The Richelieu river runs almost due north from Lake Champlain (in Vermont and New York) for 124
through Quebec until it empties into the Saint Lawrence at Sorel. Since the 1840s it has been navigable its entire length, helped by a system of canals. For a while it was the main conduit for trade between the US and Canada, until railways took over.
Typically most bridges are built over rivers upstream where the river is narrow, or further downstream where the population or transport links are important enough to justify the high cost of spanning a wider river. The Richelieu is a good example, with two bridges near where it empties into the Saint Lawrence and runs between the industrial twin towns of Sorel and Tracey. Heading upstream there are no more bridges for 50, until the Autoroute 20 crosses near Mont Saint-Hilaire.
This central section is left to be serviced by three small ferries, with Hwy 223 running the length of the west bank and Hwy 133 the length of the east bank. The river here passes through rich farmland, with the distinctive long narrow fields running up from the river, typical of the Quebec seigneurial system, with the farm buildings close to the river. There are a few small towns or villages along the river’s banks, historically there to service the farms. And that’s where the ferries are.
These ferries remain an important resource for the people who live around the Richelieu, but there is little reason for anyone outside the region to use them, or even know about them. I chose to make a casual day’s outing one September Sunday, by driving up Autoroute 30 almost to Sorel-Tracey, and then driving south (upstream), crossing back and forth across the river on the three ferries and ending the day with a walk in Mont Saint-Bruno park.
This area is not without its tourism. We saw many groups of motor-cyclists out for a Sunday afternoon ride, enjoying the straight, empty roads and easy distance from Montreal. And where the terrain allows, the banks of the Richelieu are rarely free of a houses, with that much-in-demand water access and an easy drive from the big city.
The three ferries were all very similar in operation, all to my knowledge family owned. They are were cable operated, all charged $4.50 and run with minimal infrastructure—a simple ramp on each bank, and a single operator who controlled the boat, took the fare and would make the crossing as soon as there was a car waiting on one bank or the other. They are defined more by their common features than their differences, which is why I have grouped them all onto this same page.
Each ferry has a small cabin, somewhat resembling a garden shed, on the downstream side of the boat. The loading ramps, vehicle waiting area and signage are all minimal—little is wasted on unnecessary luxuries. There is room on each for about 6 cars maximum. I have heard that no more permits will be issued for ferries on this stretch of the river, but there does not seem to be a need for any more.
These three ferries are the closest I have come across to the romantic image of the ferryman, le passeur, waiting on the banks, ready to serve his community as he and his ancestors have done for countless years.
We started our trip on the west side of the Richelieu, and so took the ferry from Saint-Roch-de-Richelieu to Saint-Ours. These are two small towns or villages with populations of around 2000, facing each other across the river. Saint-Ours has a long history with its origins going back to the seigneurie founded in about 1674.
There has been a ferry here for over 200 years. Since 1918 it has been operated by the Larivière family—
and the current boat is called the Iris Larivière
. The ferry contains something I’ve not seen on any boat before – bird nesting boxes on poles at each end! I’m sure mosquitoes are a problem for the ferryman in summer, so encouraging purple martins makes good sense.
drive upstream (south) from the village of Saint-Ours is the Saint-Ours Canal National Historic Site. This Parks Canada site covers the area around the Saint-Ours canal and dam. When this canal opened in 1849 it was the final step in allowing navigation from New York to Montreal. It’s a pleasant spot to stop and cross the lock gates to walk around Île Darvard, and to look at the Saint-Ours dam which stretches from the island to the west bank. Even late in the season when we visited, the locks and the Richelieu itself were busy with pleasure boat traffic.
drive south from Saint-Ours along Hwy 133 we came to the ramp for the Traverse Handfield
in Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu. As we crossed I was slightly intimidated by the sight of the ramp on the Saint-Antoine bank—
how steep and short it was between the ferry and the Hwy 223. I’d need to drive firmly off and up, yet be ready to stop at the crest to check for passing traffic.
Until recently there had been an ice bridge operating here during the winter. But it has now been canceled due to the unreliability of the conditions of the ice. There is discussion of installing an air bubble system to keep a channel open during the winter to allow the ferry to keep operating. That shows how important the ferry is to the local community, but the cost would be significant and difficult to absorb.
Our next crossing was another 11
south along Hwy 223. Although nominally being in Saint-Marc-sur-Richelieu the ferry ramp is in fact in the middle of nowhere, a kilometre north of the actual village. For most of the way the road runs just a few yards from the river, with no room for the suburbia-by-the water seen further north where the river is lined by homes and is barely visible from the road.
The closeness of the road to the water means that again the ferry ramp opens almost directly off the side of the road. The waiting area for the ferry is a graveled clearing on the other side of the road.