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The End for the “SS Wolfe Islander”

Each stroke of the huge paddles brought forth a series of creaks and groans from the ancient timbers below... But the weary old lady made it as if by some whispered message that she must.

Kingston Whig Standard, June 25, 1946


The boat has been condemned. The authorities tied her up. 

The news hit every Wolfe Island farm and household like an electric shock.

Many communities along the river and elsewhere were still reeling from tragic news about the war that almost appeared daily on their doorsteps about a loved one lost or wounded. Now, World War II was finally over. Peace at last for many families trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after the storm clouds over Europe. Now this.

On Dominion Day, July 1, 1946, there was little to celebrate for the people of Wolfe Island. Sixty five years ago, ferry service to Kingston came to an abrupt end. Not a complete surprise; although many thought that the tired, worn old steamer Wolfe Islander still had another season left in her because, after all, she had seen them through two world wars, the Great Depression and forty two seasons of heavy weather and moving ice. SS Wolfe Islander, the last of the paddlewheel steamers had always been there and, it seemed, she always would be. A little paint and putty every spring put her back on the run until finally, ‘ol Father Time caught up with her. 

At the end of the ferry dock in Marysville, Wolfe Island, motor boat operator and mechanic Elwyn ‘Buck’ Mullin helped several passengers climb down the makeshift stairs into his brand new water taxi. When the war ended, the Mullins, Rollie and son Buck, had been operating a taxi service to the mainland to supplement ferry service, especially during off hours for the ferry. Their waterfront home had a new double slip boathouse recently constructed to protect their boat. This year, another craft had been added. Gleaming white with an upper deck of polished mahogany, the 32 foot long by ten foot wide boat was named Rebola. Her enclosed, spacious cabin sloped gently downward in a graceful arc toward the stern to her open after deck blending with perfect symmetry into her hull. Built by islander Gordon Roney, Rebola was the Wolfe Island ferry now, sharing that responsibility with three other motor boats when they were available.

Rebola, named after Buck’s sister Reba and his mother Ola, was not only the largest of them but the fastest and could carry the heaviest freight. Even so, it wouldn’t be enough. The motor boats would soon be overwhelmed with the needs of the island community. Animals and produce had to get to market. Supplies for the island stores and especially the supply of coal for the coming winter would soon be critical.

With the sun shining bright amidst a cloudless sky, the air hangs heavy like the aura of a wake for a special friend. Tied to the same dock, lifeless, quiet and empty, the Wolfe Islander pulled gently on her mooring lines. Walking slowly around her empty car deck, watchman Tom Lyons strolled toward the rail and waved to the passengers lining up for the water taxi. Lost in thought, Tom remembered a happier day, 42 years ago, when the brand new ferry, the SS Tom Fawcett, sailed into Barrett Bay here on the island. Why, the entire island turned out, leaving partially mowed fields and bawling cattle, demanding to be milked. She was named originally for Reeve Fawcett, who was formally recognized for his tireless work in finally acquiring a boat owned and operated by the township. Captain James Crawford was master. By popular demand her name changed to Wolfe Islander a year later.

The new ferry boat arrived at our dock... greeted by cheers and a volley of fire arms. Everybody was pleased to see her arrive with colours flying. She is a fine boat, both strong and seaworthy, and the people of the island feel proud of her.

British Whig, August 2, 1904


Buck greets everyone by name as each person finds a seat in the big motorboat. Finally, with standing room only, the boat is full. Casting off, the Rebola backs gently out into the bay. No one speaks as the silhouette of their ferry steamer looms beside the motorboat. A little faded now and sagging in the middle, her proud name painted over her paddlebox comes into view as the Rebola swings around.

“Do you think they’ll replace her?” one woman asked, suddenly embarrassed by the obvious question.

“Naw,” replied her husband. “They’ll patch her up. They always do.”

“Not this time,” replied another. I’m surprised she’s lasted this long since the accident. When was that, three years ago?”

“Oh my,” answered the first woman. “Those poor men. I’ll never forget those screams.”

“They should’a blew that boiler down first,” said her husband. “Am I right?” everyone aboard remembered the accident. Some thought that the boiler actually exploded on the engineer and fireman, killing them instantly.

“Naw, they were makin’ an adjustment to the steam pipe with a wrench,” said the husband. “Young Joe Morrison got it first. Both those guys were trapped in that narrow passage at the rear of the ship’s boiler makin’ the adjustment to the loose pipe or somethin’ when she let go. Then, the engineer Ed Reid got it. He was from Bronte. I didn’t really know him.”

“Can you imagine?” the woman said, “being scalded to death.”

Those nearby nodded in agreement. “Hey, remember back in ’16 when she got lost in the snowstorm?” another islander recalled. “It was just before Christmas, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said another. “That’s when they lit the bonfires and rang the church bells. Ol’ Cap Al Macdonald kept her goin’ in circles till he followed the sound.”

