GRAND ISLE, Maine — For decades, the only way communities moved people and goods across the St. John River between Maine and Canada was on the ferry boats dotting the shorelines.
But in the early 1900s, the demise of the sturdy, cable-operated river boats began with construction of the first bridges, which physically linked the two countries and opened the way for truck and vehicle traffic.
So when Gerald Soucy decided he wanted to contribute something for the upcoming 2014 World Acadian Congress, which runs from Aug. 8-24, he figured it was time to bring back the ferry boat.
“There was ferry service between each community along the St. John River in the old days,” Soucy said during a recent break in working on his project. “They began to go away in the 1920s, [because] that’s when the bridges started being built.”
The final run across the St. John River from Grand Isle to Green River, New Brunswick, was in 1942, Soucy said.
Since then, people wanting to travel to and from Canada or Maine in the St. John Valley typically cross the international bridges in Fort Kent, Madawaska or Van Buren.
“I figured this ferry would be something unique and a way to depict the significance of the river and of the economic development on both sides of the river,” Soucy said.
Currently sitting upside-down in the Grand Isle snowmobile club storage garage off U.S. Route 1, the 28-foot-long, 8-foot-wide vessel is sure to draw a great deal of attention when it makes its maiden voyage at “noonish” Aug. 14.
“It just seemed like a good day and time,” Soucy said, adding there is no particular significance to the scheduling for the launching of what he has dubbed “The Acadian Queen.”
“We are hoping Humphrey Bogart shows up,” Soucy joked in reference to the 1951 movie “African Queen” that starred Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, whose characters navigate a dangerous African river in the leaky title boat.
Historically, according to Soucy, St. John River ferry builders would have used rough cut lumber harvested from whatever trees were available.
But for the Acadian Queen, Soucy’s crew, under the direction and supervision of boat builder Dave Wylie, are using milled 2-by-6s and plywood.
“We are using a lot of sealer,” Wylie said as he poured streams of the sticky liquid over the boat’s seams.
When operational, the Acadian Queen will let the river do the work of moving her back and forth across the river.
Operating off diagrams and plans found in historical publications, Soucy plans to run a 1,800-foot long, 1⅛-inch thick cable across the river from the Grand Isle boat landing to the boat landing in Green River.
Secondary cables will connect a wheel-and-pulley apparatus on the ferry to the larger cable, and, according to Soucy, the current will move the boat across the river based on the direction its bow is pointing.
“In the old days, they would have anchored that cable to large, wooden tripods,” he said. “We plan to use bulldozers.”
Soucy plans for two round trips and said he spent quite a bit of time negotiating the security and customs details for those crossings with U.S. and Canadian officials.
“It was quite a bit of work,” he said. “But everyone agreed it was doable.”
Soucy must prepare a list of the 20 or so invited passengers for the crossing and submit that information to border officials in both countries.
The final guest list will left to the Grand Isle Board of Selectmen to approve, Soucy said.
The plan, he said, is to take 10 to 12 people from the U.S. side to Canada, cross back with a group from Canada, then make a return trip with those Canadians to collect the American passengers.
The public is invited to witness the crossings from the Grand Isle Boat Launch along the St. John River.
“This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Wylie said. “There are very few people around who remember seeing these ferries on the river.”
Over the years, Wylie has built several drift boats and a sailboat. He is confident the Acadian Queen will be riverworthy.
“She may not be the prettiest thing going,” he said. “But it’s going to be a boat.”
Soucy and Wylie figure the crew of local carpenters Terry Healms, Alan Lizotte and Patrick Ayotte, Jr., in addition to Soucy’s wife and self-described “gopher” Angela Soucy, are about 75 percent finished with the construction.
“I doubt if anyone will see the likes of this again,” Wylie said.