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All aboard for the Chi-Cheemaun ferry’s 50th anniversary

Historian seeking stories, photos for commemorative book
The MS Chi-Cheemaun is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024, and the Owen Sound Transportation Company has commissioned a commemorative book about the ferry to celebrate.

The MS Chi-Cheemaun will celebrate 50 years in service in 2024, and a new commemorative book is planned to chronicle its history sailing Lake Huron.

Travelling between South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island and Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula, the vehicle and passenger ferry has run from May to October annually since its maiden voyage in September 1974.

It serves as an important transportation link for commercial traffic transporting goods between southern Ontario and the northern part of the province. But it's also a popular attraction for visitors exploring the area during the summer tourism season.

In celebration of its half-century milestone, Richard J. Thomas, an Owen Sound-based author and historian, is seeking stories and photos from members of the public, to be compiled in an anthology that will be released this spring.

Its timing will coincide with the launch of the ferry's 2024 sailing season.

“I’m just always interested in people’s stories, because it’s essentially the same passage every time, but everyone experiences it differently,” Thomas said.

“So I’m just interested in those unique and interesting stories of trips people have had.”

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Thomas is both a frequent rider of the ferry and a long-time collaborator of the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), the Chi-Cheemaun’s parent company, which is an agency of the Province of Ontario.

He’s produced the ferry’s on-board safety videos through his video production company and calls the OSTC his longest-standing client.

A passionate local historian with more than a dozen published titles to his name, Thomas was happy to accept when the OSTC contacted him last year about writing the book and producing an accompanying video.

“I’ve got a very long history with the company,” he said.

Writing is well underway, said Thomas, who anticipates the final draft will run to about 20,000 words with “lots of pictures.”

It opens with the history of the ferry service and the various companies that have run it, along with the stories behind the sister ships Norisle and Norgoma, the Chi-Cheemaun’s predecessors.

There’s also a passage dedicated to the Collingwood shipyard where the Chi-Cheemaun was built.

“I’ve interviewed about a dozen shipyard workers who actually worked on the Chi-Cheemaun, and it’s been lots of fun,” Thomas said. “I’ve learned lots of stuff that I didn’t know.”

He was already aware that the ferry started its maiden season late — the ship was supposed to launch in the spring of 1974, but didn’t actually set sail until September.

What he didn’t know is that a key reason for the delay was an ongoing labour dispute.

The build contract for the ferry was signed by Collingwood Shipbuilding while shipyard workers were on strike, and the work stoppage lasted 48 days.

When work finally got underway, the Chi-Cheemaun proved challenging for the company, because it was accustomed to building bulk freighters — not passenger ferries.

“The other thing that has really touched me is learning about the immense sense of pride the shipyard workers had, and the fact that Chi-Cheemaun is still going strong. More than one of them said, ‘We built good ships,’” Thomas said.

“For me, for a business that’s been gone for so many years, that’s pretty neat.”

He's already received some interesting submissions.

Two couples have notified him about getting married on the ferry and are planning to send in photos from the happy occasions.

Through his research, he learned an intriguing fact about being wed at sea: the captain has to provide the exact latitude and longitude from the point a couple marries, because it has to be included on the marriage certificate, Thomas said.

One man wrote in to share a funny story about tricking his cousin into thinking one of the islands they passed during the voyage was 'Gilligan's Island.’

“He said his grandma was none too impressed when she found out what was going on,” Thomas chuckled.

Vehicles board the MS Chi-Cheemaun as they ready to sail Lake Huron. | Owen Sound Transportation Company photo

Over the years, the Chi-Cheemaun's popularity has grown so that it's no longer just a means of conveyance.

Many people now come just to see the ship itself, or sign up for one of the ferry's popular sunset cruises, which take guests on a round-trip passage while they enjoy dinner and entertainment.

"The Chi-Cheemaun is the destination, and for a lot of people, it's the biggest ship they'll ever take a trip on,” Thomas said.

That the ferry has been a part of so many generations over the years speaks to its enduring interest among the public, Thomas said.

Happy memories of family vacations past, marriage celebrations, or even a child visiting the wheelhouse to meet the captain: all mark significant occasions in people's lives. And those are the types of stories he's eager to hear.

Even if someone believes their story is too insignificant or silly to share, Thomas encourages them to send it in anyway.

“There’s no ‘dream story’ out there,” he said. “But I know there are stories out there, and I just hope people will consider sharing.”

People wishing to contribute are asked to send in their stories and photos by mid-March to be considered for inclusion in the book. Stories and photos can be emailed to Thomas at