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Walkerville's Last Passenger Ferry

By Al Roach, 1988

Forty-six years ago a sign was posted at the foot of Devonshire Road, which read: "On May 15, 1942, this ferry service will be discontinued." It was signed by the Detroit-Walkerville Ferry Company.

ariel1900.jpg

Thus ended the so familiar Detroit-Walkerville ferry service, which had been carried on for 61 years. Outmoded and shoved into the transportation background by the tunnel and bridge, the Walkerville ferries had, nevertheless, continued to ply back and forth between the foot of Devonshire and the foot of Joseph Campeau in Detroit for four years after the Windsor Ferry Company had given up the ghost (1938).

But even in that late day, commuters recalled when the Wayne and Halcyon, built for the ferry service in 1923 and 1925 respectively, were the latest thing in river transport.

ferrydocks2.jpgOld-timers recalled when the Essex was launched and put into service back in 1913. And real old-timers talked of the Ariel, first of the ferries, which was born with the company in 1881.

The handwriting had been on the wall, of course, for several years. But in their heyday in the 1920's, the reliable little gray smoke-belchers had ferried as many as 611,283 vehicles and 568,374 pedestrians in a single year.

If you were a boy living in the north end of Walkerville during the '20's and '30's, the ferries provided a daily service for you in the summertime but it had nothing to do with crossing the river.

You used to slip under the Peabody Bridge and cross over the CNR track. Then, grabbing the wire mesh fence for support, work your way along the narrow wooden ledge that ran alongside the river until you reached the ferry.

Then, when no one was looking, you jumped from the spiles ­ the partially submerged poles that helped protect the dock ­ onto the foot-wide ledge running round the ferry. If you managed to make around to the back of the boat before a deckhand saw you and turned a hose on you, you had only to wait until the ferry started for a wonderful dive into the foaming, propeller-churned water six or eight feet below.

If you were a novice at the game, you swam or drifted with the strong current a few hundred feet downstream to the storm sewers just east of Beard's Boathouse.

But if you were one of the older and more daring of the breed, you rode well out into the river before leaping in, and perhaps you "swam down" ­ which in reality meant you carried on with the current to the twin boathouses at the foot of Moy avenue, a half-dozen blocks downstream.

You weren't deterred by the stories of a boy ­ real or fancied ­ who had jumped off the ferry, not knowing it was backing away from the dock, and had been sucked into the swirling propeller blades and slashed to death.

Nor were you more than scarcely conscious of the weeds between you and the safety of the shore ­ weeds where at least one boy you actually knew had been entangled and dragged to his watery grave.

It was all part of the game. And you looked with the proper amount of disdain upon any "sissy" who swam in a pool, or even at a supervised beach.

No one worried about water pollution. And no one called you a delinquent for "snitching" a ride on the ferry.

It was a grand and glorious way of whiling away the lazy summer days until the long, shrill scream of the Parke-Davis whistle, accompanied by the short, deep-throated blasts of the Hiram Walker horn, beckoned you home for 5:00 dinner.

And perhaps today as you drive across the Peabody Bridge and look upon the massive white elevator which has so drastically changed the scene, you may think of those days of so long ago.

more Al Roach

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