Bermuda’s ferry boats played a significant role in the Island’s maritime history, aiding and accelerating Bermuda’s economic development and connecting isolated communities with the mainland. Elizabeth Jones takes a look back at Bermuda’s ferries of yesteryear and the individuals responsible for piloting them.
Today fast ferry catamarans zooming out of Hamilton Harbour to Dockyard are a familiar sight, and younger local commuters and children take it entirely for granted that the trip takes just twenty minutes.
Bermuda’s older residents, however, are not so blasé since this Sea Express service began as recently as 2002. But the smaller, black-and-white ferries, the Corona, Coralita and Georgia, chugging their way across the harbour to service Paget and Warwick, recall the days when a ride to Dockyard was a more leisurely affair altogether, taking over twice the time. Indeed, the very names of these ferries summon up nostalgic memories of ferries long past but affectionately remembered, especially by those for whom the little ferries were an important part of childhood.
During the twentieth century, two other Coronasand two other Coralitas used to work the Hamilton–Somerset route while one other Georgia was much loved for carrying out the Hamilton–Paget service. And yet in their time, these older, steam-powered wooden ferries were far faster and more sophisticated than the cedar sailboats and rowing boats preceding them. This article looks at the history of ferries from Bermuda’s earliest years of settlement in St. George’s through Hamilton’s development as a city to the growth of the Royal Naval Dockyard.
Bermuda’s First Ferry Service and Ferrymen
Bermuda, of course, is not just one island; it’s an archipelago, but today, with our forty or so bridges connecting many of them, that’s easy to forget. But until 1871, when the Causeway was first opened, the only way to reach the central part of the island (called the Main and sometimes dubbed the “Continent”) from St. George’s was by boat. Bermuda’s first ferry service, then, operated between Coney Island in Bailey’s Bay and Ferry Island, now in Ferry Point Park.
Walk on the shoreline of Coney Island, look across the ocean to the rocky coastline of Ferry Island and you will be following its route although, today, stone pylons rising out of the water remind us there was once a railway track, undreamt of in the early 1600s. Ferrymen would row or sail their passengers across this stretch of water in wooden rowing or sailing boats. Once passengers arrived on Ferry Island they would cross a wooden bridge, one of the first three Bermuda bridges to be marked on an early map, to Ferry Point and from there trudge into the Old Town of St. George.
Now, a ferryman in popular myth and folklore is often depicted as an unhappy figure having two main challenges. The first condemns him to row across the same stretch of water in all weathers for eternity. In some folk tales, he resorts to trickery to escape. The second relates to recompense. In Polish and German folktales, the ferryman was often tricked into carrying passengers without payment, while in Greek mythology the ferryman Charon carried souls of the newly dead across the River Styx into Hades. If an obolus coin were not placed in the dead person’s mouth, Charon had his own back: that soul was condemned to wander the shores for one hundred years before being allowed to cross the river.
In Bermuda, ferrymen during the early 1620s had very similar problems. Some neglected their duties, possibly because they found the work tedious. And payment was always a pressing concern as early records show. Who would pay for the ferry ride? And how much? (Currency in the early years took the form of tobacco.)
According to Butler’s History of the Bermudas, John Yates was appointed official ferry keeper in 1622 after, as a “planter of longstanding and a sworn Councillor for the island, being appointed as Captain of Southampton Fort.” In return for this, Yates was granted “the keeping of the ferry at Burnt Point [now Ferry Point].…If the ferry here was adequately maintained by him in every way, he was only to receive the benevolence and free gift of the people, the inhabitants of the main island, and nothing more.”
