In the years before the bridge there were long periods when there was no traffic at all. Ice boats, then ships attempted to make the crossing during ice season, and were often turned back or delayed.
It was not until almost mid 20th century that regular ferries became powerful enough to battle most conditions, but even then there were frequent delays.
I recently came across some old photos taken with a tiny Minox "spy" camera, and so the quality is understandably poor, but they are worth sharing. They appear to have been taken in the spring of the LATE 1950s, after most of the ice was gone, but I have no further information.
The rail ferry Scotia II steams across the Northumberland Strait.
The barge-like ferry shuttled rails cars, and the occasional locomotive for the CNR.
The photos were taken from the deck of the ferry Prince Edward Island, a rail and car/passenger ferry. CN adopted its famous "wet noodle" logo in 1961. Before that CNR ships had a blue / white / red funnel ( or in the case of this ship, four of them.).
The spy camera was better at detail photos.
Laid up in Dartmouth for a time, the old ferry's looks were not improved by orange funnels with the white CN logo. It was later converted to be a dredge pumping station and finally scrapped in Toronto.
That is the sealer Arctic Endeavour alongside - also no stranger to ice, despite its wooden hull. The bulker Cavala is inbound for National Gyspum, and the CN pier at left, is a junk and scrapyard run by Leo J. Beazley, with several sunken hulks on the opposite side.
In 1983 I made a memorable crossing on the John Hamilton Gray and got a close up look of Abegweit (ii) making it look easy to work through the ice.
Although ungainly looking, Abegweit (ii) was built for the ice and did a superb job from 1982 to 1997.
In the spring of 1997 I made round trip on the Abegweit and saw (and heard) John Hamilton Gray putting on a good show as it worked its way through moderate ice.
The Confederation bridge in the background is two months from opening as John Hamilton Grey storms through heavy ice, her eight Fairbanks Morses singing a happy tune.
It was my last chance to do the ferry crossing, for as soon as the bridge opened in May 1997 the Marine Atlantic Ferry service was shut down.
If some of this seems familiar - see http://shipfax.blogspot.ca/2012/04/fifteen-years-ago-bargain-for-8.html
There remains the seasonal ferry service between Caribou, NS and Wood Islands PEI - but that will be part 2.