The sun coloured the patches of clouds pink. Gulls swooped down, gliding along the Detroit River. To the south, steam poured out of the stacks at ADM, where soybeans are heated then crushed. A freighter anchored at the dock. Across the water, flames shot up from U.S. Steel’s iron mill on Zug Island.
“It’s really beautiful,” said Gregg Ward, whose family owns the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. “The smoke, the fire, all the noise — it’s very, very cool. It’s really kind of industrial art.”
Most people probably never see the ferry off Maplewood Drive on Windsor’s west side. There’s not much to it, a small, flat barge pulled by a tugboat and a hut housing a customs officer. But it helps keep the busiest commercial border crossing between Canada and the U.S. — about 7,000 trucks a day carrying a quarter of the $700-billion annual trade between the two countries — moving.
The ferry carries only about 50 trucks a day, but they’re trucks that can’t go across the bridge or through the tunnel because they’re loaded with hazardous materials like automotive paint, fuel and whiskey. And when traffic on the bridge grinds to a halt, like it did after 9-11, this ferry keeps chugging.
Dave Seymour of LaSalle, captain of the tugboat Stormont, expertly nudged the barge into the dock in Windsor with barely a bump early one recent morning.
“There’s a little trick to it,” said Seymour. “You have to learn the current, the wind, know what you’ve got on board, all the variables.”
The trucks on the barge create the same effect as a sail. Sometimes they block his view, so deckhand Doug Pettit, bundled against the chill, radios their position.
The ferry was picking up a wind tower from CS Wind. The base, one of three pieces, was massive — 188 feet long and 235,000 pounds, including the tractor trailer carrying it. It was too big for the bridge or tunnel, even for the Blue Water Bridge near Sarnia. If it weren’t for the ferry, driver Brian Hardy would have to drive all the way around the Great Lakes.
It’s a science and an art getting the tower on the barge. It takes four people — the driver and three others, one using wireless remote control to help steer from behind.
Gregg Ward’s ferry carries trucks of all shapes and sizes across the international border between Windsor and Detroit. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
After the trailer inches onto the barge, it’s disconnected from the tractor, which is then parked next to it. It’s the only way to fit the entire vehicle.
When the barge finally slips away again, it’s so smooth it feels like it’s not moving. The trip back, north and west across the river to the terminal across from Zug Island, takes 20 minutes. But it’s another world. U.S. Steel’s two blast furnaces, blackened behemoths, loom over the terminal. It’s like a post-apocalyptic scene out of Mad Max. The signs for the ferry, replaced last summer, look 50 years old.
“All the soot,” said Ward.
An American who now lives in Dearborn, Ward started the ferry with his father, John, 25 years ago.
“The last thing I expected to be doing was this,” he said, laughing.
He grew up on a small farm in Indiana and has a degree in Asian history and French from the University of Michigan and an MBA in finance from Michigan State.
“Everyone I graduated with went into some kind of banking,” he said.
They started the ferry after a Windsor Port Authority study in the late 1980s called for an alternative border crossing on the water.
“We thought it would be a really simple business,” Ward said. “Of course, nothing is ever simple.”
Truck ferry owner Gregg Ward at the Windsor dock where trucks of all shapes and sizes are transported across the international border between Windsor and Detroit. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
Ward, a 54-year-old single father of two, including a son with autism, is an exceedingly nice guy who is forever upbeat. And there he was, up against the notorious, no-holds-barred billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun.
The bridge, which is not permitted to carry vehicles with hazardous materials, told companies they could cross anyway. It carried gasoline tankers after the terrorist attacks in the United States.
Ward watched Moroun take over neighbourhoods and a public park. He watched him try to buy votes. And he watched him start building a twin span without permission. Most people were too intimidated to speak up.
Ward was summoned to a meeting with former bridge vice-president Remo Mancini one day, he told The Windsor Star’s Dave Battagello. Moroun was planning to take over his ferry business. Mancini placed documents in front of Ward, and when Ward refused to sign them, Mancini reportedly said, “No, Gregg, you don’t understand, I need you to sign this.”
He didn’t sign. Instead, he became one of the first people to speak publicly, including testifying before governments, about Moroun’s abuses and the need for a new bridge.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he says simply.
He quotes Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
“I was raised by my parents to stand up for what’s right regardless of personal consequences,” he said, though he’s embarrassed talking about himself.
And Moroun’s behaviour really set him off.
“I see the Ambassador Bridge, with their continuous, arrogant disregard of the public good, as nothing but well-dressed thugs,” he said. “It’s against the idea of our democracy. It’s one person one vote, not one dollar one vote. It’s running roughshod over the community.
“If little old insignificant me can be a pebble in his (Moroun’s) shoe, I’m happy to do it,” he said. “I should do it.”
The defining moment was when gasoline tankers started crossing the bridge. The government told the bridge it can’t do that. Moroun told the government it can’t tell him what to do.
“Here you have someone who controls the border who’s so arrogant,” said Ward. “It’s amazing to me, the amount of gall, the greed. That really set me off.”
That was when, as he put it, “I was very, very vocal.”
When he testified before Congress in 2007, people warned him, “You’re going to end up dead.”
But Ward continued.
The Ambassador Bridge, the most important border crossing between Canada and the U.S., the lifeline of the biggest trading partnership in the world, is 86 years old and owned by someone who “thumbs his nose at government,” he said.
“We’re the only alternative,” he said. “That’s what’s extremely scary.”
After 9-11, when trucks lined up for miles and waited 14 hours to cross the bridge, Ward’s little ferry moved them 24 hours a day. General Motors credited the ferry with keeping its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant open.
Truck ferry owner Gregg Ward at the Windsor dock where trucks of all shapes and sizes are transported across the international border and the Detroit River to Detroit, Mich. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
The irony is that most people who support the new bridge will benefit from it — except Ward. The crossing he has long called for will probably put him out of business. It will carry trucks with hazardous materials.
“And the bad news is …,” he shrugged.
His support for the new bridge is so counterintuitive that it surprises people. It has earned him tremendous respect.
“I was struck by how this fellow would be such a big advocate for a bridge that would put him out of business,” said Roy Norton, former Canadian Consul-General in Detroit. “He really does have the greater good at heart.”
Windsor West MP Brian Masse called him “nothing short of a hero.”
“He has done the right thing without any preconditions.”
During the long, arduous fight for a new bridge, that made people who count listen.
“That has been noteworthy to everyone,” said Norton. “When a little guy like Gregg Ward speaks up, and he’s going to lose, but he does the right thing, that has more weight.”
It’s especially generous considering that the Canadian government used to make him pay the $50,000 salary of his customs officer and is still trying to charge him $25,000 a year for icebreaking, even though the U.S. Coast Guard does it for free.
So what will he do when the new bridge opens?
“That’s a good question,” he said.