Reprise: A Boat With REAL Horsepower

Photo WG2 smallHi!  Winnie Griggs here.

Below is a blog I originally posted on this site back in February 2012.  It was the result of one of those serendipitous research footnotes.

And be sure to read on down to the bottom where I have details of my giveaway.


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.

horse ferry diagram1

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 MississippiRivers 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 BurlingtonBay 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?  And are there other unusual ways you’ve heard of animals being used to power man-made devices that you’d like to share?


And in honor of the upcoming release of A FAMILY FOR CHRISTMAS, the third book in my Texas Grooms series, I’ll be giving away the small tote bag pictured below and a choice of any of my books, including the new one.

Tote and book

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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 or email her at

45 thoughts on “Reprise: A Boat With REAL Horsepower”

  1. Winnie, I enjoyed reading this blog the first time and thought how unusual and was going to research more. Never got around to it but perhaps will this time.

    Looking forward to reading your newest!

  2. I had no idea of such horse-powered boats! Like you, I knew about the horses and mules that walked along the banks of a canal tethered to barges. I have even ridden one such barge while on vacation in Ohio a few years ago.

    Thank you for the opportunity to win this delightful tote and one of your wonderful books!

  3. Hello Winnie. No, I hadn’t heard of this. Not sure why after all this time. I thought it was pretty scary when I read about the boards across logs that had to be poled across crossings. Then when the pioneers had to cross the water in their covered wagons. Most times it wasn’t easy. I would have been scared the whole way across. I go on a Ferry now when I go to my son’s house to visit. It’s a simpler way for me than being in all of the busy highways and Beltway traffic in our area with multiple lanes. My oldest daughter won’t go on the Ferry, but I told her I was more likely to die in the busy traffic than on the Ferry. I would love to win the nice bag and one of your books. Thanks.
    Maxie mac262(at)me)dot)com

  4. I’ve never heard of horses used to power boats in this way. Interesting! Does this have anything to do with the term horsepower for engines?

    We have a lot of Amish families here. I still see the horses used to plow their fields and for driving their wagons.

    I believe animals were used to turn the wheel so the press would go down to squeeze juice out of grapes for wine and also for making cheese.

  5. Hi, Winnie!

    Loved your post! Have never heard of a horse-powered ferry, only the horse-powered canal boats (which I have ridden, & LOVED).

    Can’t think of any other unusual animal-powered forms of transportation – but want to thank you for this post, & also, for the opportunity to win a copy of your wonderful book!


  6. This is the first time I have heard of this. I was at a history fest in the middle of nowhere in Florida where they had a donkey helped with the process of sugar cane.

  7. Good Morning, Winnie! What an interesting post..I had no idea about the horse-powered boats. I have experienced riding a boat that was pulled by a horse walking on the bank of the river and that was great fun. I certainly felt like I had gone back in time. Thank you again for post and thank you for the opportunity to win your darling tote and one of your wonderful books.

    melback at cebridge dot net

  8. Connie – thanks for reading through this a second time and for your kind words about my new book. Good luck with your research!

    Britney – That’s so cool that you’ve ridden a mule-drawn barge! I didn’t know they still had those.

  9. That is quite interesting, out of all the historical books I’ve read I don’t think that was ever mentioned when they talk about ferries. Thank you ‘educating’ me, lol, and for offering the tote and a book as a giveaway.


  10. Hi Maxie. Like you I’ve ridden modern day ferries, both in a vehicle I drove on with and as a pedestrian. I actually enjoy them, especially when it cuts miles off of a driving experience!

    Laurie – I think the term horsepower has more to do with comparing engines to horse drawn carriages but I’m not really sure.

  11. Hi Bonnie – Ah, yet another person whose ridden the horse drawn canal boats, they must be more common today than I’d imagined.

    Hi Cathy! Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for your interest in my books.

  12. AmyC – Thanks for stopping by and glad I was able to teach you something this morning 🙂

    Hi Melanie – thanks for your enthusiastic response to my post – so glad you enjoyed it!

  13. I had no clue there were boats with horses ON them running it! I knew about the ones where the horses are on the banks of a river. Wow, kinda stinky if you ask me. 🙂

  14. Good morning Sherri! I know – doesn’t this give you just tons of scene ideas for a story

    Hi Wendy – Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the post – I really am going to have to use this in a book someday!

  15. Hi Winnie!
    I had NEVER heard of those horse powered boats! I did, like you, know about the horses that pulled canal boats. It is interesting to learn that the only surviving boat of this kind is one that sunk and is preserved underwater! Thanks for the chance to win A Family For Christmas. I love your Texas Grooms series!

  16. I had no idea they were on the boats – only about horses and mules that pulled them from the shore. It most have been a miserable life for them not seeing the sun or having fresh air. I’m looking forward to your book – it’s time I start getting my Christmas reading 🙂

  17. Enjoyed reading the comments. Sometimes we forget how innovative people were in the past.
    Would love toe read any of your books.

  18. I didn’t know they had horse powered boats, very interesting. I love reading Christmas books and its about the time of the year I start reading them. Helps get me in the mood.

  19. I didn’t know about the horse powered ferries but I did know that horses and mules were used on treadmill devices to power various grist mills and for crushing sugar cane and sorghum. I’ve also seen pictures of dogs being used on treadmills to power things.

  20. Brittany, glad you enjoyed all the little ins and outs of this story. And don’t worry – your name is in the hat for the drawing along with everyone else’s

    Catslady, I can see you are a real animal lover! I like to think that these animals had lots of rest time and were changed out often. And yes, I do like my glasses rose colored!

  21. Joye – absolutely! we are an innovative people and it shows in lots of unique ways.

    Colleen – glad you stopped by to read it a second time!

    Katie – you’re in the drawing!

  22. I didn’t know that about the horse-powered ferry boats. My dad didn’t even know that and he knows all about history. Thanks so much for the chance to win.


  23. I remember this post. So interesting. One of the other ways I’ve seen animals used, was to turn the gears for a sugar cane press. The juice was caught, and either boiled down for a thick syrup or put aside in jugs to ferment for a drink. This was in the Philippines. If I am correct, this method was/is used in the southern part of the US and in the Caribbean.

    I look forward to A FAMILY FOR CHRISTMAS. I have enjoyed your other books. Christmas books are a favorite.

    Thanks for the rerun.

  24. Hi Laura – thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing the post with your dad – glad I could teach you both something 🙂

    Patricia – thanks for taking a second look at this post. And that’s interesting about the sugar cane press.

  25. I never knew about horse powered boats. That’s very interesting. They had to be sturdy boats for the horses to start walking. Thank you for the opportunity to win this great giveaway. Please enter my name

  26. This is so interesting!!! I love anything historical and was excited to hear about this! Thanks for sharing! I hope I win that fabulous tote bag and an awesome book! 🙂

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