In effect, he had to maintain the upkeep of his boat and ferry personages for no fixed salary and was completely at the mercy of his passengers’ goodwill for any reimbursement at all. The distance away from the crossing point (the fort was on Southampton Island, south of Nonsuch Island, which meant he would have rowed across what was then Southampton Harbour, now Castle Harbour) may explain records citing constant complaints about the casual behaviour of the keeper and the dangerous condition of the ferry boat: “…and now is such slackness in the attendance there given that men have bene constreyned to attend there the whole day and sometimes longer before they could pass over, to their great charge and hindrance.” It’s easy to imagine the sounds of altercation between reluctant ferryman and frustrated passengers.
An act in 1627 demanded one pound of tobacco “to be paid unto the ferrey for euery head within these Islands aboue the age of 16 yeares” and enacted that “all that publique land lying in the St. George’s Island from the pond where the Marshalls lyne ends, to Burnt Point now in the tenure or occupation of Captain Yates, be it more or less, shall be approbiated and set apart for the sole use and keeping of the said fferry. Togeather with the Island called Coney Island.” At this point Yates ceased to be responsible for the ferry but was compensated for the land. The ferryman was required to work the crossing every day except Sunday. According to E.M. McCallan’s Life on Old St. David’s, the ferryman now received a grant. In 1628, ferryman Roger Waller received 300 pounds of tobacco and two years later 600 pounds for the care of the ferry and bridges. In 1660, Henry Stalver received 600 pounds for attendance on the ferry while Atwood received 100 pounds for care of the bridges. Henry Stalver was probably the son of ferry master George Stalver. It’s interesting to note that after George’s death in 1655, the Bermuda Company allowed his wife to take over, thus making her Bermuda’s first female to sail or row a ferry. In addition to grants, the ferryman also was given accommodation on the site of what is now Ferry Point Cottage.
The Horse Ferry
During the 1790s, as more roads were constructed, travel by horse and carriage became more common and so a more sophisticated vehicular ferry or barge was introduced, making it possible for horses and carriages or carts to cross the water between Coney Island and Ferry Point Island. Men would row the barge across the water and then use rope to pull it onto the slipway at each end of the crossing. The old slipway on the western side of Ferry Island can still be seen although the waiting room, complete with fireplace, no longer exists.
The drivers were excused ferriage although the passengers were not. But the ferryman’s position didn’t necessarily improve as often he was required to pay for the barge’s maintenance, an expensive business altogether. Nevertheless, Norwood Hall appears to have made a success of running the service. He placed advertisements in the Bermuda Gazette requesting “Ladies and Gentlemen of these islands send with their servants the amount of their Ferrages.” Otherwise, he would refuse to carry them. In addition, he also owned a boat called the “Ferry Packet” “for the use of gentlemen passing from the Ferry to St. George’s in blowing weather.” He offered to look after their horses and even provide them with fish dinners. By 1842, the horse ferry became regularly in use and crucial for the carrying of the mail to and from Hamilton to St. George’s. Always quite busy, the ferry service was never more so than in January 1847 when, according to the Gazette, “there were 750 men, women and children persons, 58 horses and 24 carriages crossed at the public ferry.” The crowd was thanks to horse racing being offered in the old town.
The journey could be perilous even on calm waters. One photo shows two horse carriages perched precariously on board. Rough days it must have been terrifying, as the Gazette reported in March 1848: “…when attempting to cross in the boat for the Morning Mail, the wind being East, the boat was struck by a heavy sea, which nearly half filled her with water, and caused the warp which leads from one side of the landing to the other, to be jerked out of the hands of the boatmen.” Fortunately, they were rescued by former ferry master Peter Outerbridge and two others and towed into Burchall’s Pond.
According to McCallan, it was claimed a Bermudian man had actually been born on the horse-boat one equally stormy evening. In 1871 the new Causeway opened, to general relief, and the ferry was abandoned until a strong gale in 1899 partially destroyed the bridge, making the service important again for a brief period.
