The Manitoulin Connection: Swing Bridge Stories

EDITOR’S NOTE—This is the current installment of a series that will focus on Manitoulin’s iconic swing bridge which, in 2013, will celebrate a century of service as Manitoulin Island’s physical, year-round link with the mainland. This series, which will lead up to festivities planned around next year’s centennial event, seeks to give early twenty-first century Manitoulin people a sense of the construction of the bridge and the coming of a rail link to the North Shore. Anyone with memories or anecdotes to share about the swing bridge may do so by emailing or by phoning The Expositor office at 705-368-2744 and asking for Robin Burridge. This week’s installment of The Manitoulin Connection is a re-print of a story first published in this paper on August 30, 2000 and written by then-Expositor editorial stagger Jane Hubbard from interviews with historian Sandy McGillivray.

by Jane Hubbard

LITTLE CURRENT—The town of Little Current began its life as a port town accessible only by boat or over ice in the winter time. As modes of transportation changed so did the face of the town and the focus of the local economy.

In the 1850s George Abotossaway settled on the Little Current waterfront. A Native entrepreneur, he sold fuel wood to visiting steam ships, thus beginning the town’s dependence on the water.

As the Little Current area became more populated, the residents became more and more dependent on the trade and traffic that arrived at the town’s Port. Some of the earliest ships to visit were side wheeler steam ships. The Penetanguishene and the Gore were two of the steam ships that visited in the 1840s and 1850s bringing with them the goods that the growing community required including mail.

In the 1860s, the first publisher of the Expositor, W.L. Smith, relates a story about travelling from the Parry Sound area over the ice in a sleigh to Manitowaning. Crossing the ice by covered sleigh was common in the winter months. Some of the sleighs were equipped with stoves to keep the travellers warm on their three hour journey. Little Current residents would travel over to Massey where they could link up with the railway to continue their journey.

In the summer, there was an alternative way to travel. Privately owned boats, like the Bon Amie or the Iroquois, would go from Little Current and Gore Bay over to Cutler or Spragge where they met the train and picked up the mail. Island residents could take these mail boats over to the North Shore if they wished to link up with the train.

By the 1870s steam ships had changed to a more modern propeller type of steam propulsion. The Wabuno, the Atlantic, the Majestic, the Pacific, the Algoma and several ships called the Manitoulin were some names of ships that frequented Little Current.

In the 1890s there was at least one boat a day docking at Little Current. The main runs at this time were from Collingwood or Owen Sound up to Sault Ste. Marie. Island residents could begin their journey south by boarding a steam ship in Little Current. These boats, part passenger ship and part freighter, were quite a comfortable mode of transportation, many of them had state rooms that ensured a luxurious ride. The traveller would then board the train at either Owen Sound or Collingwood. The Grand Trunk Railroad ran to Collingwood and the CPR ran to Owen Sound. The trains from either town would travel to Toronto.

These ships would carry with them a wide variety of goods, from apples to flour to sewing machines and pianos. They were Little Current’s link to the outside world. This fleet of combination passenger and freight ships, would service the whole North Shore making stops at Killarney, Blind River, Thessalon, Manitowaning, Sheguiandah, Kagawong, and Cockburn Island on their way to the Sault. Because these ships linked Manitoulin with Owen Sound and Collingwood, there was a definite connection with these communities, more so than with Sudbury. There was even a Collingwood column in the early Expositor for a while.