Just then, the Rebola picked up speed as she met her ‘sister’, Ol Sadie coming the other way, also with a full load of passengers. This other Mullin boat, a little older, was operated by Buck’s father Rollie. Ol Sadie, purchased in Rockport, had a partially enclosed cabin with more seating out on her open deck. She was also rumoured to have had a somewhat shady past as a former prohibition rum runner through the many secret channels of the Thousand Islands.

Island residents are being transported between Wolfe Island and the city by private motor boats. It is understood these boats are making scheduled runs. Some freight consisting largely of food is being taken across on these boats.

Kingston Whig Standard, July 2, 1946

Meantime, in Kingston by the foot of Brock Street, Lyall Dougan continued to load his boat with milk cans and empty cheese boxes. Waiting in line were more islanders trying to return home.

“Can I put these cans up here, Cap?” asked a crew member.

“Sure,” Lyall replied. “Just tie ‘em down so they don’t roll off.”

Captain Lyall Dougan operated a pilot boat service in Kingston from his house at the foot of West Street. Called upon night and day, Captain Dougan would make endless trips out into the lake taking pilots to guide the ships coming in to Kingston. Now, both of his boats were pressed into water taxi service, whenever he could, for Wolfe Island. Each boat could crowd 30 persons each if the weather was fair. “If it freshens a bit, it isn’t so comfortable and certainly doesn’t compare with the old ferry,” Captain Dougan said. “In rough weather we have to cut our passengers to about 15, and we get plenty of rough weather in the fall months.”

Craig Russell, Reeve of Wolfe Island and manager of the ferry, informed the Whig-Standard that no definite plans had been made to restore the ferry service. He said an official of the Ontario Department of Highways will meet members of the Township Council this evening when some definite action will be taken to obtain another ferry.

Kingston Whig-Standard, July 2, 1946


At the meeting, which was attended by Mr. Balfour of the Department of Highways in Toronto; T.G. Bishop, General Manager and Donald Page, superintendant of the Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Kingston, it was agreed to construct a new ferry. She would be all steel, 165 feet long, capable of carrying 35 cars and propelled by twin screws. Someone even suggested that another wooden vessel be constructed, similar in size to the present steamer. And why not place the engine out of the old boat into the new one? This was unanimously turned down. Reeve Russell also stated that the township of Amherst Island be approached for the use of their ferry, the Amherst Islander (1), to transport cheese from Wolfe Island to Kingston.

“Cheese is one of our main industries on the island,” stated Reeve Russell. “The factories turn out an average of 400 cheese a week. The three factories are just about plugged with cheese right now, and unless it is moved soon we will face a serious storage problem. We managed to get the Amherst Islander for one trip a week ago, but we won’t be able to get her again as she is busy elsewhere.”

As he approached the Brock Street wharf in Kingston harbour, Buck Mullin slowed Rebola and spinning her wheel hard to starboard, backed gently on her engine. With practised ease, he laid her gently against the wooden pier. In less than a minute she was made fast while her passengers made their way aft. Everyone had stopped talking by then, lost in their own memories of their lives around the ol’ boat. Even the critics now realized just how much they had come to depend on her.

They have used her to carry their goods to market and their purchases back, to carry their children to school and their stock to city dealers. Her friendly purser, Dick Spoor, a veteran of 27 years aboard her, cheerfully carried messages for islanders and Kingstonians alike.

Kingston Whig-Standard, June 25, 1946

Sixty five years ago this month, the largest island in the Thousand Islands was in trouble.

By Captain Brian Johnson

This is the first in a three part series titled: The Wolfe Island Crises of 1946. These are, in part, excerpts from Brian Johnson's upcoming book titled ‘Ferry Tales from Wolfe Island’. He wrote a similar story titled ‘When Ferry Fears Gripped the Island’ which appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard commemorating the former ferry’s 60th anniversary five years ago.

Next month: partial relief, the army landing barges ‘Wolfe Islander 1’ and ‘Wolfe Islander 2’.

Posted in: History
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Tom King
Comment by: Tom King ( )
Left at: 8:38 AM Saturday, June 18, 2011
Very interesting story Brian! I am looking forward to next month's installment.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 6:33 AM Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Joan Russell
Comment by: Joan Russell
Left at: 10:24 PM Friday, May 18, 2018
Brian, I just came across this account. Appreciate so much the historical work that you do.
best, Joan.
Mardy Howe
Comment by: Mardy Howe
Left at: 10:01 AM Monday, July 2, 2018
I admire Brian ass a person. Hee is s sociable and strives to have everyone around him entertained and happy. That shows in his writing, His wording is such that a school-age child can read and comprehend yet has the sophistication to draw any reader in.
I am always eager to see a new story Of Brians and I am eagerly awaiting his book with great anticipation.