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?