The Dartmouth Ferry – Rocking Our Way Across The Harbour For 263 Years



In 1752, shortly after Dartmouth’s founding, and before my family got anywhere near it, John Connor started operating a ferry service between Halifax & Dartmouth. Since that time it has become an integral part of Dartmouth’s tableau but it is has certainly gone through a lot of changes in its tenure. North America’s oldest salt water ferry started off as a means of getting the labour force of Halifax over to the rich shores of Dartmouth to harvest wood for fuel and lumber. Then as the settlement of Dartmouth grew the ferry, which at that time would have been a large rowboat and which cost a sixpence to board,  was also needed on Sunday to FERRY(ha!)  people to Halifax for Sunday church service and back. I have to tell you, if I had to choose between crossing Halifax Harbour in an open rowboat and building a church, I would have learned to wield a hammer REALLY fast. Maybe that is why there are SO many churches in downtown Dartmouth now, but that is a subject for another day.

As difficult as it is to imagine these rowboat ferries, what came next, is harder still for me to picture, a ferry propelled by horse power…. from real horses! In fact 8 horses and a paddle wheel ushered people back and forth across the drink for approximately 20 year.  It was not an easy endeavour though, the horses had a difficult time getting across during stormy or icy weather. The poor horses worked extra hard and worked up serious hunger but the company could not keep up the demand of feeding them.Perhaps the worst blow to the horse powered ferry came when all the horses had to replaced at the same time when a drunken passenger stabbed all 8 horses while being transported home from one of Halifax’s drinking establishments. Poor horses.




Of course we all know that the steam engine was a giant game changer in the world of transportation and the Dartmouth Ferry was no exception.

In the early 1830 three steam powered ferries, The Ogle, Boxer and MicMac were built in Dartmouth, talk about buying locally! These ships ushered in an era of great prosperity to the area and brought along of host of very colourful characters. This included a visit from the Prince of Wales and future King of England Edward the VII,   a treasurer who was killed in a duel, and the considerate Edward Lowe, who was the first person the think of building a shelter for the folks standing around waiting to take the ferry.

Like the business that owned them, Halifax-Dartmouth Steam Ferry Company, the Dartmouth ferries continued to grown and change. In 1888 a fancy new ferry joined the fleet, the Dartmouth, had more room for horse carts, an open air deck for the pedestrians and for the first time ever ELECTRIC lights replaced the whale oil lamps! Talk about luxury!





The dawn of the 20th century was a busy time for the newly formed Dartmouth Ferry Commission. Changes were coming to Dartmouth and the world at large. With World War One brewing in Europe our harbour became a busy spot which seems to have caused a lot of disruption for the ferry service. On a foggy night in 1915 the one ferry, aptly named Dartmouth, collided with the British warship HMS Sydney, causing costly damage but fortunately no casualties.  Of course this nautical fender bender was nothing compared to the one two years previous. On December 6th 1917 passengers crossing on the ferry had a front row seat when the Imo and Mont Blanc struck.  Mercifully although the standing ferry terminals were destroyed and many people on the ferry sustained injuries from the flying debris, not one person on the ferries died that day. If fact the ferries ran day and night taking people to hospital in Halifax in spite of not knowing what happened to their own families.







In the 1920’s and 30’s some new ships were added to the aging fleet as well a new captains and commissioners including my great grandfather Capt. William Matthews so served as commissioner of the Dartmouth Ferry until his retirement in 1941.   I was positively gleeful when I discovered that my fascination with our Dartmouth ferries turned into a connection to a family history.  So much so that I spent a lot of time being distracted from the task at hand of WRITING  by either digging for info in library stacks and graveyards looking for more information about Capt. Matthews, who was my grandmother’s father. Sadly by the time of print my genealogy research had failed to yield any further information and all my procrastination has been for naught  but if I find anything golden I will fill you in down the road.



As the world got amped up for World War Two so did our harbour and the Dartmouth Ferry Service was no exception. A new ferry was needed to handle all the traffic which now included horse and oxen carts, trucks which were transporting supplies and personal to and from the various military bases and automobiles which were now very common in town.  Military police became a regular fixture on the ferry after a few incidents involving rowdy sailors, on at least one occasion in March of 1940 some sailors broke out the windows of the ferry and started throwing things overboard, including the watchman’s clock off the main deck.  By the time my great grandfather retired in 1941 they had to board up all the windows of the ferry as a precaution for air raids. This lead to a few more traffic scrapes in the harbour but nothing as serious as the 1917 & 1919 incidents.

In 1944 a relatively new ship, the Governor Cornwallis, was lost to the bottom of the harbour after a fire broke out mid crossing but not before all the cars and 300 plus passengers were safely let out on the Dartmouth shore. Once again due to the quick thinking and cool heads of the ferry captain and crew this event was terrible but not one life was lost. Unfortunately not all accidents with the ferry ended so well, in 1954 three men died when The Scotian ran into a navy vessel. This lead to massive changes in the safety systems on the ferries and in ship to shore communications. The accident came at a bad time for the Dartmouth Ferry Commission as the newly constructed Angus L MacDonald bridge was opening just a few months later and passengers now wary of the safety of the ferry had an alternative to crossing the harbour with the motor vehicle.




Sadly it didn’t take long for the Dartmouth Ferry Commissions’ fears to be confirmed. Once the bridge was opened vehicle traffic on the ferries dramatically decreased.  The larger car ferries were retired or sold off and eventually the Commission voted to replace the service with much smaller pedestrian only boats.  At the end of 1958 the Dartmouth Ferry commission, which had been running the show for almost 70 years, was abolished and the ownership and operation was left the the town of Dartmouth. This arrangement with the town, then city of Dartmouth,  continued until 1994 when the ferries became apart to Metro Transit.


Today the ferry is still a much used part of our transit system taking roughly 3000 people back and forth across the harbour daily. Though it serves both side of the harbour there is something about it that makes it undeniably ours. The image the beautiful blue, yellow and white boats are an iconic piece of the Dartmouth tableau. Next time you get a chance I encourage you to take a ride across the water on one of the four current ferries, sit on the top deck on a sunny day and imagine what it would have been like making that trip on a paddle boat being powered by 8 hungry horses.