Volume 1


Fourth Edition Printed by the Clio Press Iowa City, Iowa 1920
Copyright 1917 by Clarence Ray Aurner

Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, submitted April, 2013

pg 34

When roads were first made they often followed along the streams or between them. There are many of that kind now in Iowa, and one of the early roads in Des Moines County is still called the Bottom Road. But it was not possible to have roads run that way. The streams of Iowa, as one may see, run southeast toward the Mississippi or southwest toward the Missouri; and when one goes directly east and west or north and south they must be crossed.

Many of these Iowa rivers were too deep to ford and some way to be carried over them had to be found. In the very beginning the families that had come from eastern states in wagons had to get over the Mississippi. In the winter time the ice furnished a safe passage; and if a man alone wished to cross perhaps some good Indian would take him in his canoe; or it might be that by going back and forth many times the canoe could transfer a whole family with their baggage.

But it would have been a very slow way to carry many hundreds of people in small canoes across a wide stream. A larger boat at a number of places was soon provided so that wagons with their whole load could be taken at once. It has been said that such a boat was kept at a crossing near where Burlington is now, before white men were allowed to make homes in Iowa, a country which belonged to the Indians. Between Burlington and Dubuque the first one was near a town called Buffalo in Scott County. The large boat used at such places was called a ferry, and it was known by the name of the man who owned or ran it or the place where it was landed.

If there was only one ferry for many miles up and down the stream, people had to come for many miles around to cross it. A story is told of some men who pretended that they wanted to cross at Mr. Clarke’s ferry on the Mississippi soon after it was started. One dark night from the Iowa side of the river shouts were heard from some persons who said they had a large number of cattle to ferry over. Of course Mr. Clarke got his men together and crossed to get the load. But when he arrived at the Iowa side the traders who had called to him laughed at the clumsy ferry and the eight or more men and boys who rowed it, and called the whole thing a joke. They did not

want the ferry at all. But it was not so laughable when the ferryman demanded pay for crossing the stream late at night just to satisfy some unknown men who were playing a joke on him. Since the traders had no money they paid the bill by giving some calico which they kept to trade to the Indians for fur. Probably they learned a lesson and did not try again to fool Mr. Clarke or any other ferryman.

It was not very long until other ferries were started at different places along the big stream. People were coming in crowds to settle in Iowa and they did not wish to be delayed at the river. Since the flat boat was handled with oars it took a number of men to row it and better power was soon found. After the canoe and the flat boat, the next kind of a ferry was run by means of a horse and a log rope cable. The cable to which the boat was attached by pulleys kept the boat steady and prevented it from being pulled down by the current. The horse on the boat worked the power or tread mill by which it was pulled back and forth to either side.

This was a great improvement over the hand work before the horse was used, and the ferry moved much faster. But it was not long before there were other improvements and a steamboat took the place of the horse and the boat he pulled at the ferries over the Mississippi. There were no steam ferries, however, on the very small streams.

An interesting kind of ferry located at the foot of Iowa Avenue was run across the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids by Mr. D. W. King, one of the early settlers of that place. The flat boat in use was fastened to a wire cable with pulleys and the current was made to drive it across. To be sure, there must have been some way to reverse the power in order to return over the same cable.

At the settlement called Ivanhoe, in Linn County, the place where the military road from Dubuque crossed the Cedar River, there was another ferry. Not far below Ivanhoe was still another at Washington (now Cedar Bluffs) where Mr. Abner Arrowsmith in 1840 paid twelve dollars a year for the right to run it.

Sometimes there were private ferries kept by settlers for their personal use. Other people might be allowed to use them but these were not run regularly as ferries must run according to the rules governing them on public roads. One will understand that unless ferries were ready at all times, from sunrise to sunset, as the law might say, people would not be able to know when they could continue their journey. A ferryman, therefore, must not refuse to respond to any call for help in crossing during the hours named in the rules governing him. Such regulations were very important at crossings on the main roads.

All these changes in kinds of ferries took place before Iowa became a State in 1946. Men were glad to pay a high price for the right to run a ferry on a stream that almost everyone had to cross to reach the Territory. In such cases no one else could start a ferry near by or within a mile or half a mile from the place where anyone had secured the right to run a boat. Of course, anyone could run boats, but not as a ferry for hire.

