Fun on the Ferry

Continuing the series of articles on the Connecticut River, for those individuals without boats—and hence no way to take the canal—the main means of crossing the river was by ferry. According to an article in a 1935 edition of the Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram, traveling by this method was time-consuming and frequently inconvenient. Travelers and livestock alike went on the ferry, and sometimes “a frisky horse or cow…would satisfy its curiosity by falling into the water. The ferry would then be halted, regardless of the impatience of the busy traveler, while the ferryman rescued the surprised animal.” Tales of inadvertent swims were not restricted to animals either. In 1935, “old-timers” were still laughing when they told “of some proud young dandy falling overboard and shak[ing] their heads and sigh[ing], ‘Those were the days!’ when questioned about their experiences in crossing the Connecticut.” In addition to clumsy passengers, ferrymen also needed to avoid logs (which were floated down river), and the current was a persistent threat.

According to the article, the first ferry on the Connecticut River began running between Northampton and Hockanum in 1658, over a hundred years before the inclined plane canal was constructed in South Hadley. Numerous ferries sprang up afterward, and one of these, run by a “Job Alvord from South Hadley” apparently “reaped profits from tremendous business” until canal arrived. Nonetheless, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, those without boats maintained the demand for a ferry service. In fact, Smith’s Ferry, which ran from South Hadley to Northampton (the equivalent of the PVTA back then), did not establish its dominance until well past the lifespan of the canal.

Smith’s Ferry, which is featured in both the photo above and the photo below, was a well-off business venture. Transporting the necessary supplies for Mount Holyoke, relied on the ferry, “so the ferryman could count on considerable profit.” Indeed, Mary Lyon herself “crossed the ferry many times and the students made frequent trips across on Mountain Day or other holidays.” The rates were “13 cents for a single horse and carriage, 25 cents for a double team, 25 cents for coal team, five cents for a foot passenger and three cents a head for cattle.”

As with the canal, ferries were replaced by another form of transportation, namely the construction of the South Hadley Falls Bridge. The article thus concludes on a sad and nostalgic note: “Undoubtedly such advancements are more efficient and sure but they lack the picturesque and friendly quality of earlier transportation methods…Little trace remains of [those ferrymen], yet they will live in histories of the Connecticut Valley as part of these early, colorful days in which Western Massachusetts had its beginnings.”

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