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Floating Railways

The enormous ferries in which trains are transported across great waterways in Canada and the United States



THERE is one phase of railway working which is foreign to Great Britain. This is the train ferry. In these islands the interruptions of water, such as the estuaries of rivers, when they dispute the advance of the railway-builder, either are tunnelled or bridged. But there are some stretches of water which cannot be overcome in this manner. Thus, for instance, the Hudson River for many years proved an insurmountable barrier to through communication between the City of New York and the New Jersey shore. Only one railway ran direct into the heart of the city - the New York Central. Attempts, to solve the difficulty were made many years ago by driving a “tube” beneath the river, but they were attended with disaster, and it was not until comparatively recently that the feat was achieved.

Meantime, the rapid growth of trade had prompted inventive ingenuity to discover another practicable way of surmounting the hindrance. The great lines which radiate to all parts of the country, in a natural desire to get into touch with the Empire City, have brought their lines to the water’s edge on the New Jersey shore. At these points passengers change to a ferry, to be transported direct across the river. With merchandise, however, such a system was quite impracticable. The goods could not be unloaded on the New Jersey shore into barges, transferred to the opposite bank, and there handled once more: this practice would be slow and increase transport charges. Accordingly, it was decided to convey the trucks intact across the river.

These water-carriers are blunt-ended, dumb craft, euphemistically called “floats”. Two sets of metals are laid on the deck with a narrow platform between, the float being of sufficient length to accommodate six large American box cars on each track. At the landing yard, the float is brought endwise against the land tracks, so that the metals are dead true with the rails running to the water’s edge. If there is any difference in level it is met by a “bridge”, or heavy flap, hinged at one end. The cars are pushed over this bridge on to the float, and made fast by scotching the wheels. When loaded, a signal is given, a powerful tug fusses up, lashes itself to one side of the float, and bears it across the waterway to the opposite yard, where the cars are pushed on to dry land once more over another bridge. The tugs are powerful vessels of their class, and if necessary can handle two laden floats at a time, thus transporting twenty-four loaded vehicles in one trip.

From the British point of view, this seems a round-about method of handling the goods traffic, but in New York it has proved highly successful. So much so that 10,000 trucks are whisked to and fro every twenty-four hours. Over 2,000 floats are engaged in this service, and their handling gives employment to an army of 6,000 men. Although tunnels have been laid beneath the river, no appreciable diminution of this curious water traffic has resulted. It is easier and quicker to convey the cars in this manner than to send them through a constricted bottle-like passage.

With this fleet of floats dodging to and fro the stretch of Hudson River washing Manhattan Island is a bustling scene of activity throughout the twenty-four hours. During the summer the traffic is controlled with tolerable ease, but winter tells a different story. When the Hudson River is choked with ice floes, buffeted to and fro by the tides, currents and winds, clinging round the ends of the piers, and littering the docks where the floats berth, the marine railways have a trying time. They make their way back and forth from sheer strength and weight. Nothing but steel could withstand the heavy poundings to which the floats are subjected. A dock may be half-filled with ice, but the float with its heavy load comes banging in, smashing its way through the obstruction, shivering it to small splinters which are sent flying in all directions, or else are piled up at the shore-end in a huge heap. Such a trifle as blocks of ice capable of bearing the weight of a man, and piled up by the elements, cannot be allowed to interfere with the scheduled running of the floats. When they have a good swing on them, these bluff-ended craft strike an obstacle with the force of a gigantic battering ram. There may be a temporary shock and shiver, the trucks on deck may grunt and clatter, but the float goes forward.

