Why Rochester Should Bring Back the Fast Ferry

Why Rochester Should Bring Back the Fast Ferry

Steamer “Rochester” on Lake Ontario, circa 1910. The “Rochester” took passengers to and from Toronto. Courtesy: Alamy. [Photos provided by David Kramer]

by George Cassidy Payne

Ask almost anyone on the street in Rochester if bringing back the Fast Ferry is a good idea and they will likely suggest resurrecting the Titantic or Hindenburg instead. It is considered by most Rochesterians to be the single worst case of failed city government planning in the last 50 years. In fact, to this day, every major decision involving public tax dollars is measured against the possibility that it could end up like the Fast Ferry: overly ambitious, financially unsustainable, maddeningly unrealistic, and pathetically dysfunctional.

Sylvan Stream was a side-wheeler with a route between Charlotte and the Thousand Islands March 28, 1954

Sylvan Stream was a side-wheeler with a route between Charlotte and the Thousand Islands March. Its heyday was the 1880s. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 28, 1954

But what if bringing back a fast ferry system is actually one of the best things Rochester can do right now?

Granted, there are significant changes that must be made in order to make a fast ferry route from Rochester to Toronto feasible, but those changes turn out to be manageable and rooted in commonsense. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Purchase two smaller boats instead of one massive vessel. One boat can serve as a backup in case there is a malfunction with the first one. That way the trip is consistent and reliable with weather considerations included.
  2. Get rid of cars. A pedestrian only ride is better for everyone. For starters, the time going through custody is diminished substantially. And of course Toronto has a world class public transportation system. Why drive around when you can get everywhere you need to go on bus or subway?
  3. Rethink how you are selling this vision. This is not about people from Toronto coming to Rochester. That was always an absurd premise. This is about people from Western New York, Central New York, the Southern Tier, the North Country, and even the Capital Region wanting a sensible and fun way to go to Toronto, which is indisputably an international hub of cultural diversity and recreation. Needless to say, people from all over the world want to visit Toronto’s museums, parks, restaurants, shops, and neighborhoods. Why wouldn’t they want to come from places such as Albany and Syracuse to use Rochester as a point of departure?
  4. Get rid of the distractions on the ship. People will take the voyage across Lake Ontario because it is a voyage across a Great Lake. The scenery and experience is the selling point. There is no need for movies, casino slot machines, spas, bounce houses, and all of that gratuitous stuff. A bar and restaurant is fine. Other than that, sell the open water, the sunsets, the wildlife, the breeze on the deck, and the approaching skyline of Toronto.
  5. Schedule the RTS, Uber rides, taxies, and other shuttle services to correspond with the departure and arrival times of the ferry. This is not rocket science, but it is a practical solution that can actually make using the ferry a pleasant experience rather than a logistical quagmire. What is more, keep tickets at or under $50 each way. $100 is still competitive with Greyhound and offers a much more exciting travel experience. Make children under 8 free and entice travelers to want to use the ferry more than just once a year.
  6. Don’t worry about revenue. There will be money from tickets, merchandise, drinks, tours, and possibly shipping of goods. Think outside of the box. There is also money to be made through academic pursuits such as semester on the lake courses, study across the lake internships, cultural immersion programs, and government funded scientific research and development.
ONTARIO NO 1 manoeuvres in Cobourg harbour while ONTARIO NO 2 lies at the wharf in this James M. Kidd photo. Notice the absence of a seagate.

Between 1915 and 1950, the Ontario I and II carried cars and passengers to Cobourg, Ontario, directly across Lake Ontario from Rochester, rather than making the longer trip northwest to Toronto. ONTARIO NO 1 manoeuvres in Cobourg harbour while ONTARIO NO 2 lies at the wharf in this James M. Kidd photo. Notice the absence of a seagate.

Rochester is not the same city that it was in 2004. The Rochester that is surging now actually boasts several attractions that would inspire someone from Toronto and other Canadian towns to come here for more than just a day.  To name a select few: The Strong Museum of Play, the George Eastman Museum, the International Jazz Festival, The Lilac Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Finger Lakes wineries (recently voted by USA Today as America’s best wine region), the High and Lower Falls, Letchworth State Park (“Grand Canyon of the East”), numerous Frederick Law Olmsted parks, buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, I.M. Pei, and Louis Khan, a tour of famous abolitionism sites including Susan B. Anthony’s home, Frederick Douglass’ North Star printing press and burial site, Harriet Tubman’s house, and several stations on the Underground Railroad, and a vibrant, up and coming food and drink scene including restaurants such as Fiorella, Lento, Good Luck, and many reputable breweries and cider houses.


The SS Kingston, a 50-year-old sidewheeler, made its last run to Toronto in September 1949. Beginning in 1929, car ferries took pasengers to Canada. The ferries stopped running in the spring of 1950.

Although many of these attractions were here in 2004, this is not the same city. This is a city going through a dynamic revision and reinvention process. This is a city (and region) worth coming to, even if the place you are leaving happens to be Toronto.

But at the end of the day, a fast ferry is the best way to get to Toronto from anywhere in Western and Central New York. Airfare is unreasonably expensive from that distance  tickets hover around $500 even during the non peak season). Greyhound is comparable in price, but who wouldn’t want to take a boat with a bar and restaurant for 2 hours instead of a Greyhound bus? Driving yourself is the least expensive in terms of gas and service fees, but that can be mentally and physically taxing.

So why not try the ferry idea again? With better planning, marketing, and execution, there is no reason why it could not be a successful business venture for both the private and public sectors. What is needed is a willingness to let go of the past and a determination to look boldly into the future. A fast ferry is not a cancer that one gets rid of and never wants to see again. Every other city in America would explore ways to make a ferry work if they were in our position.

So what if it failed the first two times. Did Edison stop trying to create a light bulb after two times? Does NASA quit after an engine collapses a couple of times? Did the Internet come to be after two experiments with routing did not result in global connectivity? Did a Major League baseball pitcher learn to throw a good curve ball after two attempts when he was 13? Were the Pyramids built with two slabs of stone?

The Alexandria ran the St. Lawrence rapids to go from Charlotte down the river to Quebec between 1909 and 1912

The Alexandria ran the St. Lawrence rapids to go from Charlotte down the river to Quebec between 1909 and 1912.  In August 1915, while en route to Toronto, The Alexandria was destroyed in a tempestuous gale. Because the steamboat was never properly salvaged, its hull can still be seen today. We can’t let the sinking of the Alexandria deter us!

One final thought. The city under Mayor Robert Duffy was able to recuperate almost 30 million dollars from the sale of the ship. In the end, after all of the miscalculation, administrative foolishness and tangible heartache, it wasn’t nearly as bad for tax payers as most people think. In other words, the capital is still there to try this idea once again. There is a still a way to try this. The people are different. The energy in the city is different. The investors and the incentives are different. The time is different. The time is now.

EDITORS NOTE:  If the Ferry resumes and there is increased interaction between Canada and Rochester, I can resume my dream to open a Canadian cuisine restaurant in Rochester called Canada, Oh!.  After consulting with a chef at a Canadian culinary school, I learned there are three distinct Canadian styles.  In southern Ontario, it’s British: wild wheat, bacon and strawberries.  In Quebec, it’s French Canadian with an emphasis on crêpes. In the Territories, it’s aboriginal, i.e. freshly killed game only lightly seasoned.  At Canada, Oh, you can have strong coffee and Canadian bacon for breakfast; pastry and Pouilly-Fuissé at lunch; and caribou cooked by fire at dinner.

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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