Hear the words “river ferry” today, and a picture of a large double-decker motorized boat comes to mind.
But when I hear those words, I’m transported back to the early 1950s, when I was just a wee lass, hanging on for dear life to my daddy’s hand on my only ferry ride across the Oostanaula River in Georgia.
The ferry had no fancy motors — it was a hand-drawn, flat-bed cable ferry made from boards placed over 50- to 60-foot logs bolted to steel gunwales. The cable ran straight across the river from one landing to another, and the ferry was attached to the cable. A ferryman then pulled the ferry across the river.
The Johnston family, into which my Aunt Rose had married, owned the ferry. Aunt Rose and her husband, Jake, lived in a large white farmhouse facing the old dirt road that led down to the river. The Johnston family operated the ferry for four generations, though it still bore the name of the previous owner, Lloyd Beall, and it came to be known as Bell’s Ferry.
Anyone who wanted to build and operate a ferry had to get permission from the state legislature. In December 1839, David Hutchins got permission to establish a ferry across the Oostanaula on his own land, described as lot number 210, 24th district, third section of Floyd County. His permission was to operate a “good and sufficient flat or ferry boat for the conveyance of passengers.”
Don’t make a assumptions about who the “passengers” were. The legislation gave Hutchins permission to charge the following rates:
♦ 50 cents for each four-horse wagon and team
♦ 25 cents for a two-horse wagon and team, a one-horse wagon and horse, or an ox cart and oxen
♦ 12½ cents for a man and horse
♦ 6¼ cents for each single horse
♦ 3 cents for each head of cattle.
♦ 2 cents for each head of sheep, goats, or hogs
In other words, a ride across this ferry — and probably most others — could be a rather smelly experience.
The Hutchins property and ferry passed into the hands of two other families before 1873, when Lloyd Beall purchased it and gave it the name that stuck.
The ferry closed in 1954, when a large modern bridge was built to span the river within sight of the old ferry crossing. Oblivious to the history of those who had traveled up and down the dirt road since 1839 when the first ferry ran there, I spent childhood days playing there.
Close examination of Google’s aerial photography of the area clearly shows the old dirt road bed leading across the Johnston land to the river, and directly across the river is another dirt road, probably unknown to current area residents unless they look from this aerial view.
Some ferries operated 24 hours a day, while others operated from sun up to sundown. What was it like for the families who operated the ferry?
My Aunt Rose passed several years ago, and on my last visit to her, she and I walked that old dirt roadbed from her house down to the river. She related to me that an old farm bell hung at the river’s edge on both sides. When someone wanted to cross, he rang the bell and waited for one of the Johnston family members to run from their house or the fields to operate the ferry. Rain or shine, it was all a part of their everyday lives.
The impact on users was equally strong. Using the ferry could shorten day-long journeys (to find a bridge across the river) to just a few hours.
Two weeks ago this column explored topographic maps and their importance to thorough genealogical research. Studying major waterways in the ancestor’s community is important. This can be done through topographic maps or by using maps and satellite imagery from services such as Google Maps combined with historic maps showing where roads ran at the time ancestors lived in the area.
Studying ferries — or any mode of transportation for an era — may not seem like genealogical research. But putting an ancestor into historical perspective is a vital part of every family history.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at [email protected] .com. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.