CHICAGO – Abby no longer cares how thick the ice is this winter in the Northumberland Strait.
It’s not her concern anymore, now that she is one of the finest dining rooms in Chicago.
Previous to this job Abby – the short form of her native name Abegweit – was the world’s most powerful icebreaker. She carried passengers and vehicles and even entire railway passenger trains across the Northumberland Strait that separates New Brunswick from Prince Edward Island.
When CN Rail commissioned a ferry in 1946 from the Marine Industries Shipyard in Sorel, Quebec to carry its freight and passenger trains from Canada’s mainland to the island province of PEI, they stipulated the vessel should be tough enough plow through the notorious winter ice of the Northumberland Strait.
M.V. Abegweit did just that without incident from 1947 to 1982. Abegweit is the Mi’kmaq word for Prince Edward Island, but the locals preferred to call the 7,000-ton vessel Abby.
Traffic had increased so much between PEI and New Brunswick that CN Rail needed a larger ferry by 1982, plus it no longer needed to carry railway cars. The tip-to-tip railway line on PEI was on its way to becoming a popular bicycle trail.
Abby was retired and moored at Pictou, Nova Scotia with a for sale sign on her bow. She might have been destined for the scrap yard if it hadn’t been for a new bylaw passed by the city council in Chicago.
The world’s tallest apartment building was built in 1968 on the Chicago waterfront and it was an impressive 70 storeys, but a lot of Chicago citizens feared their waterfront would become a wall of high-rise buildings much like Toronto today.
A city bylaw forbid any buildings from being erected east of Lakeshore Drive, which separates the city core from its waterfront.
Chicago’s prestigious Columbia Yacht Club had outgrown its 110-year-old clubhouse on the edge of Lake Michigan and wanted to build a bigger facility, but the new bylaw prohibited it.
The club heard about the retired Abby and its 732 feet of marine luxury and decided to buy the vessel as its new floating clubhouse on Chicago’s downtown waterfront next to Navy Pier.
The deal however nearly fell apart when the yacht club learned that the fuel to sail Abby from Pictou, N.S. to Chicago was going to cost more than the purchase price for the icebreaker.
That’s when the U.S. State Department stepped in and offered to pay for the fuel costs to bring Abby to Chicago. “Thanks a bunch,” said the yacht club, “but why are you being so generous.”
State Department officials said they paid the fuel because they didn’t want the Soviets to buy the vessel to use as an icebreaker for its naval ports.
The Abby today is considered one of Chicago’s finest dining rooms, although she also serves burgers and hot dogs. The principal dining room is open to the public and there are several restaurant venues aboard Abby. In summer time meals on her rear deck watching hundreds of sail boats darting about are very popular.