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How Victorians crossed a river before a bridge was built: Part I


This morning I sat before the computer painting a word picture of my heroine riding a cantankerous mare named Maud across the dusty plains of Alberta to the Bow River at Calgary. She needed to get to the other side, but I knew there wasn’t a bridge across the river in 1883. How would she have gotten across?

I stopped writing and started researching.

Various sources informed me that the most common conveyance in the early 19th century was a raft, which was either poled or paddled across the water. Aboriginals used bull boats, miniature canoes with a rounded wood frame and animal skin stretched across the bottom. By mid-century iron and steel had been invented, and out west, enterprising individuals were constructing cable operated ferries. One of these ferries began crossing the Bow River at Calgary in 1882.

19th century cable ferries were basically large rafts that crossed the river by means of an overhead wire cable or an underwater chain cable. A wooden platform formed the base of the ferry, and huge wooden aprons hinged to the platform at either end were lowered to the riverbank for loading and unloading cargo, and raised when the ferry was ready to set off across the water.

Different methods were used to propel the ferries across the water. Some were pulled across the river with a cable, others propelled themselves using a chain laid along the river bottom, and still others used the current of the river to propel them across. Sometimes horses or mules were used on treadmills to wind the cable and pull the ferry through the water. Ferries called horseboats had a treadmill on board, connected by a gear to paddle wheels. Out west, horses and mules were in scarce supply and cable ferries were generally hand-propelled.

At the end of the day, I knew cable ferries were an important method of transportation during the Victorian Era, especially for small and isolated communities. But before I can put my heroine on a ferry and send her across the Bow River I need to understand how a cable ferry actually works. I’ll carry on, and keep you posted.


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