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Ferry service came before the bridges

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I have included a wonderful picture of a painting done by Lt. Col. Philip John Bainbridge of the Royal Engineers who was stationed at Chatham during the Rebellion of 1837.

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I have shown you the painting previously. The scene depicted is of the river front, looking east from in behind what would eventually become Public General Hospital. The painting faces east and shows the Barracks Ground (Tecumseh Park ) in the deep background.

The barracks and the star-shaped palisade that enclosed it are clearly evident.

What can also be ascertained, from the photo, in an obvious manner, is the fact that there were not, as yet, any bridges spanning the Thames at Fifth and Third streets.

Between the time of the Rebellion, and the first bridge construction (Fifth Street, late 1840s, Third Street mid-1850s) the method of crossing the river was by boat.

Were one to have a considerable load, the traverse would have been by ferry barge.

Several people operated such conveyance and one of the earliest was that of Solomon Merrill’s.

Mr. Merrill has been biographed in this column previously, as has his son Francis Towne Merrill.

The younger Merrill was the builder of the Merrill Hotel at the southwest junction of King and William streets.

This hotel, having degraded to a sad state of existence, has been restored and is, once again a marvellous credit to the core area.

I have had the privilege on more than one occasion of responding to information requests from the owners of the hotel, and I have been enthused to help.

The ferry barges that were employed in the 1830s and 40s, were primitive at best. Victor Lauriston, in Romantic Kent, records the sad story of a farmer who loaded his wagon, filled with grain bags and drawn by two horses, for the crossing of the river.

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The capacity of the ferry, to accommodate the load, was overestimated and the barge tipped and lost its content.

Sadly, both horses were pulled under the water by their attachment to the wagon and they drowned.

Another family to operate a ferry service in the core area, in the latter 1840s, was that of the Willmore family.

The Canadian connection of the family begins with the migration of Robert Willmore, from Lincolnshire, England, in 1845. He had been born in the old country in August 1805.

The Willmores first settled at what is now Windsor, but in 1845, they came to Raleigh Township, and the next year, to Chatham where they operated a ferry service and a hotel.

I have, regrettably, not been able to learn which of the town’s primitive inns it was.

Robert died on July 29, 1868 and reposes in Old Ward H, Maple Leaf Cemetery.

The Willmores had a son, also known as Robert, and born at Lincolnshire on Dec. 5, 1843. As a tot, he accompanied the family to Canada.

The hotel business, at best, is a difficult undertaking and I am reminded of the admonishment of the late J. J. Hinnegan, former manager of the Chatham LCBO store, who once told me “Hotel money, no good ever comes of it.”

The above seems to have been clear to Robert Willmore Jr. as he, by 1873, was in ownership of 90 acres of farmland at Concession 2, Lot 20, Dover Township. I am not 100 per cent sure of the actual location, but believe the original property to be now part of the northwest corner of Chatham.

Robert Willmore died on April 12, 1937 and reposes in Maple Leaf Cemetry.

He was 93 at the time of his death. In his era, it was rare for any person to live to that advanced age.

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