A Boat With REAL Horsepower

The other day I was doing a bit of research into ferry travel in the nineteenth century and came across a little snippet of information that immediately sent me down a rabbit trail to find out more.  Did you know that ferry boats were powered by horses at one time?  I didn’t.  Of course I knew about the horses and mules that walked along the banks of the Erie canal, tethered to barges that they pulled along.

But this is something entirely different.  These boats had either a turntable or treadmill type device mounted on or below the deck of the ship.  These platforms were connected to a gear which was in turn connected to the paddle wheels that propelled the boat forward.  When horses walked on the platforms of these mechanisms it set the whole thing in motion.

A number of these horse-powered boats, of several different designs, could be found on the waterways of North America starting in the late eighteenth century and continuing through the early years of the twentieth century.  They reached their heyday in the 1840s and 1850s.

During the early years of our country they were used on any number of rivers and lakes in the northeast, especially Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.  From there their use spread west to the Great Lakes, to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as well as other waterways that fed from these.  Of course they were generally only used for journeys of a few miles.

These boats came in various sizes.  One of the largest was powered by eight horse and could carry 200-plus passengers at about the same speed as a steamboat of its day.

There were a number of factors that led to the decline in the use of horseferrys, most notably the industrialization that occurred in America during the latter part of the nineteenth century.  With the expansion of bridge construction and railroad networks, there was less need for ferrys of any sort.  And when the internal combustion engine came along the death knell was finally sounded.

The only known surviving example of one of these horseferrys sits beneath the murky waters of Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain.  It was discovered during an underwater archaeological expedition in 1894 and today is part of Vermont’s Underwater Historical Preserve System.  It has also been added to the national Park Service’s National Register of Historical Places.

So is this something you already knew about, or was it as new to you as it was to me?  And are there other unusual ways you’ve heard of animals being used to power manmade devices that you’d like to share?


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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

19 thoughts on “A Boat With REAL Horsepower”

  1. Wow, Winnie, this is great information! I’ve never heard of horseferrys. This is why I love research, all the fascinating things a person finds.

  2. Very cool, Winnie. I had never seen such a thing. Did they switch out horses after making a crossing, or just keep the same team working all day? I wonder if they let the horses off for potty breaks or if the ferryman had to clean off the deck periodically. Although it looks like the horses were fairly contained in the center, so that probably helped keep the passengers from too many unpleasantries.

    Another fun point for American ingenuity!

  3. I don’t know of anything… however, Indiana used to and maybe still does grant an automatic pass on jury duty to any ferry operator…

  4. Karen and Elizabeth, the research I did into the topic didn’t go into many details about the horse’s care other than to say the boat owners treated them well considering their livelihood depended on them.

  5. Very interesting, Winnie. I’ve never heard about this. But I do know folks used horses for a lot of different things. When water was unavailable like out on the prairie, horses were used to grind wheat and corn. They also used horses and other livestock around saw mills to drag the heavy logs to where they cut them up.

  6. Winnie, Thank you for such an interesting post. I just finished reading it to my husband and he is as surprised as I am about it. We both grew up on Lake Champlain on the New York side right across from Burlington, VT. There are still several ferries operating on the lake, one which goes right into Burlington Bay, docking in Burlington. It is a lovely, long ride. Neither one of us has ever heard of the horse ferry or the fact that there is one on the bottom of the bay. They have a small museum in town on our side of the lake and I will have to check it the next time we go back for a visit. I have never seen anything mentioned at the ferry slip in Burlington or the last time we went to the Shelburne Museum south of Burlington which covers local history, including lake traffic. I am sure you watched it with your research, but there is an interesting article/video on Discovery News about it:

    The attention that is being paid to our history, local, regional, national and world, is heartening. I go back “home” and am amazed at how much more is available about the area. Back in the Olden Days as my children call my youth (the 60’s weren’t that long ago) it wasn’t that important to the general population.

    Thanks again for a post that hit close to home that. We both enjoyed it. Now to spend more time on those goggle links to see what else they have to say about horse ferries. No wonder I never get my housework done.

  7. Linda, you’re right about animals being used on farms and in mill work. When I was digging into this topic I even saw some drawings of treadmill like devices for horses that powered land equipment similar to this set up on ferries.

  8. Patricia, how cool that you live so close to the site of this underwater find! So glad I was able to bring it to your (and your husband’s) attention. And in my estimation, housework is highly overrated 🙂

  9. Hi Tanya. And yes, the rabbit trails are what makes research such fun – you never know what you’ll stubborn. And who knows, this may just show up in a book of mine one day…

  10. Very interesting.
    Learned something new but I, too, would like to know about the care of the horses.
    Will be watching for these to show up in one of your books someday.

  11. I’m trying to picture how this works. I’ve seen pictures of horses walking around and around, turning a wheel for a grinder or some other machine. Is that how this worked? I’ve never heard of this before.

  12. These vessels have been around for a long time. The Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham, England, had a big ‘horse boat’ in the 1680’s and ’90’s that was used as a paddlewheel tug to tow the ships of the line that were laid up in the reserve fleet there, and also used for deliveries of stuff like spare masts, yards, and other heavy material to warships in the exposed offshore anchorages off the mouth of the Thames. This vessel must have been fairly seaworthy. Here is a drawing of the propulsion system of a French horse boat from 1730:

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