Mills County, Iowa

1881 Mills County History
The Early Ferries

      During the earliest days of the county's history, passage over the streams within its boundaries was accomplished by fords, at the best unreliable, and always, at certain seasons, impassible. In a prairie region like this, the banks of the streams are soft and yielding, and even their beds are continually changing, hence a ford is by no means permanently reliable. When the last obstacle to the colonization of this county, and indeed of western Iowa, had been removed, and the tide of immigration began to flow westward, increased facilities were demanded. Very many reached this county from sections farther north, having crossed the Nishnabotna so high up that a mere fording was all that was necessary. Many stopped, but others kept on their way. These passers-by were of two classes; very many of them were Mormons on their way to the New Jerusalem, and many others were adventurers, the news of the discovery of gold in California having filled every road with trains of fortune seekers. With this increased travel came an increased demand for better and safer facilities by which to cross the streams that lay in the way of the emigrant.

      One of the earliest ferries was that at White Cloud, across the Nishnabotna in the southeastern part of the county. It is not known whether this is the one kept by a Mr. Hill, but if not, he was the proprietor of one near that point at a very early day. The records and all authentic information with reference to this ferry have long since been destroyed.

      To operate these ferries a license was required from the board of county commissioners, who also fixed the rates of toll or passage. These ferry licenses were granted usually for a single year, but not infrequently for much longer periods. The keeping of the ferry was a public necessity, and those who were able to purchase a "flat-boat," turned it to good advantage by use in this manner. Some of the applications are in full accord with other legal documents of early days. Sometimes a notice was posted to the effect that the person whose signature was attached, intended applying for a license. The following is an instance wherein the intention was followed by the act:


      Is hereby given that I shall apply to the next term of the county court at Coonville, for a license to establish and keep a ferry on the Missouri River at Plattsville in the County of Mills and state of Iowa December 12th, A, D. 1851. SAM’L MARTIN.


To the Honorable Court of Mills County:

      I pray your Honor for license to establish and keep a ferry at Plattsville across the Missouri river in the county of Mills and State of Iowa, extending three-forths of a mile down the river and one and one-forth miles up said river from the town of Plattsville, for the term of ten years, January the fifth, A.D. 1852. SAMUEL MARTIN.

      This was the first establishment of a ferry at this point across the Missouri. There had previously been one in operation at Trader’s point, conducted by Peter A. Sarpy.

      Col. Sarpy was one of the first white men in this county, having come in 1836, and engaged in trade with the Indians. The boats used were the ordinary flatboats of the western rivers, and frequently the crossing was so uncertain, the boat would land a mile below its usual haven. Often the passengers were obliged to lend a helping hand to get across at all. Conscious of these disadvantages, in 1853, Col. Sarpy proposed to establish a steam ferry, and the result may be gathered from the following extract:


      The court being satisfied that all the legal requisites on said application were complied with, and that a ferry was needed at the said point, and that the said Sarpy is a suitable person to keep said ferry. It is, therefore, ordered, that license be granted to the said Sarpy to keep said ferry as follows, to-wit:


To all whom these presents may come, greeting:

Whereas, Peter A. Sarpy having made application to the county court for license to establish and keep a steam ferry boat during the spring emigration, and suitable flat boats, skiffs, etc., at other times across the Missouri river at that point where the east half of section 26, township 73, north, of range 44 west, borders on said stream, and having in all respects complied with the requisites of the law.

      These are therefore authorizing the said Peter A. Sarpy to establish and keep for ten years a ferry boat as aforesaid, at the same point at the said river, and have the said privilege exclusive for the distance of one mile above the said point, and one mile below said point, and so far as the shore of the said river at the said point, within the limits of the said county is concerned, shall charge ferriage at the fo1lowing rates, to-wit:


  • Rates
    • For wagon and two horses (steamboat)      $ 4.00
    • For wagon and four horses      $ 5.00
    • For loose cattle per head,      .25
    • For sheep per head,      .05
    • For man,      .10
    • For wagon and two horses, (flat-boat)      1.00
    • For wagon and four horses,       1.00
    • For footman,       .10
    • For-horseman,      .50
    • For sheep per head,       .05
    • For cattle per head,       .10

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my name and affixed my private seal, (there being no seal of office yet provided by law), this the sixteenth day of April, A.. D. 1853. H. P. BENNETT, [SEAL]. (County Judge of Mills, County, Iowa.)

      In the following year a license was granted to J. L. Sharpe to "Keep a ferry” at Bethlehem. The following is the record in this case;

      Upon application of Joseph L. Sharpe for a license to keep a ferry on the Missouri river at the town of Bethlehem, and it appearing to the satisfaction of the court that the said applicant is a suitable person to keep a ferry, and the keeper of the previous ferry at the same point, and it further appearing to the court that due notice of the application has been made, and all other requisites of the law being complied with, it is therefore ordered that so far as the shore of this state is concerned, license be and is hereby granted to the said Joseph L. Sharpe, for the term of ten years from the date hereof, as follows, to-wit:


To all whom these presents shall come, greeting;

WHEREAS, Joseph L. Sharpe having made application to the county court of Mills county for license to establish and keep a ferry at the town of Bethlehem, on the Missouri river, and having in all respects complied with the requisites of the law, these are therefore, authorizing the said said Joseph L. Sharpe to establish and keep, (so far as the shore of this state is concerned) for ten years, a ferry on the Missouri river at the said point, with the exclusive privilege of one mile each way therefrom, above and below said point, and he is authorized to charge and receive tolls for ferrying at the following rates, to-wit:


  • Rates
    • For wagon and two horses       $1.00
    • For wagon and four horses       $1.50
    • For footman       .10
    • For horseman       .50
    • For sheep per head       .05
    • For cattle per head       .10
The time for ferrying is between sunrise and sundown, at all times when the river is within its banks and in boating order.

In testimony whereof, I, Hiram P. Bennett, county judge, have hereunto set my hand and affixed the seal of said county at my office in Glenwood, this, the 1st day of May, A.D.,1854. [SEAL.) HIRAM P. BENNETT,
County Judge of Mills county, Iowa.

These were all the ferries established in the county. The rates of ferriage in these days seem exorbitant, but they were hardly so then. There was no choice; either the rates current must be paid or there was no passage. The modern triumphs of engineering skill, by which the widest streams are readily bridged, have made the ferry a thing of the past, and they have, many of them, taken their places among the things that were.

Transcribed by Roseanna Zehner and Jennifer Miller; Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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