Sometimes men paid as much as a thousand dollars for the right to run a ferry on large rivers like the Mississippi and the Missouri. But all will understand that the many hundreds of smaller ferries were not worth so much to their owners. Indeed, only two or three dollars a year might be paid for the ferry privilege on the small streams. Such ferries were allowed to charge a fixed price for crossing. It would cost less, of course, to cross a stream like the Wapsipinicon or the Cedar River than it would to cross the larger streams, and more to cross the Cedar and the Iowa Rivers than some smaller streams.

It may interest boys and girls to hear some of the charges for getting over the rivers in Iowa before there were free bridges. For example, a ferryman on the Skunk River in Washington County was permitted to charge 6 ¼ cents for carrying a footman; 12 ½ cents for a horse and man; 25 cents for a single horse and wagon; 37 ½ cents for two horses and a wagon; and 6 ¼ cents for each head of cattle, sheep, or hogs.

At a ferry on the Des Moines river near the present city of Des Moines a Mr. John Scott charged 37 ½ cents to transfer two horses and a wagon. For four horses and wagon he got 50 cents; for a man and a horse 18 ¾ cents; for a single horse or each head of cattle or a footman he had 10 cents; and for a single sheep 5 cents. Mr. Scott obtained the right to run this ferry on the Des Moines River from the far away county of Mahaska. How this happened will be made plain at some other time.

Fords or ferries were found on all the streams between the two great rivers on the east and the west boundaries of Iowa. From the beginning, when the canoe or the small row boat was used, improvements had been made in the method of crossing as the country was settled. Many stories are told of the hard times men had in getting over some of the rivers in the earliest days. When a wagon with its load was moved by means of a canoe, each part was taken separately. The load was taken from the wagon and carried one piece at a time. The wagon was taken apart and handled the same way. Then the oxen or horses were made to swim by the side of the canoe or they were let go by themselves. When all had been brought over, the wagon was set up, the load put in place, and the journey was continued.

This was not an easy way to travel even at a time when the ordinary journey was hard enough. But the Iowa pioneer had to go long distances to mill for flour or meal to feed his family in spite of the fact that the rivers were very high; and it often happened that there was no ferry at the usual crossing place at a ford. Since the water was too deep to ford at certain times of year, the only resource was the canoe or small boat.

It must have been a great relief from such methods of travel when ferries of sufficient size to take on a team and wagon at once had been started. The boat came up close to the bank of the stream and the wagon with its load was driven directly on board. It might be a flat boat of the old kind; a horse boat like that already mentioned; or a steamboat like the one on the large streams. On most of these boats there were gates to prevent an accident if horses became frightened at the unusual sights or sounds. But an early settler in Black Hawk County has said, that on one occasion he had a narrow escape because there was no gate or bar. The team stared to back off into the river when the wheel caught against the side of the boat and stopped them. In another place the rope cable which kept the boat from going down with current broke and the ferry went over a dam. Since the water was very high the ferry went over without losing its load.

A small boy who came to Iowa from Illinois crossed the Mississippi at Dubuque. The four horse team and the covered wagon were all taken together on the stream ferry from the Illinois side to the landing at the city of Dubuque. At first the boy had seen only the landing place; and he was quite anxious to know how the four horses and wagon with the family were going to be carried over by means of that little platform. By and by his fears were all removed by the approach of the boat, which seemed to him very large. Although the horses were nervous the men took care that nothing should be injured.

In the days when so many were “going west” it often happened that large numbers had to wait at ferry landings in Iowa until their turn came to cross. At such times the banks of the streams filled with white covered wagons and tents presented an interesting sight. Only on the East and West main traveled roads, of course was this scene common, because the crowd was generally moving in a western direction. Compared to the great number going west, very few were traveling north and south. The important ferries, then, were at the crossing on these main roads.

After the country had become settled the ferries gave way to bridges, although they were not at first free. As in crossing by the ferry, a small fee had to be paid for going over the bridge. These were called “toll bridges” because a toll was collected for each person or animal or wagon that went over. Any one might construct such a bridge if he had permission from the county and obeyed the instructions given him. Often a company of men built one, each having a share in the cost and the profits.

The manager of a ferry sometimes got the right to build a toll bridge Such rights were granted by the county for a number of years; ten, twenty, or perhaps a longer time. In one case, at least, the man who wanted to build such a bridge asked to have the right to keep it for fifty years. Such bridges were not allowed to obstruct the passing of boats regularly up and down the streams.

By and by the free bridge was built by taxes which all the people with property had to pay, and any one could cross at any time without charge. In these days the toll bridge is forgotten, for all are free unless they are built at great expense across the largest streams.

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