By John Francis
When settlers first came to the Bruce Peninsula, they mostly came by boat. The network of 19th century cart paths were upgraded to roads as the 20th century advanced and the packet freighter was gradually replaced by cars, trucks and buses. And ferries.
Richard Thomas, in The Motorists’ Shortcut — 100 Years of the Owen Sound Transportation Company, says that the first Tobermory to South Baymouth ferry was operated by John Tackaberry of Lion’s Head in 1917 with the steamer Henry Pedwell. Over the next dozen years, Tackaberry and various competitors offered irregular service on the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin run, using a number of different vessels.
In 1930, the Owen Sound Transportation Company offered a daily schedule on the Tobermory to South Baymouth run, with the wooden steamship SS Kagawong, which carried eight automobiles. In 1931, Thomas continues, OSTC “applied to the Province of Ontario for an exclusive franchise for the Tobermory-South Baymouth ferry service. It was granted…”
The exclusive franchise was inaugurated in 1932 with an upgraded boat: the MS Normac (named after OSTC founder Norman McKay). Thomas says that the Normac “could transport 66 passengers and had staterooms for 40; as well she could carry 18 automobiles and 200 tons of freight.”
The Normac was originally built in 1902 at the Jenks Shipbuilding yard in Port Huron Michigan. She was 124 feet long, a steam-powered fire tug, custom-built for the Detroit Fire Department. OSTC bought her in 1930 and took her to Midland where Georgian Bay Shipbuilding Company converted her to diesel power and outfitted her to operate as both a package freighter and passenger ferry.
After a year on the Turkey Trail — Owen Sound to Sault Ste Marie, with calls at numerous ports along the shore of Georgian Bay, Manitoulin Island and the North Channel — the Normac switched to the Tobermory to South Baymouth ferry run. She provided service on that run for more than 30 years before being replaced by the refitted MS Norgoma in 1964.
After that, the Normac spent five years on the (now defunct) ferry route from Meldrum Bay on Manitoulin to Cockburn Island and Blind River.
In 1969 she was sold twice and ended up in Toronto as Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant. She was severely damaged in 1981 when struck by the Toronto Island ferry, Trillium. She sank and spent the next five years on the bottom of Toronto Harbour. She was raised and refurbished in 1986 and according to Wikipedia, “she served as Tokyo Joe’s Marina Bar and Grill, a floating restaurant and cocktail lounge at Port Dalhousie, Ontario until she was gutted by fire in 2011. She was restored and became the Riverboat Mexican Grill. The now vacant ship remains docked at Port Dalhousie Pier Marina.”
There are no known plans to bring the Normac to Tobermory.
Before and during WWII, traffic often exceeded the Normac’s capacity. Other vessels were pressed into service on the Tobermory-South Baymouth route, to keep traffic moving, including the Caribou, the Manitou, the Hibou and the Manitoulin.
After the war ended, vacation traffic on the Tobermory to South Baymouth route increased dramatically. Armed with a generous federal subsidy, OSTC commissioned the building of the SS Norisle.
Colling-wood shipyards had been busy building warships throughout WWII; the Norisle was the first peacetime vessel built there. She was fitted with left-over steam engines intended for a Royal Canadian Navy corvette.
The Norisle is 215 feet long and was built to carry 50 cars and 200 passengers. She served alongside the Normac, beginning with the 1947 season.
Replaced by the Chi-Cheemaun after 1974, the Norisle was moved to Manitowaning to serve as a floating museum. She served in this capacity until 2008, by which time she had become dilapidated. With a variety of leaks, she was also close to sinking. The leaks were patched and a group was formed to brighten her future. The Friends of the Norisle dreamed of refitting her as a cruise ship. Thirteen years after the group’s formation, the Norisle continues to molder at Manitowaning.
A bid by the Tobermory Maritime Association to bring the Norisle to Tobermory and sink her as a dive site was blocked by the Friends of the Norisle. The vessel’s future is uncertain; the Friends group seems to have dissolved and its web page generates “Error 404 — page not found”. A Facebook page for the SS Norisle Steamship Society has no new posts since 2015.
An article in the Manitoulin Expositor from 2018 indicates that the Township of Assiginack gave the Norisle Steamship Society $45,000 to remove asbestos insulation from the vessel.
The Norgoma was also custom built in Collingwood for OSTC, but she was built for a different purpose. She was not built as a ferry but rather as a packet freighter, to serve on the Turkey Trail run, calling at all the coastal ports between Owen Sound and Sault Ste Marie. Commissioned in 1949, the Norgoma is 187 feet long with a 36 foot beam, powered by steam and able to carry 200 passengers and 250 tons of freight.
Freight and passenger traffic on the Turkey Trail dwindled steadily through the 1950s as roads reached more and more communities. Traffic on the Tobermory/South Baymouth ferry run continued to increase, well beyond the Norisle’s capacity.
The Norgoma was converted from a steam-powered packet freighter to diesel-powered car ferry in time for the 1964 season. She served until 1974 when the Chi-Cheemaun was commissioned to replace the two smaller vessels.
At that point the Norgoma was retired and sold to the city of Sault Ste Marie to serve as a maritime heritage museum. The museum project collapsed in 2019 and the vessel became a financial liability to the city. They have been searching for a new owner. Sault Ste Marie City Council approved a motion on July 13, 2020, to accept an offer from Tobermory Real Estate Investors Inc. (TREII).
By all accounts, the Norgoma is in relatively good shape.
Mike Goman of TREII made a presentation to MNBP Council at the Aug 10 Council Meeting (see article page 1) about relocating the vessel to Tobermory Harbour.
The Chi-Cheemaun replaced the two smaller ferries in 1974. With a capacity of 638 passengers and close to 100 vehicles, she was barely able to handle the traffic. Refitted a few years later to increase her capacity to nearly 150 vehicles, she was still leaving cars behind on the dock almost every trip. There was vigourous pressure to add a second vessel on the route. St Edmunds Reeve Brad Davis told me in 1989 that every time OSTC had added capacity on the Tobermory to South Baymouth run, it was full within two years.
So OSTC went looking for a second ship, to handle all that extra traffic.
They found the Manx Viking in Denmark, renamed her Ontario Number One for her Atlantic crossing and held a naming contest. Nindawayma — Ojibway for little sister — was the winner.
Wikipedia says the Nindawayma was originally built in Gijón, Spain in 1974 and was launched as the Monte Cruceta. She did not begin work until 1976, by which time she had been renamed Monte Castillo. She did ferry service in the Mediterranean in summer and carried fruit and vegetables from Spain to England in winter. Purchased by the Manx Line in 1978, she was renamed Manx Viking and provided service between Heysham, England and Douglas, Isle of Man until 1987. Sold to Det Stavangerske Dampskibsselskap of Denmark, she was found to have “severe engine problems” and did not see service until bought by OSTC.
The Nindawayma’s inaugural voyage was in June 1989. I was invited; it was exciting. The excitement dwindled over the next couple of years. Thomas quotes Susan Schrempf (OSTC’s longtime CEO): “The short story of the Nindawayma is like this: it came in, it began service, it ran for two very short seasons and then it blew an engine and by that time traffic had fallen off.”
The vessel never carried another passenger or another car. The four-laning of Highway 400 gave Southern Ontario a faster way to the north and ferry traffic has dwindled gradually since about 1990.
The Nindawayma spent a few years at dock in Owen Sound then a decade or more at dock in Montreal, where she was used for parts and also as a movie set for Saved by the Belles and Bon Cop, Bad Cop.
In 2007, she was purchased by Purvis Marine of SS Marie and broken up for scrap.
There are no known plans to bring her to Tobermory.