The Downfall of John Till
An eminent and worthy member of society, John Till, was appointed Bermuda’s first postmaster in 1812 and from 1819–23 mayor of St. George’s. He lived with his wife and family on land bought in Cedar Hill above Ferry Reach. Unfortunately, a fierce conflict with Governor Sir William Lumley led to his being wrongly imprisoned. Till was freed within a day but could not emotionally let go of the incident. When Governor Lumley left for England, Till pursued him to fight for justice. He won his case in a London court although was ruined financially and socially. A footnote in Henry Wilkinson’s Bermuda from Sail to Steam says that he “from disappointment and alcohol had sunk beneath the fashion and to keeping the ferry which he did most inefficiently.” He was found drowned in 1829.
Salt Kettle must have been busy enough in 1784 for William Riddell and Co to start a twice-weekly ferry service carrying mail to St. George’s. Their “large commodious fast-sailing two-sail BOAT,” was complete with an “Awning and all other conveniences for the accommodation of Passengers and Freight.” Letters cost 4d. while freights were “priced in proportion to their size and bulk.” In Bermuda Journey, William Zuill mentions the “Salt Kettle Stage,” another sailboat ferry service between Salt Kettle and St. George’s started in 1794 by William Riddell and Co, who charged ladies and gentlemen 1s 8d for a one-way passage. Rowboat ferries operated between Salt Kettle and Hamilton soon after the new town was laid out. In 1853, Daniel Astwood ran a sailboat service and by 1855 Esau Simmons was the operator of the Salt Kettle Ferry Establishment.
Zuill also mentions the “Express,” a small steamboat which on its first day in 1867 “aroused the curiosity of between three and four hundred people.” Ferries have continued to service Salt Kettle ever since. The Bermudian’s Crow’s Nest of March 1932 amusingly alluded to a “social climbing” white cat “whose legal residence is the store of Messrs Pearman, Watlington and Company in Hamilton.” Whenever pregnant, the cat would insist on boarding the Salt Kettle ferry and having her kittens at Captain Tormant’s house in “the more refining atmosphere of that residential parish.”
Hamilton to Somerset and Dockyard
Private ferry services multiplied once the new town, Hamilton, was laid out and the Royal Dockyard in Sandys Parish developed. As early Bermuda travel guides show, with the expanse of tourism, ferries were an inexpensive way for visitors to explore different parts of the island.
Before the opening of Watford Bridge in 1903, Somerset locals depended on a horse ferry which crossed from the north-eastern tip of Somerset Island to Watford Island. From 1843, that meant they could then take a ferry from Watford to Hamilton because of a ferry service started by William T. Steed specifically to carry the mail. His sailboat would leave Hamilton every morning, except Sunday, at eight and carry passengers, post and packages, returning at three in the afternoon. In addition, he would take passengers and customers to “any Ship laying in the Great Sound or at Grassy Bay.” This service was eventually taken over by his son in 1859.
According to the Bermuda Post Office’s philatelic liner notes about ferries: “During the 1870s, Samuel Saltus Ingham (Speaker of the House of Assembly) ran two steam vessels from Hamilton to the Dockyard—the Reliance and the Dispatch. The story goes that these ferries were always breaking down and one wag commented that ‘there was no Reliance in the Dispatch and no Dispatch in the Reliance!’” André Simons explains in his well-researched but unpublished essays on Bermuda ferries that the Trott and Cox Company (eventually sold to Pearman and Watlington) needed a reliable steam service to supply meat and produce to Dockyard. Perhaps the unreliability of these steamships spurred them and other businessmen to found in 1886 the Island Steam Service, replaced by the incorporated Bermuda Transportation Company (BTC) in 1911. Before describing some of the vessels the company bought, the Crow’s Nest of March 1937 is worth noting for its amusing take on the BTC’s service: “The ways of the Somerset ferry used to be wondrous and inscrutable…” Apparently before 1937, passengers could never be sure where the midday ferry would land—in Cavello Bay, Watford Bridge or Mangrove Bay. It entirely depended on the pilot or boat. Knowing which west end ferry stop would pick up passengers for Hamilton was also difficult since if the ferry was not landing at Mangrove Bay Wharf, “a yellow or a red flag or both would be hoisted at Watford Bridge but you couldn’t see it until you reached the bay.”
