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Two Hundred Years of Lake Crossings

By Elizabeth Johnson

For more than two centuries, ferry boats have transported paying passengers from one side of Lake Champlain to the other. The current trip lacks sensationalism due to the modern conveyance, made safe, fast and consistent. It cannot be said early ferry service could boast the same.

The time it took to cross on early vessels varied greatly since the wind provided propulsion. The Lion was the first ferry offering service between Cumberland Head and Grand Isle. Owner Benjamin Bell asked a reasonable, if confusing rate of fare for crossing – 83 cents for a man and his horse, 38 cents for a single man, 46 cents for a single horse. Cows cost 38 cents and hogs and calves, eight cents apiece.

There is no record showing if passengers demanded or received a refund after one particularly harrowing trip. While crossing to the New York side one day in 1813, a schooner was fired upon by three British row galleys. The British took no prisoners, but ran the ferry ashore and set her afire. Ralph Nading Hill said in this book, Lake Champlain Ferries, “In the best tradition of Yankee defiance and frugality, Bell rebuilt the Lion and returned her to service.

Throughout the history of ferries on the lake, man continually put his ingenuity to work seeking better and faster ways to cross. In 1819, B. Langdon of Whitehall filed a patent in Washington, D.C. for a horse-powered ferry. The invention caught on quickly both on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River as an early triumph of man over the vagaries of wind.

A traveler commented on the curious setup following a trip on the horse-boat in 1820, describing the action of the two horses this way. “They press forward, and, although they advance not, any more than a squirrel in a revolving cage, their feet cause the horizontal wheel to revolve in a direction opposite to that of their apparent motion. This, by a connection of clogs, moves two vertical wheels, one on each wing of the boat. The horses are covered by a roof furnished with curtains to protect them in bad weather and do not appear to labor harder than common draft horses with a heavy load.”

Between 1821 and 1827, a six-horse ferry operated between Charlotte, Vermont, and Essex, New York. In 1842, the horse-boat e was operating three trips a day between Basin Harbor, Vermont and Westport, New York. But even these “state-of-the-art” vessels had their drawbacks. The horse-boat utilized a treadmill to veer sharply to either port or starboard according to which horse waked faster. The solution proved fairly simple when even-gaited Canadian ponies were imported and put to work.

Even when steam provided a far more consistent trip across the lake, a ferry ride did not become an easy off and on journey. The Vermont, one of the early steam vessels, was clumsy enough to pose no immediate threat to those ferries driven by wind and horses. The boat did not tie up at way-landings. Instead, it anchored offshore. Passengers climbed down into small boats which brought them ashore. In the early years, when there was no steamboat wharf in Plattsburgh harbor, passengers disembarked at Ranson’s Landing on Cumberland Head and were sailed around the point to Plattsburgh in pirogues or piraguas.

Crossing the lake by ferry became more routine once steam was established. Lake Champlain was the first lake in the world to have regularly scheduled, steam-powered ferry service. Launched less than a year after Fulton’s triumphant voyage to Albany on the Clermont, the paddleboat Vermont entered service in the spring of 1809, to be followed in the course of ten decades by 28 similar vessels, the last built in 1906.

In 1825, the Champlain Ferry Company offered service on the eight-mile-an-hors General Greene between there and Port Kent, and perusal of the rate card showed lake travel had reached the point of more than necessary. “Parties of pleasure going and returning the same day crossed for half price. A one-way ticket for a four wheeled pleasure carriage, on springs, pulled by two horses cost $2.00 one way.

It was that same year that the Champlain Transportation Company bought up not only several steamers on the lake, but also the companies operating them. The day of regular ferry crossings had arrived.

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