— Thomas Stonewall Jackson
For the past week, I’ve devoted any spare time to browsing the collection of historical materials available online from the Glenbow Archives in Alberta. As a writer, I rely on archives as a source of accurate information and for those critical little details that breathe life into the people and communities portrayed on the pages of my novels. If you are fortunate to have an archives in your community, I encourage you to support it generously.
As luck would have it, I came across a photograph of a ferry that crossed the Bow River at Calgary in the 1880s. Eureka! I’m on my way to writing the scene where my heroine crosses the river on a ferry in 1883. But I’m not there yet. First I need to know where the ferry was located and how it operated.
It seemed obvious that a ferry entrepreneur would go to great lengths to avoid choosing the wrong place for a river crossing, so that’s where I started my research. I learned that some things haven’t changed much. Elevation and slope of the river bank were critical, as they are today. Cliff faces were obviously unsuitable, and steep inclines were dangerous and hard on men and horses pulling heavy loads. Above all, an unstable bank must be avoided, and a low-lying area might appeal but would likely flood every spring and after a heavy rain.
I realized a ferry entrepreneur had to do what I am doing: first, he had to do research. The river bank would be thoroughly reconnoitered on both sides before any decision could be made. Possibly, the best site wasn’t exactly where he wanted, but he knew the soundness of the location would reward him in the long run. Rather like having to adjust a scene to accord with research findings, and being rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing you got it right.
I’ll keep cruising the net, looking for information on how cable ferries worked. Come again, and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.