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How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part IV (Windup)

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,


How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part III

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.

How Victorians crossed a river before there was a bridge: Part II

Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

— 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.

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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