The journalist was not altogether rude: “From where and from whom else would you receive a courteous phone call advising you, when the Sound is too rough, that the late boat has been cancelled, and if you want to get home, take the early boat instead? On such occasions the Bermudian Transportation Company calls all regular commuters on the Somerset Boat and that is a warm and intimate touch that nobody could fail to enjoy.”
The BTC service, whose agent was Pearman and Watlington, began with the first Triton, a wooden-hulled boat built in Wilmington which ran the Hamilton–Somerset service for 46 years. According to the Crow’s Nest of June 1932 which recorded her burning off the north shore, she had her mast and funnel neatly decapitated after steaming alongside a battleship and ignoring a projecting boom. “It was popularly said the Triton did most of the widening of Two Rock on her own initiative.”
Perhaps the most locally famous ferry used on the run to the west end was the first Corona, an iron-hulled steamboat capable of carrying 350 passengers, built about 1892 as a Hudson River ferry boat and steamed to Bermuda. Originally named the Ossining, she was renamed Corona because The Island Steam Service bought her in 1902, the year of Edward VII’s coronation. Bob Richards, in his novel A Triangle of Treason, draws on research to describe how the crew had to push wheelbarrows of coal from bunkers on Agar’s Island to the ferry. And once a week they would steam to the reservoir at Hawkins Island to collect the 15–20 tons of water they needed to make steam. (The Corona was known for her distinctive steam whistle.) She would take Dockyard workers from Hamilton in the early morning and then Somerset locals and tourists to Hamilton on the return trip. In addition, she would also take tourists on expeditions to the Sea Gardens. Early in her Bermuda career, she caught fire while being anchored during the 1906 hurricane, showing that the new steamboats had their own hazards. But she was to last over fifty years by being routinely rebuilt. As Pilot Wendell Burchall explained to the Bermuda Sun, “The older ferries lasted a long time because everything above the hull was wood. So whenever there was a fire or damage, they simply built the boat up again.”
The first Coralita was bought by the BTC in 1922. Built in Maine in 1914, she was originally the Frances (the Frances is also featured in A Triangle of Treason) and a coal burner. On arrival in Bermuda her steam engine was removed and replaced with a semi-diesel plant, and by 1923 she was running the Hamilton–Somerset service. Being ferried by her was apparently an extremely slow and smoky experience thanks to fumes emanating from her engine. In 1929, her upper deck was enclosed, and her single screw engine converted to twin screw to improve manoeuvrability. Eventually the fume problem was solved by running pipes up to the upper level and enclosing them in a squat, oval funnel. She was renamed the Coralita after a local vine and served the Hamilton–Somerset route until 1963 when she was sunk and replaced by Coralita 2. By the late 1950s, the Bermuda government took over all the ferry services.
Carrying men, women, children, dogs, baby carriages, bicycles, parcels and one Royal Mail bag, the Wilhelmina was a common sight crossing the Sound to Dockyard from 1941 to 1955.The BTC had bought her to fill the need for additional ferries thanks to the wartime increase in Dockyard workers. Once a private yacht built in Canada, she was stripped of her luxurious interior fittings, lifeboats and main mast, and given new benches. Unlike the other ferries, she had no white paint, being brown with a dark grey hull. Used also as a charter boat for cruises, in November 1953 she carried Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from Hamilton to Watford Bridge during their Coronation Tour visit. Two years later, the Royal Gazette published the following dramatic headline: “Death rode on the six o’clock ferry from Hamilton to Somerset on Saturday Run.” Just as the Wilhelmina was approaching Watford Bridge, she caught fire. Pilot Reginald Dill “ran her blazing into the shallows between Watford and Boaz Islands,” whereupon two more explosions occurred. Her “raging inferno” could be seen from Hamilton. Passengers jumped from the boat and swam or were taken by volunteers in boats. Two eight-year-old boys were reported to have gone out in a small green punt to help and managed to rescue an elderly couple. One passenger, Mr Vernon Fubler, 57 years old and father of four, helped passengers escape but when he finally jumped in the water himself, he tragically died, possibly of shock. The other 58 passengers survived, thanks to the pilot’s prompt action. There was no rebuilding for the Wilhelmina—her burned-out remains were towed to deep water off the west end and sunk.
