Sunday, February 12, 2012


18th Century ‘Flat’ Ferry Boat
Painted by Sydney King
Courtesy of The Model Boatyard

Our man today is Jonathan Everett.  He was a ferryman who owned and operated a twenty foot long, eight feet wide flat-bottomed ferry boat made of wooden planks.  He stood at one side of the deck and pulled on a rope.  This caused 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 stood were two vertical wooden poles that rose above the bulwark.  Near the top of each, a hole had been drilled through the pole.  The rope went through both holes and was suspended up out of the water between them.  The rope was in the water at all other times, so it was always wet when Jonathan pulled on it.  His wearing of cloth gloves was necessary. 
The current of the river was slow, only a mile or so an hour, so the ferry was not shooting downstream and putting strain on the rope, which would have made it harder to pull.  Jonathan had the bow of the ferry pointed slightly upstream, which counteracted the flow of the current.
Jonathan was not a big or heavy man, but he was strong.  Pulling up to six tons on his ferryboat in one trip had made him strong.  He did not make crossings from sun-up to sundown, but only a few times a day and not every day.  Once in a while he went the whole day without making a trip.  On a busy day he went across and back four times.  (Between crossings, he farmed or worked on the dock or one of his wooden buildings.) 
Jonathan had 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 move a bigger boat.  They could carry more weight per trip.  More weight meant more fares, more money.  In those harbors where there was a ferry service, such as Chesapeake Bay, New York, and Boston, some ferries had two-masts and were sailed, not pulled or rowed.
The purpose of ferries was to speed travel.  They were put 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 Jonathan ferried cargo, not people or animals.  He carried the grains and flour that fed people, and the nails and cloth that made life better.  He 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 relatives were not necessarily annual events.
On the bank of the river behind Jonathan was 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 pounds 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 ferryboat he had built two years before.
Farther up the bank beyond the dock was a two story inn that Jonathan and his wife, Elizabeth, operated.  (His father had also built it, more than fifteen years before.)  On the ground floor was the main room in which people sat while they waited for the next crossing.  They sat on benches at wooden tables, where some people ate and others drank.  The liquor was stored and food was cooked in the kitchen, which was at the back of the inn.  Also on the ground floor was a bedroom for Jon and Betty, one for his parents, and two others for their four children.  There was an alcove that was the business office.  Upstairs was 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 was a very large barn with sixteen stalls for horses.  This was quite a few more than would seem to ever be necessary, but it had purpose.  One day a month, all of the local Friends went to the monthly meeting at the Society of Friends’ meetinghouse across the river.  (Most went once a week and some more than once; everybody was at the monthly meeting.)  Every stall in the barn was used on that day.  Jonathan had begun 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 Friends came with wagons to get those who had left their horses and wagon with Jonathan.  He ferried them across and tended to their horses when he returned..
As noted, Jonathan did not operate the ferry service every day of the year.  This had nothing to do with his wanting a day off, now and then.  It was because of the weather.  Sometimes it was too windy to make a crossing or pouring down with rain.  In the spring, there was an occasional flood from snow-melt upriver.  Every once in awhile, the thick hawser Jonathan used as a rope broke.  It might have been two days before he could 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 First Nation canoes operated by a village 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 people 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.


No comments:

Post a Comment