So, how did 19th century cable ferries work? I haven’t taken any engineering courses, but based on my research this is how I see them operating–
The simplest cable ferry was pulled back and forth across slow moving rivers where keeping a ferry under control wasn’t too difficult. A long cable was attached to one end of the ferry and to a hand-operated winch on the river bank; a second cable was connected in the same way to the other end of the ferry and a winch on the other river bank. The winch wound the cable to pull the ferry across the water. When the ferry reached one side, the winch on the opposite bank was put into action to pull the ferry back. The wound cable was released as the ferry moved across the water. Whenever possible, horsepower was used to turn the winch.
Once chain was widely available, Victorian entrepreneurs began constructing chain cable ferries suited to shallow rivers and bays where there was little water traffic. Heavy chain was fastened to each river bank, allowing sufficient length to reach from shore to shore along the river bed. On board, the ferryman turned a notched or toothed wheel to lift the chain up from the river bed and drop it back again as the ferry moved ahead. For greater control and safety, a chain and wheel could be operated on both sides of the ferry.
Reaction cable ferries answered the Victorians’ need to cross rivers and bays too wide, or too deep, or too fast-flowing for the other types of ferries. They were also faster as they used the power of the water’s current to propel them. To build one, a tower was raised on each side of the river to a height that allowed river traffic to pass underneath. A wire cable was strung from one tower to the other. Several methods, including a pulley system, were used to connect the ferry to the cable. Each was designed to enable an experienced ferryman to angle the ferry into the perpendicular force of the river current and use the current to propel the ferry though the water.
Tune in for the windup—when I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the importance of ferries to Victorian communities.