When the heavy winds which occasionally sweep up the Hudson estuary rage, the floats do not stop. The going is harder, that is all, but this handicap can be overcome by lashing two or even three of the powerful tugs to a load, to drive against Old Boreas. Even fog, which generally disorganises locomotion, has little effect upon this traffic. The vessels plough their way through the white blanket, whistling and shrieking for all they are worth, with the skipper of the tug keeping a sharp eye and ear on everything around him. When New York is gripped by the fog fiend, Bedlam is let loose. It is a discordant din: bells, sirens, whistles, fog-horns, and whatnot are jumbled inharmoniously to produce an ear-splitting racket which would not be tolerated in any other country but the United States. The New Yorker tells you that his city is a business, not a residential centre, and so the noise does not count for much. Dollars can be made just as easily to an unmusical accompaniment. The din cannot be quelled, since the floats run on a time-table, similar to that of a train, and if more time than that allotted is consumed in the journey - well, somebody suffers, and the captain of the tug is resolved not to be the scapegoat if noise can help him.



This boat can carry a train of eight cars each measuring 72 feet long.

Whose ingenious mind first conceived the idea of carrying trains intact across intervening wide stretches of water is not recorded. Certainly the idea originated in Britain, was transported, adopted, and developed in America, and since has reached its highest development in Europe and Asia. At all events an English shipbuilding firm, Wigham-Richardson and Company, on the Tyne, built a steam railway train ferry, the Ruhr, to carry railway vehicles across the Rhine before the bridge was built. That was way back in 1864. Seven years later, the idea having proved so successful, the Danish Government acquired a similar vessel, the Lillebelt, from the same builders, which is in service to this day. She is 140 feet long, by 26 feet wide, displaces 390 tons, is fitted with engines developing 85 nominal horse-power, and has a maximum speed of nine knots per hour.

The issue was forced upon the United States when the railway expansion westwards and southwards ensued. But unfortunately the strategical points, which were certain to develop into great railway centres, are cut off on one side by wide sheets of water. San Francisco is situate at the extreme tip of the spit of land forming the western arm of the bay. Immediately opposite, on the mainland, is Oakland. The trains from the east came to a dead stop at this point - but Oakland is not the port. The railways could not make the long detour to compass the inlet, so ferries were adopted between the two points. It is a strange circumstance that the opposite ports on the Continent should be isolated from direct railway communication in this manner, and that San Francisco, like New York, should have only one line, approaching from the south, which traverses the spit of land, and thus enters the port over a dry-land highway.

The present San Francisco ferries are some of the finest of their class in operation. The west-bound trains crawl on to the ferry at the water’s edge at Oakland. The craft, when its load is made fast, casts off, steams across the bay, and comes to rest against the ends of the track on the opposite bank. The train then creeps ashore and rumbles into San Francisco station. Some of the San Francisco ferries are of huge size, capable of accommodating fifty large freight cars and two or three engines in a single load.

The same system has had to be adopted on the wider part of the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers. New Orleans is about one and a half miles away from Algiers. All traffic between the two points over the intercepting width of the Mississippi is negotiated by the train ferry. On the Columbia River, just above Portland, a similar state of affairs exists, as the waterway is two miles in width.



It can carry 16 freight cars each 36 feet long.

Rut it is around the Great Lakes that the most imposing illustrations of the possibilities of the floating railway are offered. These seas are transformed into one long waterway by connecting narrow straits, such as the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. On opposite sides of the channel flourishing towns have sprung up. Thus there are Detroit and Port Huron on the American seaboard, faced by Windsor and Sarnia respectively on the Canadian shore. While the Canadian and American railways come down to the water’s edge on either bank, the growth of international traffic and the flow of produce to and fro could not be interrupted or hindered by a neck of water half-a-mile in width. So where the permanent way was impossible the railway ferry was introduced, to float trains to and fro incessantly throughout the twenty-four hours the whole year round.

This practice remained in vogue for several years, but the pressure of the traffic demanded more expeditious means of handling.

