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150 years of ferryboats across the Mississippi and Missouri near Warren County

This post is part of an online exhibit about ferryboats in the region. Visit the online ferryboat exhibit.

It would be more than a century after the founding of St. Louis in 1764 before a bridge spanned the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In the interim, small wooden ferryboats shuttled back and forth carrying goods and travelers for 150 years. 

The first regional ferry, near St. Louis on the Meramec around 1765, was operated by a Frenchman between St. Louis and St. Genevieve. Little more than a wide span of timber in a shallow-depth canoe, these early ferries were guided by men using poles to steer the craft along the current. 

Eighteen years later in 1783, Captain James Piggott, a veteran of the American Revolution, settled in Columbia, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. Growth in St. Louis spurred demand for commercial access and Piggot secured a grant to operate a ferry between St. Louis and Columbia. The ferry rapidly became the busiest crossing of the river.

Samuel Wiggins, whose ferry operations were well on their way to monopoly status, bought a majority stake of the Piggott Ferry in 1819 after Piggott’s death. Other operators, including the McKnight-Brady company, also owned a share and shuttled passengers and goods during a time of fierce competition until an act from the Illinois General Assembly helped solidify the Wiggins ferry operations:

Soon after he began operations, Wiggins used his political clout to persuade the Illinois General Assembly to grant him a charter with exclusive rights to two miles of Illinois river front opposite St. Louis and the right to establish a toll road leading to his landing. The act went further and allowed no new ferry operations to be created within a mile on either side of Wiggins’ landing.

Wiggins later bought out the McNight-Brady interest in Piggott’s Ferry. To further his control of the Illinois side of the river he went into partnership with a prominent businessman who owned substantial portions of land in what was known as Illinoistown. 

Valued at nearly $1 million by its stock in the 1870s, the Wiggins business seemed unstoppable. The Wiggins company had even invented a horse-powered “treadmill” that propelled the boat forward regardless of current or wind direction. The clever paddle wheel attached to the rear of the ferry became an inspiration for future steam-powered boats popularized for a new generation in the American imagination by the likes of Mark Twain. 

The Wiggins ferryboat enterprise operated until the 1930s when automobiles and toll-free bridges replaced the need for ferries.

Ferry operated by Ed Schwentker with a horse and carriage and passengers standing on deck.
This ferry, operated by Edward Schwentker, is shown at an unknown location carrying a horse and carriage. Photo circa 1930.

Warren County ferries bring settlers across the Missouri

Settlers crossing the Mississippi frequently stopped or settled in Warren County. Ferry operations crossing the Missouri River brought scores of travelers and goods directly into the county. In the mid to late 1800s, ferry services operated between Warren and Franklin counties from Pinckney to New Haven, and a ferry in Hermann shepherded travelers and merchants into Gasconade County. A ferry at Washington also operated near Marthasville.

These settlements hitched their fortunes to the ferries until railroad depots surpassed them as the economic and transportation engine of choice.

But in the early 1800s ferries seemed an obvious solution to crossing water, but faced equally obvious challenges. The “Bright Star,” a center wheel ferry of 85 tons built at New Albany in 1864 and owned by F. Bleckmann with Capt. Harry Kettel as master was cut down by running ice at Washington in 1873. The loss was reported at $2,000. The boat was later raised and repaired, leaving passengers and nearby residents stranded for days. Its replacement ferry, the May Bryan, sank twice in its career.

Frozen rivers and poor weather often hindered passengers even as people increasingly relied on personal automobiles. Ferries adapted their boats to be ever-larger to handle the influx of automobiles over horses and wagons, but problems remained with crossing the river.

In another report from October 1930, the Washington ferry boat was stuck on a sand bar in the middle of the Missouri for two days:

“The boat was coming from the Warren County side with a full load of passengers and cars Thursday evening and ran aground on the reef in the center of the stream where the water is only 2 feet deep at places. …It was hard to manage the boat over the shallow water at low speed. After some efforts to get the boat loose, which were futile, the cars and passengers were taken off with the barge and launch, and brought to this side. A thunderstorm was approaching from the west, and the people who were marooned on the ferry wanted to get to land as soon as they could.”

By the 1920s and 1930s, ferries seemed small and lacking ambition and imagination for a growing nation enamored with automobiles. Bridges, it was deemed, were the obvious future of personal river transportation. Everyone recognized bridges wouldn’t be tied to the whims of current or weather. The only problem was paying for the bridge.

After 8 years of debate and financial fits and starts due to the depression, Congressman Clarence Cannon sent a telegram on June 27, 1934 from his office in Washington, D.C.: “Glad to advise president today approved allotment of public works funds for construction of the Washington bridge. Congratulations.” 

The mammoth project involved a $428,000 loan from the federal government, to be paid for with bonds and tolls. The federal government supplied a $175,000 grant and the state highway department contributed $200,000. 

Despite the announcement, ferries continued operating across the river until, ironically, a flood prevented their operation and delayed the construction of the bridge. Construction formally got underway in early summer of 1935. Not keen to operate a business destined to fail, several ferryboats stopped operating even as the visible bridge span was still under construction. For a little over a year during the construction of the Washington Bridge, many people relied on motorboats and skiffs. 

The first automobile drove across the new Washington bridge on April 8, 1936 when O.F. Schulte drove his Hudson with several passengers, including the mayor, L.J. Scerdrup, across the river. 

In Washington, MO, the city took on a festive spirit and closed at noon so people could celebrate. Then, the next day, the toll booths began operating. Tolls were 25 cents for a pedestrian, horse, bicycle, and motorcycle round-trip. Bus passengers paid 5 cents. Hogs and sheep cost the same. Heavier vehicles cost upwards of $1.50 round-trip.

The ferry boat at Washington, operated by the Walter Schaefer, was the last to cease business on the day the bridge opened. His father, Louis Schaefer purchased the local ferry business from Capt. Frank Blaske, Hugo Blaske, and August Noelker around June 9, 1910. It had remained in his family’s care for 25 years.

Walter Schaefer stepped off his ferry boat and became a toll booth operator the day the Washington bridge opened.

The tolls paid for the city’s debt and the bridge was transferred to the Missouri Highway Commission in September 1951, three years ahead of schedule. The toll booths were closed and Harry Schaefer was unemployed again, this time leaving the river crossing business for good.

All of the ferries that operated near Warren County have long since stopped sailing. Discussion in the 60s pondered bringing back a tourist ferry crossing at New Haven to Pinckney surfaced, but the idea fizzled. A ferry operating from Dorena, Missouri, near Hickman, Kentucky and the Tennessee border, provides about $2 million a year in tourism benefits to that region. Five other ferries continue operation in Missouri today, most all privately owned and operated for tourists.

Additional works cited in this post include:

  • “The Marthasville Record 10 Oct 1930, Page 1.”
  • “The Marthasville Record 19 Jun 1936, Page 1.”
  • “The Marthasville Record 21 May 1943, Page 4.”
  • “Warrenton Banner 26 Apr 1962, Page 7.”
  • “The Warren County Record 4, January 2018, Page 2C.” “All of Washington is proud of this bridge.”

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