Early Ferries and Bridges Knitted the Upper Valley Together

  • Bridges over the Connecticut and White Rivers in White River Junction, Vt., in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Hartford Historical Society Collections) Courtesy Hartford Historical Society Collections

For the Valley News
Published: 1/6/2017 10:00:01 PM
Modified: 1/6/2017 10:00:09 PM

The Connecticut River’s role in the Upper Valley can’t be underestimated. It played a central part in the settlement of area towns and in log drives and the shipment of local products to down-river markets. Its floods and dams have rearranged the landscape.

While the river has been a unifying feature of the valley, it has also been a barrier, one that residents of towns on opposite banks have had to surmount in the interest of cooperation. Early on, that meant ferries, which later gave way to toll bridges. The system of toll ferries and bridges continued into the early 20th century, when the network of free bridges we know today started to come on line. Sources of information are the late Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book One, local town histories and historic periodicals.

Since the earliest years of settlement, residents of the valley have had to cross the river. While canoes may have served first, commercial ferry operations soon followed.

In 1763, the proprietors of Hartford, “desirous of opening communication” with Lebanon, voted to have built “a good skow ferry boat twenty-five feet long and eight feet wide.” This boat, near the confluence of the White and Connecticut rivers, served as a connection between the two communities until the first bridge was built in 1800.

John Sargent, an early settler of Norwich, created the first ferry between Hanover and Norwich in 1770. However, two years later, the Royal Governor granted exclusive ferry rights to Dartmouth College. This action created several decades of controversy between the college and the towns of Hanover and Norwich as well as other prospective operators. This continued until a toll bridge, the first in a series of four, was built near the present Ledyard Bridge in 1796.

In 1772, just a few years after settlement, a petition was submitted to the General Assembly of New Hampshire for the “privilege” of a ferry between Newbury and Haverhill. A year later, at least two ferries were established there, one at Wells River and the other near Newbury village.

And in 1775, a ferry started between Orford and Fairlee with the charter being granted in the name of King George III. There were at least three ferries operated by Bradford or Piermont residents before the end of the 18th century.

After independence, ferry rights were granted by the state governments. Charters generally established boundaries of several miles in each direction on the river in order to reduce conflicts between operators. The first ferry in North Thetford, established about 1780, actually operated without a charter for four years and then, upon petition by 89 men from Lyme and Orford, a charter was granted.

Those seeking and holding ferry rights included some prominent early citizens. Capt. Ebenezer Green of Lyme and Thetford, Richard Chamberlin of Newbury and General Israel Morey of Orford are just three of those who saw economic promise in ferry operation.

In March 1900, New England Magazine published an article by Max Bennett Thrasher entitled “A Connecticut River Ferry.” Thrasher described a typical ferry operating between Vermont and New Hampshire in the 19th century.

A ferry boat measured up to 40 feet long and 11 feet wide and was built of “hard-pine planks.” They had square ends for running up to the sandy landing areas, and were often tied to a cable and pulley system stretched from bank to bank.

While larger ones were used for transporting loaded wagons as well as small herds, there were often smaller craft for carrying walking passengers. In some cases, where traffic warranted, a second large craft was available.

Passengers approaching the ferry landing from the side where the toll house stood would often find a painted sign board of toll charges. Those who approached from the opposite bank might find a tin horn to “hail the ferryman.”

By the mid-19th century, a typical charge would have been 10 cents for a wagon and 2 cents for a passenger. Cattle might be 1 to 2 cents per head. The fees often were higher during rough weather or for night crossings. Ferries were not allowed to charge more than the legal fee, but could charge less.

Once loaded, “the ferryman, standing at the end of the boat farthest from the shore, took hold of the stout wire rope to which the big craft hung,” Thrasher wrote. He would walk back again and again using the attached pulleys to move the ferry across the river. Sometime the ferry scows would be maneuvered by a paddle attached to the sides or rear or by simply pulling on a rope to guide the craft to the opposite shore.

After traveling throughout Northern New England, Yale President Timothy Dwight wrote the following in 1796: “Crossed the river at the ferry above the Great Oxbow (in Newbury). The boat was managed by two children smaller than I had ever seen entrusted with such employment. But the expedition and safety with which we crossed the river, proved their perfect competency for their business.”

Transporting livestock sometimes created problems. One ferryman explained the difficulty of ferrying sheep: “Sheep are the meanest things to take over. They’s jest as likely as not get scairt and jump overboard, and then it’s nigh impossible to catch them.”

Ferries usually ceased operation when the river froze. The boat would be drawn up beyond the flood zone for storage. In the early years this might take up to 10 yokes of oxen, but as new pulley systems became available, it could be done with a team of horses.

The crossings were not without danger. Spring brought floating ice or logs from the great log drives. Floods, freshets or uncertain currents were constant concerns, and extreme drought created its own set of problems for ferrymen.