This was particularly noticeable between Sarnia and Port Huron, as the interruption occurs on the busy main line of the Grand Trunk Railway between Montreal and Chicago. The urgency of improved connection was driven home by the increasing maritime traffic through the St. Clair River, and the fact that movement was impeded seriously by the ice during the winter. So the engineers searched for an easier situation. A bridge was impossible: tunnelling beneath the waterway was the only solution. This was accomplished, and with the opening of the St. Clair Tunnel, providing all-through railway communication between Montreal and Chicago, the ferry disappeared. The floating railway continues to run between Windsor and Detroit, however, although several years ago a similar situation to that developed farther north prompted tunnelling operations at this point. In this instance, however, at present the subaqueous continuous rail connection has not displaced the ferry traffic entirely. The Grand Trunk Railway, which also has a busy alternative international route, via Detroit and Windsor, maintains a fleet of three ferries upon the half-mile of water separating the two countries, over which the whole of the passenger and goods traffic flowing through this channel is moved. The largest of these steamers, the Lansdowne, is 319½ feet long, by 41½ feet wide, and 15 feet deep. The Huron, the second vessel, is 79½ feet shorter, but 2½ feet wider. Each craft can receive sixteen freight cars, each measuring 36 feet in length, or eight Pullman cars each 72 feet long. The third vessel, the Great Western, is still smaller, and has a proportionate lower carrying capacity.

The foregoing floating railways sink into insignificance, however, in comparison with those in operation upon Lake Michigan. This vast, elongated oval of fresh water is dotted on either side by busy ports, each of which is a teeming railway centre. Obviously, merchandise which has to be sent from one side of the lake to the other cannot be dispatched upon a long haul southwards to round the obstruction, neither is it profitable to load it into lake steamers. The cheapest and quickest method of coping with the traffic is to send it, packed in its trucks, across the water obstruction. There are many busy railway ferry lines, not only running across the extreme breadth of Lake Michigan, but also cutting across it diagonally, such as from Menominee to Frankfort, and from Manistique to Ludington. But the busiest marine railway thoroughfare lies direct across the breadth of the lake, between Milwaukee and Grand Haven, a distance of 84 miles. In order to obtain a more realistic impression of what this means, the sea-journey between Newhaven and Dieppe, though eight miles shorter, offers a good parallel, as the conditions are very similar.

This is probably the busiest highway for this class of traffic in the world, and in its development Anglo-Canadian enterprise has played an important part, inasmuch as the finest vessels of this type are run by the essentially British Grand Trunk Railway. A progressive city like Milwaukee, with its 400,000 people and varied industries, found the lake a certain barrier to its progress, but when a means of shipping the products, after being packed in the railway cars in the factory yards, eastwards by the shortest route across the water was perfected, a new era dawned. The ferries engaged in this service are the largest, most powerful and speedy craft to be found on the Continent.



The Grand Trunk ferries are named respectively Milwaukee and Grand Haven. The former is 350 feet long by 56 feet wide, and 19½ feet deep, drawing 11¼ feet of water when loaded. Her engines develop 3,000 horse-power, and when fully laden with thirty cars each containing 60 tons - 1,800 tons in all v- she can notch a speed of 16 miles per hour. But merchandise is not the complete scope of her operations; she is available also for passenger service. Travellers, however, when condemned to a water journey of 84 miles, do not desire to be cooped within a railway compartment, lashed in a gloomy cavern between decks. Accordingly the ferry is provided with a passenger deck, and 30 state-rooms for 90 first-class and 60 second-class passengers. The vessel also can meet another branch of railway traffic. In the dog-days of summer the industrial population of Milwaukee and other manufacturing centres indulge in merry-making, as in these islands. Mammoth excursions are planned, and in this traffic the Milwaukee assists very appreciably, as she is allowed to carry 3,000 holiday makers.

Her consort, Grand Haven, while a trifle smaller, being 30 feet less in length and 18 inches narrower, reducing her carrying capacity by two freight cars, representing 120 tons, is faster. Her engines, developing 4,000 horse-power, give her a speed of 20 miles an hour. She, likewise, is adapted to the passenger-carrying trade, and has state room accommodation for 96 first-class and 154 second-class passengers. These vessels were costly, the Milwaukee representing an outlay of £100,000, while her sister cost £80,000.