Hamilton, Paget and Warwick Service
Ferry stops across the harbour from Hamilton to Paget’s Lower Ferry, Hodson’s Ferry and Salt Kettle, and Warwick’s Darrell’s Wharf and Belmont catered to hotels and guesthouses springing up as tourism increased. They were useful for local workers and schoolchildren, and for people who wanted to attend a dance or some other kind of evening entertainment.
The ferry service began with rowing boats (See Sidebars on Salt Kettle and Rowing Ferries) but after 1911 the BTC began offering motorised ferries. In 1932, The Bermudian recorded “An Embarrassing Affair” on one such evening ferry: “…a young lady crossing from Hamilton to Warwick had the skirt of her evening dress neatly and completely whisked off by the flywheel of the Flying Eagle. One minute the dress was on; the next it was wrapped securely around the offending piece of machinery.” The engine stopped “and could not be made to run again until the skirt had been removed, bit by bit from the flywheel.” As a result, the engine was enclosed with “a new wooden housing.” The pilot also had to pay for the dress. Enith King had happier memories of the Flying Eagle in Bermuda Recollections: “… it had the ability to fly back and forth… it also had a lovely patio deck with a rail.”
One of the better-known ferries was the Laconia, which was purchased in 1923. She was a steamer until 1940 when she was converted to a twin screw diesel. She worked the route for 40 years and according to the Bermuda Post Office liner notes, by the time she was scuttled in 1963, she had carried eight million passengers and travelled over one million miles in service. She was replaced by Laconia 2, which was sold in 1990 and can now be seen derelict in Ely’s Harbour.
Also well-known was the Dragon steamer, originally brought to Bermuda by the Royal Engineers as a minesweeper off St. George’s. She was used to salvage the wreck of the Pollocksheilds off Elbow Beach and later purchased by the BTC in 1950. She served on the Hamilton–Paget/Warwick run before exploding in 1953 off the Ferry Terminal. Beached on White’s Island but later rebuilt with diesel engines, she returned to service from 1954 to 1967. Peter Simons (See Sidebar) piloted her and found her a difficult boat to manoeuvre. She had a bell system to communicate with the engineer.
Perhaps the most iconic was the Georgia who entered service on the Hamilton–Paget run in 1947. Very slow and stately, she was loved by all. So was Pilot Cecil Smith, who started work on the BTC ferries in 1925, and after whom one of the fast ferries is named. Loved by children and adults alike for his unfailing courtesy and kindness, he was still driving her in 1978 at the age of 82. Retired from service in 1986, the Georgia was sold to Gavin Wilson and eventually burned and sunk in 1992.
Rowing Ferries across Hamilton Harbour
In 1932 the House of Assembly refused to subsidise a motorboat on the Lower Ferry. This was a relief to many since sailboats and rowing boats between the old royal yacht steps and the Lower Ferry were an integral part of the harbour’s picturesque scenery. Some locals remember with affection the Sweet Honey sailing sloop which would take passengers sailing around the harbour right into the 1940s. And, as the editor of The Bermudian put it, “To ride in the rowboat ferries is more than a convenience; it is a kind of anodyne….”
