18th Century ‘Flat’ Ferry Boat
Our man today is Jonathan Everett. He is a ferryman who owns and operates a twenty foot long, eight feet wide flat-bottomed ferry boat made of wooden planks. He stands at one side of the deck and pulls on a rope. This causes the ferry to crawl across a small river about two hundred yards wide, headed toward the opposite bank. On the side of the boat where Jonathan stands are two vertical wooden poles that rise above the bulwark. Near the top of each, a hole has been augured through the pole. The rope goes through both holes and is suspended up out of the water between them. The rope is in the water at all other times, so it is always wet when Jonathan pulls on it. His wearing of cloth gloves is necessary.
The current of the river is slow, only a mile or so an hour, so the ferry is not shooting downstream and putting strain on the rope, which would make it harder to pull. Jonathan has the bow of the ferry pointed slightly upstream, which slightly counteracts the flow of the current.
Jonathan is not a big or heavy man, but he is strong. Pulling up to six tons on his boat in one trip has made him strong. He does not make crossings from sun-up to sundown, but only a few times a day. Once in a while he goes the whole day without making a trip. On a busy day he goes across and back four times. (Between crossings, he farms or works on the dock or one of his wooden buildings.) Jonathan has been pulling ferry ropes for more than fifteen years, since he was a teenager and went to work for his father.
Some colonial ferry boats had a windlass for pulling the craft to the other side, horizontal spokes atop a vertical shaft. Two men working together, pushing around and around and passing the rope along could carry more weight per trip. Certainly they could move a bigger boat. More weight meant more fares, more money. In those harbors where there was a ferry service, such as Chesapeake Bay and Boston Harbor, ferries often had two-masts and were sailed, not pulled or rowed.
The purpose of ferries was to speed travel. They were built in places where crossing a river was difficult or impossible, but was desired. Going upstream to find a place to cross, and then coming back downstream, apparently would have taken too long and going by sail in the first place had been out of the question. Primarily ferries carried cargo, not people or animals. They carried the grains and flour that fed people, and the nails and cloth that made life better. They carried boxes and barrels, trunks and kegs. Those people who used ferry services worked for government or commerce. Vacation travel hadn’t been invented yet and trips to see dear relatives were not necessarily annual events.
On the bank of the river behind Jonathan is a short dock. Twenty years before, Jonathan’s father had built it. Round logs had been cut and trimmed, and then dried for a year. They were stood on end in the water next to the bank, one at a time, and pounded with a huge stone suspended above the pole on a tripod. The several hundred pound weight being dropped down had driven the poles deeper and deeper into the bed of the river, until each could finally stand on its own and not be affected by the current. When four poles were in place, Jonathan’s father had put a wooden deck on them and began to tie to it the ferry boat he had built two years before.
Farther up the bank beyond the dock is a two story inn that Jonathan and his wife, Elizabeth, operate. (His father had also built it, more than fifteen years before.) On the ground floor is the main room in which people sit while they wait for the next crossing. They sit on benches at wooden tables, where some people eat and others drink. The liquor is stored and food is cooked in the kitchen, which is at the back of the inn. Also on the ground floor are a bedroom for Jon and Betty, one for his parents, and two others for their four children. There is an alcove that is the business office. Upstairs is an undivided room with eight cots in it. (Neither generation of the Everetts ever had that many guests at one time; three was a busy night.)
Near the inn is a very large barn with sixteen stalls for horses. This is quite a few more than would seem to ever be necessary, but it has purpose. One day a month, all of the local Quakers go to the monthly meeting at the Friends’ meetinghouse across the river. (Most went once a week and some more than once, but everybody was at the monthly meeting.) Every stall in the barn is used on that day. Wagons that won’t make the crossing are unhitched and left outside, and the horses taken inside. (Jonathan began feeding and currying horses as soon as he could stand on a stool and reach the top of a horse’s head with a brush.) On the other side of the river, other Quakers come with wagons to get those who crossed.
Jonathan does not operate the ferry service every day of the year. This has nothing to do with his wanting a day off, now and then. It is because of the weather. Sometimes it is too windy to make a crossing or pouring down with rain. In the spring, there is an occasional flood from snow-melt upriver. Every once in awhile, the thick hawser Jonathan uses as a rope breaks. It might be two days before he can splice it back together. (Most hawsers lasted for several years before they had to be replaced.)
The first ferry service in the English North American colonies was established in Boston Harbor in the 1630s. The Massachusetts General Court put out bids for it. In the 1640s, several ferry routes in New York Harbor were first put into use. In the 17th Century, some ferries were Indian canoes operated by a tribe under a franchise negotiated as part of a peace treaty. After the turn of the 18th Century, white men began taking possession of desirable locations for ferries and pushed the Indians out of the trade. By the middle of the century, there might have been four hundred different services in operation, though not all of them were used daily.
It is likely you have seen a reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware.’ The General is in the forward part of a rowboat, six or eight men are using poles or oars to propel the boat through chunks of ice in the river, and a partially furled American flag is in the background. The painting was based on an event that happened on Christmas night 1776. Although the American flag is an anachronism, the rowboat is not. All of the ferries owned by the Johnson family were pressed into service that night. So were rowboats owned by anyone up and down the river for several miles.
Washington crossed the river with the militiamen under his command. In the morning, they attacked a fort manned by Hessians, who surrendered. Washington returned to the river with his prisoners and whatever supplies his men could carry. They re-crossed to the Johnson family ferryboat dock.