The modern Lake Michigan ferry is built of steel throughout, as nothing but this metal can stand up against the heavy battering and

pounding of the ice. Although the lakes are frozen during the winter, driving navigation into hibernation for six months, the marine railway line must be kept open. Accordingly, the latest ferries are ice-breakers as well, so that they can smash their way through the thick glassy armour, the piles of floes, and the huge packs. It is an inspiring sight to watch these ferry boats attack an obstacle of ice. The 5,000 tons representing the weight of the vessel and its load charges the obstruction head on. The craft gives a momentary shudder as she hits the ice, but recovers herself immediately. The momentum she has attained is sufficient to thrust her forward, crunching, smashing, and throwing chunks of ice in all directions. As she drives her nose into a hummock, her bows are doused in a bath of spray and ice chips, for which a sharp look-out has to be maintained, as the flying debris cuts like glass.

If the obstacle is more than usually resistant, the speed of the vessel gradually slows down as she plunges through it, although her propellers are seeking to drive her forward. As the captain and engineer feel that the harnessed steam is being overpowered, the vessel is stopped and backed down the channel she has cut for herself, so as to have sufficient distance to get up speed once more to make another doughty “buck” at the ice.

But running the railway ferries across the breadth of Lake Michigan is not all honey. This sea, in common with the others in the chain, is swept by the most violent storms, when the waves get up as high as any to be met on the Atlantic. Then the ferry has a hard gruelling, especially when the ice is about at the same time. Although staunchly built, engineering science in this field has not overcome completely the forces of Nature. Lake Michigan has its own tale of disaster, and has gathered its victims from the craft which seek to bridge the gap between the respective ends of the railway lines. The year 1909 was particularly black in this respect, and, the ice and storms being abnormally severe, even for Lake Michigan, sad havoc was wrought. The Pere Marquette steel car ferry No. 18 started out on her eastern trip with a full load of thirty laden coal-cars, and a crew of forty all told. Winter was jabbing its preliminary stings, and the sky looked sullen. But the railway ferry waits neither for weather nor season. The cars were lashed down with more than usual care, as there was every indication of a rough journey.



This all-steel boat is 316 feet in length and has a speed of 17 knots per hour. She plies across Lake Ontario between Cobourg (Ontario) and Rochester (New York), 56 miles. There are four tracks on her deck, and this small “yard” accommodates 30 coal cars, each carrying 50 tons, a total carrying capacity of 1,500 tons.

The craft had barely got well out into the lake, and was ploughing along under full steam, when, with magic suddenness, the Arctic tempest burst over her. The 60-miles-an-hour gale catching the cumbersome, loaded craft unawares, caused her to reel and stagger like a drunken man. The rough-and-tumble was so severe that before the crew grasped the situation two of the ungainly cars had snapped their lashings like pack-threads. All was confusion in an instant. The uncontrolled cars reared and plunged as the boat rolled and tossed. In the twinkling of an eye three men, run down by the breakaways, had been reduced to pulp. Even a steel-built vessel scarcely can withstand the pommellings of some 100 tons rolling about hither and thither, so intense alarm was felt by the discovery that leaks had been started, and that the stern compartments were being flooded.

Instantly the pumps were got to work, and choughed like mad demons in the endeavour to keep the water down. One runaway, after wreaking widespread damage, responded to a heavy pitch of the labouring boat, and took a headlong dive over the stern into the lake. With much difficulty the second was got overboard. But although one danger had passed, another loomed up. The pumps, after working for three hours, became choked with ice, so that the water gained steadily.

