The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

August 18, 2013

Ferries are fading into the past


A dusty, unpaved Iowa road leads through farm fields to the Cassville Ferry that operates on the Mississippi River. It is reachable from Iowa’s Great River Road. The ferry carries passengers between Turkey River Landing in Iowa to the village of Cassville in Wisconsin.

I never pass up the opportunity to board a ferry boat; their numbers are in decline, and they are a touchstone with the past. At one time there were several in Vermilion County, and thousands in America. Now there are a few hundred in the nation. Sue and I shared the ride with the passengers of a couple of other automobiles and 18 motorcycles.

Bob, one of the crew members of the ferry, walked by each vehicle and collected the fee, $15 per auto and $8 for each motorcycle. Bicycle riders pay $5 and a walk-on can cross the mighty Miss for a couple of dollars. The ferry has two corporate sponsors, Alliant Energy and DTE energy.

When the fees were collected, Bob invited people to walk around as he shared a few facts about the operation. He said a ferry first operated at the place in the early 1800s. The first vessel was a row boat. The ferries gradually improved over the years and he pointed out the current craft can carry two fully loaded semi trucks.

One of the motorcycle riders introduced himself as Mike and pointed out the new Harley Davidson he was riding. It was bright red with lots of chrome, and nothing like the first Harley he had owned nearly 50 years earlier, he said. He was from Iowa and was with a group of riders who were traveling to see the National Brewers Museum in nearby Potosi, Wis. He told me to be sure and visit the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.

On the 20-minute ride downstream to the Wisconsin landing, we stood on the bow of the ship as it slogged its way through the water. Mike commented on the changes he had seen in motorcycles and the people riding them. He had been riding since the 1960s, and he believed the number of riders had increased nearly every year, and the number of older riders had sky rocketed. When I mentioned I had recently read an article that pointed out statistics showed older riders were involved in many more fatal accidents than their younger counterparts, he smiled and said a lot of elderly people also died of old age.

Most of the people on the ferry left their vehicles and stood watching the water glide past; a few were taking pictures. There is something fascinating about a river, the constant movement of the water. Few people can ignore a river’s magnetic draw, and the Mississippi is king of the flowing waters in America. .

When the ferry landed at Cassville, the motorcycles roared off first, followed by the autos. Mike was leading the way on his red Harley. I doubt that old age will ever catch up with him.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.