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Exploring the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers by ferryboat

From the time of pioneers settling in Missouri until the construction of several bridges through the 1930s and 1940s, ferryboats and their able operators helped pioneers, horses, carriages, and later industry and automobiles cross the Missouri, Mississippi, and other river crossings around Warren County.

Ferryboats operated around Missouri as early as 1790

Before there were diesel-powered boats, and before there were steamboats, ferryboats paddled along the powered by the current and, later, horses walking along specially designed treadmills.

Some of the earliest known ferry boats began operating near Washington, Marthasville, Hermann, and New Haven as early as 1836. The earliest known ferryboat in the region was between St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve around 1790.

Most ferries operated until bridges were engineered into the 1940s.

Ferryboat operated by Edward Schwentker
Ferry boat operated by Edward Schwentker, circa 1930

The first ferryboat near St. Louis was kept on the Meramec more than a century and a half ago by an old Frenchman who ferried travelers passing between St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve. 17 years later, Capt. James Pigot secured a grant from Spanish authority to operate a ferry between St. Louis and Cahokia. This ferry was destined to become the great crossing of the river for several decades.

The Marthasville Record, May 21, 1943.

The Missouri River took a sudden drop after the cold weather last week and during the heavy ice flow the boats and barges tied up for the winter were hanging on the bank at a dangerous angle. The ferry boat, which is in winter quarters on the Warren County shore, was partly frozen in the ice and might have top pled over had not the boat crew gone over in time to chop the ice away from the hull and lowered the boat into the water.

The Washington Citizen, Jan. 20, 1928

Winters and droughts made travel challenging or impossible

Frozen rivers, droughts, and floods may passage along the Missouri impossible.

Often during droughts, passage across rivers ceased until the waters were restored. In the winter, frozen ice pack made traversing impossible. During these times, many residents stayed put, awaiting the spring when they could once again cross to visit family, friends, and conduct business.

As Mrs. Simon Humfeld was returning from New Haven last week, where she had been shopping, her horse was frightened and became unmanageable at some gypsies camped near the ferry landing, upsetting the cart and throwing her to the ground. Fortunately, Mrs. Humfeld escaped without any serious injury, except the loss of some groceries.

Warrenton Banner, March 29, 1895

“A total loss”, “The May Bryan sank Tuesday in 14 feet of water”

Photo of the May Bryan ferryboat, built in Jeffersonville, Indiana and sailing the Missouri River.
The May Bryan, before her sinking. Image via University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Murphy Library, Special Collections.

Ferryboats could be dangerous, like with the sinking of the May Bryan

Built in 1875 at Jeffersonville, Indiana, the May Bryan ferry operated on the Missouri River at Washington, Missouri, succeeding the Bright Star. The boat was the property of George Kuenzel, Frank Hoelscher and Robert Rehrig, the former gentlemen owners of one-fourth interest each, and the latter owner of one-half.

The May Bryan sank twice. Judged to be the best ferry boat on the Missouri River, the May Bryan was torn up by ice in 1881. The sight caused by the break up is said to have been the grandest ever witnessed on the Missouri River.

When she sank a second time, for good in 1897, the ferry was estimated to be worth $3,000. That’s about $110,000 in today’s money. She was uncovered again 40 years later in 1937.

During the dinner hour Tuesday Oct. 12 the May Bryan sank in fourteen feet of water. She was tied to the bank at her landing place opposite the depot and was supposed to be in first-class condition. At 11:30 she was noted by Capt. Hoelscher, who has been looking after her, and he saw nothing wrong. But at 12:30 she gave a lurch to the starboard and sank.

Her owners were notified and hastened to the scene. She lay in fourteen feet of water, heavily listed to starboard and badly twisted back of the boiler. They determned that she could not be raised and at once sent to work taking off all the fixtures and whatever else of yalue they could get at.

Marthasville News, October 21, 1897

The May Bryan was discovered 40 years later, roughly where she sank

The government dredgeboat, “Mitchell”, working in the Missouri River opposite the Washington freight depot recently uncovered the hull of the old ferry, “May Bryan,” which sank, according to government records in Kansas City, in 1898 in approximately the same spot where she was found-about 600 feet offshore, The “Mitchell,” going at full speed, was dented slightly from the impact but otherwise not seriously injured. Engineers said the sunken boat was laying in about 11 feet of water, protruding upward from the river bottom about six feet. The dredgeboat draws five feet of water. The hulk was removed piece by piece to a sandbar in the vicinity. The wreckage has been viewed and many pieces of its hull taken by souvenir hunters.

Warrenton Banner, October 8, 1937

Bridge at Washington puts one of the region’s last commercial ferries out of business

The ferryboat at Washington, operated by the Walter Schaefer, was the last to cease business on the day the Washington 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 bridge opened.

Read more about the early history of ferries…

Cars line up at the toll booth on the new Washington Bridge
Automobiles line up at the toll booth on the new Washington Bridge.

There's more history to explore

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