Excerpts and select photos from

CHAPTER 1 - The Crystal Beach Line

Crystal Beach, Ontario was one of a number of resorts on the Niagara Frontier (and one of thousands in North America) that began during an era when very few people had leisure time or disposable income. What little of these commodities people had available to them was spent locally. Long distance travel was an arduous, time consuming, and exhausting undertaking, so even the rich spent a great deal of time and money locally and regionally. Because of the relative immobility of the populace, summer resorts and amusement parks sprouted in and around population centers. In the immediate vicinity of the Niagara Frontier, most of the resorts were on Grand Island, along with a number of “club resorts” that catered to the middle and upper classes.

Crystal Beach became a summer destination for  families of all classes.  Families with little disposable income scrimped and saved for an entire year just for a day’s outing. For others less financially challenged, Crystal Beach became an overnight, weekend or vacation retreat frequented numerous times during the summer. Even Buffalo’s wealthy were attracted to Crystal Beach and peaceful Point Abino Bay, many of whom built stately homes along its sandy shores.

Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society Collection

Dock conditions at the foot of Main Street, circa 1895. The steamer at the extreme left of the photo is the Pearl of the Crystal Beach Line. The Puritan, another steamer of the Line, is just to the left of center of the photo. Steamers immediately at dockside often let passengers cross their decks to reach steamers unable to find docking space. Without this courtesy, steamers would be unable to depart their dockside mooring, held in by steamers needing to dock.

The easiest way for U.S. citizens to reach Crystal Beach (and for a very long time, the only way to reach Grand Island) was by steamboat. During the summer months of the late 1800s and early 1900s, steamers clogged the harbor at the Main Street dock in Buffalo, vying for space to collect passengers bound for the summer fun spots.

Within a few years after Crystal Beach opened in mid-July 1890, it became the predominant summer resort on the Niagara Frontier. People flocked to downtown Buffalo then boarded the Main Street trolley that deposited them just north of the dock at the last trolley stop. Because the Crystal Beach Line operators sold tickets without consideration to steamer capacity and departure times, often there were more people wanting to board a steamer than its license permitted it to carry. Many ticketed people had to wait for the next departure or longer, while the area between the trolley stop and the dock became a sea of humanity waiting for a steamer to Crystal Beach.

Harvey Holzworth collection.

Crystal Beach Steamers Pearl and Gazelle docked on opposite of sides of the Crystal Beach pier.

People would stay at the park as long as possible and without harbormasters keeping count of those boarding at the Crystal Beach pier, the last steamers of the evening returning to Buffalo were often filled beyond their licensed capacity.

Steamers were the primary means of transportation to Crystal Beach, but they were not the only means. The ambitious could take their own horse and buggy (and eventually their own automobile) across the Niagara River on one of the ferries that operated between Squaw Island and Fort Erie, then follow approximately 12 miles of bridal paths. Another option was by train that crossed the International Railroad Bridge and stopped at Ridgeway. There, travelers transferred to the Ontario Southern Railway that was one of the earliest monorails. Just slightly more inconvenient, perhaps, was taking a train from Buffalo to Ridgeway, then taking a carriage from Ridgeway to Crystal Beach. Driving to Crystal Beach did not become practical until the completion of the Peace Bridge in 1927 - nearly forty years after Crystal Beach opened.

Operators of the Crystal Beach Line sold tickets for passage to and from Crystal Beach without regard to schedules or ship capacity. The image above that captured a sea of people jammed at the Commercial Street dock was not uncommon during Crystal Beach's hey day. Most of them would have to wait for another boat.

Taking a steamer was the easiest and most direct way to reach Crystal Beach. It remained popular for many years, proven by the fact that the various owners of Crystal Beach Park operated the Crystal Beach Line for over 67 years.

John E. Rebstock, founder of Crystal Beach, leased and operated an armada of steamers through the Crystal Beach Steamboat and Ferry Company (CBSFC) - the company he formed with a number of investors after Crystal Beach’s debut season.

