What about ferries? / by Scot McFarlane

There are two kinds of boats that dominate the historical record of the Trinity River: Steamboats and Ferries.  Steamboats makeup the bulk of the collection.  If you go to a Texas archive and look under the card catalogue for “Trinity River” there’s a good chance that half of the materials you find will be about steamboats.  Like railroads, it turns out that many people are obsessed with steamboats.  I don’t share this enthusiasm for steam power, though in future posts I will discuss the other possibilities for interpreting this substantial source base.  While not nearly as evident in the archives, I have found quite a bit of information on ferries as well.  When I lived and worked in Oregon I used to take the ferry across the Willamette River to work every morning, but that was mostly a choice since there are plenty of bridges that cross most rivers.  Rivers used to be constant barriers for travelers who were lucky if they could find a ferryman to get them across and save them a swim.  Several years ago at a conference, another historian described how he had read or heard from Don Pisani that we should not think of rivers as bisecting land, but of the land bisecting rivers.  I haven’t been able to track down the exact quote, but it really captures a reality for many Texans–fortunately for them however, there were quite a few ferrymen in the 19th century.  

But what was life like for these ferrymen?  When I was a regular on the ferry, many ferry operators mentioned how bored they were much of the time when only twenty cars would use the ferry all day.  Yet many of these 19th century ferrymen had far fewer patrons on most days.  Presumably they would have had other activities to occupy them whether that was whittling things, fishing, or who knows what.  The coins they collected could have been quite substantial, and some traveler accounts describe how they were not carrying the fare on them and were cursed out by the ferryman.  The labor of the ferrymen would also have varied with the river.  During low-water periods the span of the river might be only ten yards, while at high water times people describe ferries taking them across for five miles.  Would they have charged a flat rate?  Sometimes, especially in periods of armed conflict and flooding, the ferryman could get quite backed up, with people waiting for a week to be carried across the Trinity.  

From what I can tell, the life of ferrymen was anything but boring.  And it could also be quite dangerous.  Lawsuits were brought against the ferrymen questioning their skills.  And people also attacked, or even murdered ferrymen.  Perhaps because they were relatively cash-rich individuals?  In one case a ferryman on the Trinity was murdered by an axe-wielding assailant who was hired to kill the ferryman so that another relative could inherit the ferryman’s property.  

And what did the ferrymen think about the river?  Without it they would have lost a relatively reliable source of income, at least until the bridges were built.  As far as I can tell the first bridge across the river was built in Dallas in the 1870s.  The ferryman is a bit like the farmer from Faulkner’s The Reiver’s who has his mudhole or the many “mud farmers” of the East Texas oil field who charged passage or dug people out, except in this case the ferrymen didn’t have to build a river… 

-Scot McFarlane