River Currents: Ferry boats on the Connecticut River

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"How did you get across the river?" the impatient west bound traveler shouted from the eastern shore. "Born here," shouted back the man on the western shore.

In colonial times if you, your horse, or wagon wanted to reach the far shore of the Connecticut River you used a ferry. Connecticut River ferries were simple vessels, wooden rafts of milled wood or logs that owners propelled using long push poles as the basic means of propulsion, although poles were not the only means as some ferries used pull ropes, wire pulls, pullies, looped ropes, and horsepower.

The oldest ferry in the United States was Bissell's Ferry that began service in 1648 and connected Windsor and South Windsor, Conn. and by 1700 Connecticut had 11 active ferry crossings. The Connecticut River Ferry between Glastonbury and Rocky Hill is the oldest continuously operating ferry in the US dating back to its 1655 start up. You can still ride the ferry but the ride takes just four minutes nowadays.

As commerce and travel increased in the 18th century, more ferry crossings appeared up the valley with the number growing from the 11 to 30 by 1800. Busier crossings used two boats, one stationed on either shore and offered scheduled in addition to on demand service.

In 1781 Northfield, Mass., voted to "approbate" money to establish a ferry to Bernardston known as Tiffany's Ferry that along with another ferry, Munn's Ferry operating there up until 1936.

Here in the upper valley, Charles Whittlesey in "Crossing and Re-Crossing the Connecticut River" identifies over 30 ferry services that plied our river from Brattleboro upriver at various locations as far north as Colebrook, N.H. There was little need for a boat above there since the river was narrow and wadable most times.

Putney was home to two ferries, one at the present day boat launch near the train depot, the other in East Putney. The boat launch ferry stopped running in 1930 after the owner had the brilliant idea that a cement floor on top of the planks would be a grand thing not anticipating the loss of buoyancy the added weight had and causing the scow to sink costing four people their lives.

In 1756 the Wentworth Ferry connected Crown Point Road in Springfield to the Merrimack Road in Charlestown, N.H., just upriver from the current bridge between the states. The Massachusetts General Court authorized the Merrimack Road in 1756 to establish the "directest route from Fort 4 in Charlestown to Boston."

In 1763, Hartford "desirous of opening communication" with Lebanon, N.H., voted to build "a good skow ferry boat." This boat, near the confluence of the White River served as a connection between the two communities until the first bridge was built in 1800.

John Sargent originated the first ferry service between Hanover and Norwich in 1770 but two years later the N.H. Royal Governor granted exclusive ferry rights to Dartmouth College. This grant produced friction between the college, the towns, and potential ferry operators that continued until a toll bridge was built near the present Ledyard Bridge in 1796.

In 1772, a few years after settlement, Newbury and Haverhill, N.H., submitted a petition to the N.H. General Assembly for the "privilege" of a ferry between them. A year later, there were two ferries operated there, one at Wells River and the other near Newbury village and in 1775 a ferry started between Orford and Fairlee under one of the few charters granted directly in the name of King George III. There were three ferries operated by Bradford or Piermont residents before the end of the 18th century.

After independence from England, and the state governments took over granting ferry charters. They established service boundaries of several river miles in each direction to reduce conflicts between operators. The first ferry in North Thetford, established about 1780, operated without a charter for four years until a charter was granted upon a petition by 89 men from Lyme, N.H., and Orford. Enos Stevens operated a ferry between Barnet and Monroe, N.H., in 1784 that grew out of his regular use of his private boat to reach two islands he owned in the main river. His unchartered ferry then went a little farther, all the way to the far shore.

Bridges ended the use of ferries but when a bridge failed as they often did due to high flows or the smashing effects of log drives, ferries were re-established until replacements could be built and the need for temporary replacements could last 10 plus years as in when the bridge at South Newbury was swept away by a flood in 1841, ferry service resumed for 18 years before a new bridge was built.

Ferries are a quixotic part of our river history and you can still see the remains of some of the ferry landings with some few repurposed as boat launches. Crossing the river on those few ferries still operating is a fun river activity so go enjoy them.

Representative David L. Deen is the chairman of the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee in the Vermont House and Board member of the Connecticut River Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited.

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