The CBSFC leased all but two of the steamers the company operated. The leases were seasonal and the number of steamers available for lease changed annually. Occasionally, steamship owners sold their vessels during the off season to individuals or companies that sailed them for their own transportation needs. In addition, age or accidents precipitated the decommissioning of steamers that wound up abandoned, scrapped, or stripped down to the hull and used as barges. Vessel owners did not necessarily have loyalty to a lessee, and executed leases for idle vessels to the first individual or entity to agree to the lease terms. Therefore, in spring when the CBSFC began their search for steamers, not all of the previous season’s ships were available. More often than not, the Crystal Beach Line fleet changed with each season. (See Appendix Table 1.) There were years when the CBSFC could have operated three or more steamers but operated one or two simply because there were no steamers available. Occasionally, CBSFC faced their own advertised season opening without a vessel on the line because the steamer(s) they leased had not yet arrived in Buffalo from its home port. Fortunately, other local steamboat operators assisted the Crystal Beach Line for the short term until their contracted vessels arrived.

It wasn’t until the Lake Erie Excursion Company (LEEC), with investments from officers of the Cleveland and Buffalo Transit Company, took controlling interest of Crystal Beach that the annual parade of steamers ended. This company recognized the potential of Crystal Beach to become a major summer amusement resort, but in order to realize the potential, the company needed a reliable steamship line with vessels that could transport thousands at a time. Through their experience operating a number of large and luxurious long distance steamers on the Great Lakes through the C & B Line, the LEEC officers knew exactly what the Crystal Beach Line needed. They and other investors in the company had considerably deeper pockets than the CBSFC, and commissioned the construction of two grand steamers, the Americana and her slightly younger, and better known twin, the Canadiana. After the LEEC received their two vessels, the C & B Line included Crystal Beach in its marketing literature.

Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society Collection
The Lake Erie Excursion Company launched the Americana in 1908 and her sister ship the Canadiana in 1910 to handle the summer traffic between Buffalo and Crystal Beach.
(Canadiana seen here in 1919 at the Buffalo Dry Dock Company) 

Eventually, the Buffalo and Crystal Beach Corporation purchased the assets of the Lake Erie Excursion Company. Under the leadership of George Hall Sr., the Buffalo and Crystal Beach Corporation started major expansion and modernization programs during the 1920s that transformed the park physically to the Crystal Beach Park most people today would recognize. They continued to operate the two steamers until the opening of the Peace Bridge precipitated declining steamer patronage and forced the sale of one of them.

The Great Depression forced Crystal Beach into bankruptcy. However, the park and its one remaining steamer continued to operate. One of three companies that emerged from the bankruptcy and reorganization was the Crystal Beach Transit Company, which operated the Canadiana through 1956. Afterward, the Crystal Beach Line ceased.

After a dismal 1982 season, Crystal Beach Park fell into bankruptcy. Ramsi Tick (see image page in the Appendix), a Buffalo businessman, operated and managed the park for the receivers during 1983. Tick wanted to capitalize on nostalgia trends and recapture the golden years of Crystal Beach Park by reintroducing boat service to Crystal Beach. Tick brought it back, but on a very limited basis. Emerging from bankruptcy, new owners were able to continue boat service for a few years, offering lake cruises to the park one to two days per week. Attempts to recapture the past continued with the reintroduction of music and dancing after thousands of dollars were spent refurbishing the park’s commodious dance hall. Ramsi Tick, though no longer affiliated with the park, felt confident enough about the park’s future that he purchased a decommissioned Block Island ferry and brought it to Buffalo to resume daily lake crossings to Crystal Beach.

Courtesy Karl R. Josker
Named after the original Americana, the Americana, seen here is a resurrected Block Island Ferry. It was the last commercial vessel to operate between Buffalo and Crystal Beach.

Tick’s operation experienced a number of operational setbacks, and more unfortunate is the fact that the ferry had little time to gain any momentum when it lost its only port of call when Crystal Beach Park closed forever after the 1989 season. Lake crossings to Crystal Beach ended forever.

From the passenger’s perspective, the journey to Crystal Beach was an amusement unto itself. The steamers provided a two-hour boat ride - an hour to the park and an hour return. Evening cruises often featured music and dancing. A facet of the Crystal Beach Line that perhaps many of its patrons never recognized is the fact that the Line was a mass transit system that was subject to  the same operational difficulties that a “public” mass transit system experienced - escalating operating expenses, maintenance issues, labor/personnel difficulties, aging equipment, and the one issue that amplified the others - declining patronage.

Most years, the operation of the steamers was uneventful, but like other mass transit systems, the Crystal Beach Line occasionally made headlines.
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