Ferries served the area even after individuals and groups of stockholders began to build bridges. Often, ferry operators themselves were major promoters of the new bridges.

The first bridge between the two states was built at Bellows Falls in 1785. By 1797 there were 13 bridges across the river, including one at Newbury village built about 1796.

One of the new bridges was built between Fairlee and Orford in 1802. Dwight, the Yale president, described it as “a neat bridge, consisting of one very obtuse arch supported by trestles.” This bridge was swept away by a freshet in April 1809. The next year a new bridge was built, “supported by three wooden piers and extending unarched across the river.”

Moody Bedell and other subscribers raised $3,800 to finance a new bridge at South Newbury in 1805. (The last bridge at that site was destroyed by a windstorm in September 1979, just a few months after it had been restored and reopened.) Other bridges were built between Lyme and Thetford in 1822 and between Bradford and Piermont in 1825.

The bridges that replaced ferries were, at first, built as open, uncovered bridges. As floods swept them away or weather took a toll on the exposed wooden timbers, they were replaced by covered bridges.

If a bridge failed, as they often did, ferries were re-established until replacements could be built. In several cases, the need for temporary replacements lasted 10 or more years. When the bridge at South Newbury was swept away by a flood in 1841, ferry service was resumed for 18 years before a new bridge was opened.

As with ferries, tolls were collected for all of these bridges. A toll house sat adjacent to one entrance to the bridge and the toll-keeper and his family were on constant guard against those who would sneak across without paying. A fine could be levied against trespassers, one that might be shared with someone who reported the trespass.

In The Vermonter magazine in 1906, Gilbert Davis of Windsor commented on the existence of toll bridges between the two states. Davis was a member of a state commission charged with studying the issue.

Toll bridges were, as a general rule, a “very profitable investment,” Davis stated. The corporation that owned the Lyman Toll Bridge between McIndoes and Monroe declared a 14 percent annual dividend to its stockholders. “The rates were exorbitant and even the ministers have to pay,” Davis said.

Davis called for the abolition of the 10 toll bridges that remained between the two states. He concluded “the sentiment against the collection of tolls was strong.”

Local residents, he wrote, “occasionally asserted a sportive independence by chopping down the toll-gate.”

After 1860, residents in both states began to call for freedom to travel across the river without paying. They sought to follow the 1858 example of Hanover and Norwich’s purchase of the Ledyard Bridge and turning it from toll to free. When this transformation occurred, the toll bridges were sometimes purchased and sometime replaced.

In March 1895, Orford voters appropriated funds so that the bridge would “now be owned by the town as a free bridge.” Fairlee voters appropriated $500, their share of the $5,400 price. The United Opinion later reported “double the number used the bridge once it was made free.”

The North Thetford Bridge was purchased by the voters of Thetford and Lyme in 1897. The local Lyme reporter commented “for a time, taxes will be higher, but in the end beneficial.”

Davis was one of those who encouraged the legislatures of the two states to come to some financial arrangement to purchase the bridges. He believed it was unfair to leave the financial burden to just the two adjacent towns when the services were provided for all. The states were somewhat reluctant to fully meet the financial commitment required.

In 1906, Henry Keyes of Haverhill purchased the Haverhill-Newbury Bridge and gave it to the towns on condition that they make it a free bridge. In 1911, after years of discussion, Bradford and Piermont purchased the connecting bridge. Bradford’s share was $1,100.

By 1916, the toll bridge between Woodsville and Wells River became unsafe. The towns decided to finance a new bridge just south of the old one. Articles in the United Opinion described the decision in Haverhill, where it was “widely discussed and the outcome so anxiously awaited.”

The vote in Newbury passed at its annual Town Meeting. A special train was commissioned by the Boards of Trade of Wells River and Woodsville to carry Woodsville voters to the Haverhill Town Meeting in North Haverhill. The bridge question was passed by “practically the unanimous decision of the voters of Haverhill.” A new bridge was dedicated in November 1917.

In the years since, older bridges have been outmoded by modern transportation needs, damaged by flood or replaced by newly designed structures. Tolls are a thing of the past. The Cheshire Bridge between Springfield and Charlestown, didn’t stop collecting tolls until 2001.

Communities that face each other across the river have developed strong ties: Norwich and Hanover, Wells River and Woodsville, Bradford and Piermont, Fairlee and Orford, Thetford and Lyme. The only Upper Valley towns not currently connected by at least one bridge are Hartland and Plainfield.

Residents frequently work, play, worship, shop and seek medical assistance on the opposite side of the river. They cross and recross the river so often it loses any sense of a barrier it might otherwise pose. Ferries and bridges have historically played a significant role in creating that state of mind, and bridges still do.

Larry Coffin is president of the Bradford Historical Society. He writes about Upper Valley and Bradford-area history at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. A previous version of this column was published in the Journal Opinion.

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