Over the years, The Bermudian featured several rowing ferrymen, including Walter Hilgrove Ingham, whose cedar and cypress rowing boat Vespa he bought for £12 in 1912. He initially charged penny ha’penny, going up to twopence. With his earnings, Ingham was able to raise his family and buy a six-roomed house. The 1952 article says, “In 50 years he has crossed the harbour more than half a million times with literally millions of passengers, has rowed something like 200,000 miles, or about eight times around the world.” Enid King wrote about using his ferry in Bermuda Recollections: “One stepped carefully into the boat placing the foot in the correct spot and then easing down into a seat, being sure the weight was evenly distributed so as not to rock the boat or cause it to turn over.” She described crossing on a stormy day and “praying silently the Lord would calm the waves with the words, ‘Peace be still.’”
Sadly, Mr Ingham was killed when, rowing around the stern of a large ship, he was sucked into its propellor. A plaque placed in the little park opposite the Astwood Building on Front Street commemorates him as the last rowing ferryman and says that “his untimely death” on March 31, 1952, ended the ferry service.
Training as a Ferry Pilot
From the time he attended Purvis School, retired senior tug pilot Lauren “Peter” Simons knew he wasn’t destined to be academic. Lessons long, he would gaze out of the window to the sea and hear the old Corona’s horn as it went to and fro across the Sound. The third of five children, he lost his mother at the age of ten. The following year, he became a Sea Scout and learned how to row and star navigate, skills that would come in useful. Aged 15 and a half, he joined the old Laconia ferry as a deckhand earning two shillings an hour.Working with the captain, engineer and another deckhand, he was responsible for cleaning, polishing, tying the boat up and helping passengers. One American tourist suggested he train as a pilot. For three years he did exactly that. Learning on the job, he worked six days a week (Sundays off) on different boats for different captains, learning all about the vessels and studying the charts, which he had to know by heart. Fortunately, he has an excellent memory and sense of direction on land and water. By 1963 he passed his oral exam and became pilot of the old Dragon, taking Bermudian workers at 7 a.m. to the US Naval Annex. He also was captain of the Laconia, romantically significant because on the Hamilton to Paget and Warwick run he met his future wife, retired college registrar Sue Simons, a young teacher who, living on Hinson’s Island at the time, depended on the ferry for transportation. He also captained the Triton and the Corona.
St. David’s to St. George’s and the Daisy
St. David’s was for centuries more isolated than any other part of Bermuda because it had no bridge connecting it to St. George’s until 1934 and no official ferry service until the late 1880s. People were hugely reliant on boats which they would row or sail to the King’s Wharf to pick up groceries and drop off mail. In 1886 James Richardson’s ferry, the Dawn, regularly made the crossing between the old town and St. David’s. But more famous by far was the Daisy, another steam vessel, brought down from New York on the Orinoco steam ship and owned by Charles B. Christenson and George F. Christenson from St. George’s. Apparently, during her stormy trip to Bermuda, she was on board with a corpse, a bishop and a governor. She made her first run from St. George’s to St. David’s on October 15, 1895. Businessmen from St. George’s chartered her and crossed the harbour to have fish chowder at postman Tucker Hayward’s house. Hayward could thereafter carry the mail on the ferry instead of transporting it on his own boat, the Mignonette. At the east end of St. David’s, a concert was held in John Benjamin Fox’s barn to celebrate.
According to Laverne Furbert’s “The Daisy Commute” in The Bermudian,the ferry carried 60 people and ran every two hours from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays with a late schedule on Saturday. The Daisy was very important to schoolchildren in St. David’s who would board it to attend and return from school in St. George’s, and to women who would go there to shop or to work.
The Daisy was also very important to the Ebenezer Methodist Church in St. George’s as members used her to attend weddings and annual church picnics held in Ruth’s Bay, St David’s. The morning of the picnic, according to Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, “Shortly before dawn, a man with a horse and trolley travelled from house to house collecting the picnic baskets.” He would load them onto the Daisy, which took many trips to carry all the food and picnickers to the bay. No wonder the ferry is remembered with such affection.