinte Loyalist, new sister ship to the ferry Quinte.

    My father used to recall that working on the ferry was far from a boring job. On one memorable trip a baby was born in one of the cars onboard. The expectant parents did not make it to Picton Hospital in time.

    Toronto newspaper columnist Judith Robinson died at the wheel of her car after boarding the ferry.

    My older sister, Mary, used to recall that her husband proposed to her as they crossed the ferry.

    In the ’50’s and ’60’s the ferry was shut down only in extremely bad weather. Usually. my dad had to make a trip to Glenora if he was off shift in order to authorize the shutdown.

    There was no phone at the ferry until the mid-50’s or later. In the winter months, if it was stormy, dozens of people called our house to see if the ferry was running. Dad was at work and mom answered the phone all day long. Calls often came late at night.

    I remember being present with my mom, dad, and sister on the day the Loyalist was christened. It was an exciting day which I will always remember.

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