I try to limit my research to acquiring enough information to make a scene come alive, but the process always works its magic and I discover I have learned a whole lot more. While researching cable ferries I gained insight into why communities were so keen to have one. Bridge engineering might have advanced rapidly in the first half of the 19th century, but bridge construction was costly and required manpower. Many communities couldn’t mobilize the finances or the workers to undertake such a project.
But they could manage to build a cable ferry, which was relatively cheap and quick to construct and could be operated by a single ferryman. With its flat platform securely tethered to an umbilical wire cable or chain, it stayed the course against wind and rain, and a river’s swift current. Its wooden aprons, hinged to the ferry platform at either end, were lowered to the river bank to load and unload people, livestock and cargo.
Victorians used the cable ferry to open the countryside to settlement and economic progress. No longer was their march across continents blocked by rivers. Many communities were born at the site of a cable ferry crossing, fledgling communities guaranteed their success by constructing cable ferries, and established communities used them to attract new commerce and industry.
A skilled ferryman held an important position in a community. He not only helped to further economic progress, but also played a communications role, collecting and dispensing local gossip and posting signs and advertisements on the ferry where everyone could see them. He assisted community’s social committees by clearing the ferry deck for use as a dance floor. Local lawmen counted on him to mark a stranger in the community and alert them to any suspicious behavior.
A community relied on the ferryman’s skills, and his job could be dangerous, especially when the river was high or there was ice. Accidents happened. Weather was unpredictable. Cables broke and mechanical parts frequently failed. Cargo shifted or chains fastening cargo broke, capsizing the ferry and dumping cargo and people into the river. But for most Victorians, the benefits of having a cable ferry more than offset the risks.
19th century cable ferries have pretty much faded into history, replaced by permanent bridges. However, modern versions continue to ply the water in many places around the world, transporting people, goods and livestock across rivers and bays—meeting the same needs and fulfilling the same role as the ferries constructed by the Victorians.
Researching 19th century cable ferries has been a challenge, but finally I can picture one in my mind, hear the sound of the water rushing beneath its boards, feel the tug of the cable, and appreciate the skill of the ferryman. It’s time to put my heroine on board and see her safely to the other side of the river.
Until next time,