There was only one chance to save the boat, and that was to lighten her. The captain gave the command to jettison the cars. It was a simple order, but one which was terrifying to carry into effect, when the ferry was writhing and twisting like an acrobat. Still, the crew, with that grit and determination born of desperation, sprang to the task. The cars were cautiously released when the boat steadied herself for a second or two, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, as the nose of the ferry rose to climb a roller, a car was let loose. The steep declination of the track enabled the cars to rush down with fearful force to smash into the water. Now and again, owing to the ship pitching nose downwards before the truck was clear, the rear wheels caught, and then the men had to toil like demons and with superhuman effort to prise the wheels over.

Meantime the ferry was settling down steadily. All but two of the cars were got off, when the captain gave the men the order to rush for their lives. They hesitated a moment, as the exertions of their task had diverted their attention from the plight of the vessel. But they obeyed the order. They had scarcely drawn clear, and were fighting grimly among the foaming waves, when, glancing backwards, they saw the ferry dip her stern as the bow met an advancing roller. But the stern did not rise as it should have done the succeeding instant. Instead, it was swamped, and never was seen again. The ferry sank like a floating tin which suddenly has its stability destroyed. The men pulled hard for the shore, no easy task in such a sea and with the thermometer well down below freezing point: of the forty who put out from port only two got ashore.

The method of bringing these floating railways into line with the land tracks at the water’s edge is somewhat novel. The area for docking the vessel, which is just large enough to accommodate her and no more, is given a substantial fence of massive timber piles, the line of which follows the contour of the ship from the stern to amidships. The vessel backs into this enclosure very steadily, presently bumping gently against the fence. The piles give a trifle to the blow, but at the same time they guide the movement of stern until at last it strikes the end of the dock, when, the metals coming into line, bolts are dropped to hold the vessel firmly in position. In tidal waters connection between the railway and the ship’s deck is maintained over a bridge, one end of which can be moved up or down to overcome the difference in level between the tracks on land and on board respectively.

On the other lakes, ferry services are maintained between important railway points on the opposite shores. Thus the Straits of Mackinac, where the waters of Lakes Michigan and Huron mingle, are spanned by these massive steel craft. These particular ferries, however, do not ply only between the facing railway terminals located on the respective banks, but at times embark upon coasting journeys, carrying their ponderous loads 60 or 70 miles down the shores. Lake Erie is spanned between Port Stanley on the Canadian side and Conneaut, Ohio, while Lake Ontario is bridged similarly between Cobourg, Ontario, and the Port of Rochester, in the State of New York, the sea journey being 56 miles. The ferry engaged on this service, Ontario No. 1, is a particularly fine example of the American-built marine railway. She has an over-all length of 316 feet, a beam of 54 feet, and depth of 20 feet, drawing 15 feet of water when loaded. Steel is used throughout in her construction, and the hull is subdivided by water-tight bulkheads, while her twin screws and engines are sufficiently powerful to secure a speed of 17 knots per hour. Her deck is a miniature railway siding with its four sets of metals, which are capable of receiving thirty American freight cars. While this ferry is fitted with a deck for passengers, and has an elaborate equipment, including a music room and a restaurant service a la carte, it is essentially a freight route. The Grand Trunk Railway Company and other industrial Canadian manufacturing interests draw their coal supplies from the Western Pennsylvania fields, which are served by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburg Railway. The trucks, laden with 50 tons of goal, are brought up to Rochester and then transported directly across the lake for distribution to the desired points on the Canadian shore, the ferry handling a complete consignment of 1,500 tons of fuel in a single trip. In this instance the ferry saves a haul of 214 miles, since otherwise the fuel would have to be carried around the head of the lake, and enter Canada via the Niagara frontier - a detour of 270 miles. The passenger service, however is somewhat heavy, as many wealthy Americans have established summer homes on the Canadian shore of the lake, while the excursion traffic has grown very appreciably, this vessel being able to carry 1,000 merrymakers.



[From Railway Wonders of the World by F A Talbot]

You can read more on “The Dover-Dunkirk Train Ferry”, “The Lake Baikal” and “The Twickenham Ferry” on this website.

You can read more on “Train Ferries” in Railway Wonders of the World