Most of the ferry crossings on the Ottawa are relaxed affairs, often family run and off the beaten track. But this is the complete opposite, which can take you aback when you are not expecting it.
Our first approach was from the Masson-Angers side, and instead of politely lining up in the designated space there were several loading docks ahead of us, and a staff member immediately directing us to one of them. The norm when I approach a ferry is to look over the river and figure where the boat is. Have I just missed it? Will I have time to park and get out and watch for it to arrive?
Here there were two ferries loading simultaneously at different docks, another ferry had just left and a fourth was fast approaching. We counted 6 boats operating continuously. No waiting for a boat to fill—as soon as all the queuing cars had loaded that boat was off and another was already there to take its berth.
This was obviously a very commercial operation, and arriving just before 4
we were already into the rush hour, with all six boats operational. The Ottawa-Gatineau conurbation (The National Capital Region) has a population heading up around 1½ million, spread either side of the Ottawa river. There are 5 road bridges linking all these people to their workplaces, but that still makes it well worthwhile for some commuters to use the ferry, even at $10 a trip and with the ferry over 25
east of downtown Ottawa.
I've not been able to find out when the first ferry service existed here. The Bourbonnais family, the current owners, first got into the ferry business in 1947 by buying the Fassett–Lefaivre ferry
. In 1963 they bought, in partnership, the Masson–Cumberland ferry, and have owned and operated it ever since, now as the sole owners. They added a second boat in 1969 and a third in 1978. In 1977 they expanded to run a ferry construction company operating out of the wharf area on the Masson-Angers shore, building their own ferries. I wonder if the owner loves building boats so much that he can't stop and now the river is full of them!
The current fleet consists of six boats, all superficially very similar, named the M. Bourbonnais I to VII, built between 1978 and 2014 (the VI was sold). We noted the place on the M. Bourbonnais III showing it was built at Masson by Les Ateliers Maurice Bourbonnais Ltée. But the latest, the VII, was built in the Gaspé by Forillon Shipyards.
The service operates all year round. In 1982 an air-bubble system was introduced, a system which is used in several similar ferries to keep a channel open through the ice. But in 1987 this system was replaced by two small ice breaker boats.
Even if you're not a commuter doing the daily grind the most likely reason you'd use this ferry would be to shortcut a longer trip, and minimise the traffic problems around Ottawa-Gatineau. But everywhere has its own points of interest.
Cumberland is still somewhat of a village, even though it's long since been swallowed up by the City of Ottawa—
which extends over vast areas of this end of Ontario, as if planning for the day when Canada's national capital rules the world. And it boasts the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, which focuses on rural village life in the 1920s and 30s—
but I've not yet visited this.
Masson-Angers is a union of two small Quebec towns which were in their turn swallowed up by the city of Gatineau in the Quebec mergers blitz in 2002. The town of Masson is on the mouth of the Rivière du Lièvre a couple of kilometres inland from the Ottawa river and started life as a lumber town, and a pulp and paper plant still operates there. The marshes here are important bird habitat, and some good bird-watching opportunities exist if you head either west or east along the shore from the ferry dock area at Masson.
In 2003 Bourbonnais floated the idea of replacing the ferry with a privately funded bridge, with tolls set about the same level as the ferry tolls. This was part of a wider discussion of
which was eventually abandoned in 2010. And in November 2018 again.
Selling the idea of a new privately funded bridge to a public often stuck in traffic is persuasive. What seems like altruism on the part of the Bourbonnais family is of course just good commercial sense. Any bridge that was built nearby would destroy the ferry business, so better it generate income for the ferry owners.
But there are many other factors involved. The significant increase in traffic that the bridge would generate would require a major road and infrastructure upgrade both sides of the river. Not only would this suck up a lot of public money, it would also result in major disruption to the character of the small towns it passes through. Proponents of the bridge cite the extra economic growth the bridge would generate in the region. Growth that would make a ton of money for some land owners and destroy the value of other property.
Ottawa is currently working on building up its public transit system with an aim of reducing, not increasing, road traffic in the region. There will need to be a big change in political direction before this ferry gets replaced by a bridge.