GRAND ISLE, Maine — It’s been more than seven decades since the days when ferry boats transported goods and people across the St. John River between Maine and New Brunswick, but that history came alive Thursday when the Acadian Queen made the crossing.
“They said we were crazy and it couldn’t be done,” Gerald Soucy, Grand Isle historian, said as the craft glided across the river. “Look at us now, this is great.”
The demise of the sturdy, cable-operated river boats began in the early 1900s with construction of the first bridges, which physically linked the two countries and opened the way for truck and vehicle traffic. The final ferry run across the St. John River from Grand Isle to Green River, New Brunswick, was in 1942, according to Soucy.
So when Soucy decided he wanted to contribute something to the 2014 World Acadian Congress, he figured it was time to bring back the ferry boat.
Working with local boat builder David Wylie and a crew of volunteers, the men spent months building the 28-foot-by-8-foot boat working from historical drawings and photographs.
Originally, Soucy and Wylie planned to power the vessel just like ferrymen did in the old days — by connecting it to a 1,800-foot-long cable across the river and letting the current do the work.
But the craft’s test voyage on Monday changed all that.
“There have been some changes to the river in the last 70 years,” Soucy said. “The dam in Grand Falls [New Brunswick] was not there so now the current is a lot slower.”
When the men found themselves drifting everywhere except where they wanted to go, they enlisted outside support.
On Thursday, two small outboard motor boats outfitted as temporary tugboats, pushed the Acadian Queen from shore to shore.
On deck, passengers quickly became ferrymen as they scrambled to help Soucy keep the cable lines and tow ropes clear of people and waving flags.
For Helen Beaupre, the Acadian Queen was a bit of a time machine.
“My great-great grandfather Charles Morneault used to run the ferry here and then his son Alexis had it,” she said. “I just don’t know how to even put in words how this feels after growing up hearing stories about the ferry and now to ride it is great.”
Victorine Dionne, of Grand Isle, grew up in Riviere Verte, New Brunswick, and has her own memories.
“The doctor who delivered me rode the ferry to get to my parent’s house,” said the 80-year-old. “I used to take it to go skating in Grand Isle and that’s where I met my husband.”
Michel LeBlond, the mayor of Riviere Verte, hopes the idea behind the ferry will continue long after the Acadian Congress.
“This was a great experience,” he said, after debarking on the U.S. side of the river. “There is no reason this spirit of sharing and working together can’t go on.”
About 12 people boarded the ferry for the first crossing from the American side of the border. When they got to the other side, they took a 40-minute tour of the area on a bus, while 12 Canadians boarded the ferry to cross to Grand Isle. They took their own tour of the area before reboarding for the return trip and so the ferry could pick up the Americans to come back.
About 50 people gathered on each shore to watch the crossings in the pouring rain.
“So far, so good,” Wylie said, taking a break after making it across and back once. “I like to think the boat builders of the old days would be proud.”