The Bethel Courier
Volume 3, No. 2 (June 1979)



Crossing by Ferry on the Androscoggin

by Frank Worcester



West Bethel Ferry
 
West Bethel Ferry, Androscoggin River, circa 1910

The ferryboat was retained in its proper position on the river by means of a large steel cable suspended across the river from two large double poles on each side.  On the ferryman's home side the cable was run down through a windlass between the two poles which allowed for adjustment of the cable to the rise and fall of the river level.  A two-wheel cable trolley was connected to each end of the boat by a heavy rope which ran from the center of each trolley down through a single pulley block which was firmly attached to the deck level and from there rose to and was wound around the rope crank shaft which was positioned on the rail for comfortable operation.  This allowed the ferryman to position the boat on an angle to the river flow causing the boat to be propelled across the river.  The wedge shaped stream forced or squeezed the boat through the water with the boat angled upstream to the direction traveled.  On each upstream end of the boat were two heavy sideboards which by means of levers could be lowered further into the water to increase the water pressure against the boat sides thus giving further momentum to its speed.  Across each end of the boat were large aprons which could be lowered for on and off traffic.  In later years some of the ferries used four cylinder car engines suspended on the upriver side of the boats on channel and angle iron brackets.  They had reversible propellers.  The aid they could have given to the boats' operation was many times offset with frequent engine failure.

Hi, friend and reader, would you like to be the ferryman and take the boat across?  Fine.  I will show you the way.  Well now, you have a customer and he or she is driving a wagon with a load of hay.  First place the trig blocks such that the wagon's weight will be centered on the ferry.  Now place your canthook into the ground through the apron notch and signal your man (or woman) to drive on slowly and carefully.  That was easy.  Now place the trig blocks against his back wheels, and put bar in place at each end.  Next, unwind rope on the shore end enough so that it will drift downstream when leaving.  Now lift the apron beam and make sure the holding dog is in place.  Step onto the shore and with your canthook pry the boat out into the stream.  Move back onto the boat quickly, drop your canthook and run to the other end of the boat, then lift the sideboard and quickly wind that end of the boat to angle it upstream.  Had you left the sideboard down catching the current, your task of winding the boat upstream could have been difficult.  You can lower your sideboards on both ends and you now have your boat moving toward the other shore.  You now have time to pick up your canthook,  place it against the rail, and visit with your customer or collect the ferry fee.  Soon the other shore approaches and you must guide the boat to its landing.  First lift the sideboard--it might touch bottom--then release the cranklock and wind or unwind it as needed to bring the apron to the wheel tracks on this shore.  Well done; perfect landing.  Remove the trig block and bar, then drive your canthook deep into the mud by the apron notch, hold on tight, and caution the driver to start up slow and easy.  All goes well and you were a successful ferryman!

Friend, it is now time to reverse the operations for the return to your home shore and I hope you are enjoying the experience as many have here in the foothills of the White Mountains and the beautiful Androscoggin River Valley with the pleasant memories of the river ferries.  Take with you the quiet sound of water rippling by the boat; the canthook hitting the deck; running feet to the other end of the boat and the gentle sounds made by the cable trolleys as they make their uneven journey across with us. There blows the ferry horn (another memory), back on the shore we have left, and I must answer the call as soon as you land on your side of the shore.

You have just made a journey back into the 1800s, through the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and into the edge of the 50s, and you are about to step back onto the shore of almost the 1980s.  Pleasant memories to you.  Thank you for coming back with me into the past--and please come again!


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