Ferry Tales

The Era of the Ferryboat on South Carolina Rivers


by Dan Harmon

Late on the afternoon of May 1, 1865, a Confederate cavalry force 2,000 strong clattered down to Puckett's Ferry on the Saluda River. In their escort was the essence of nothing less than the Confederacy itself: President Jefferson Davis and the dreary remnants of his staff, in flight from Richmond. Crossing westward into Greenwood County, the entourage spent the night at Cokesbury and pressed on next day to Abbeville, where Davis convened what some historians regard as the South's last official cabinet meeting. Davis and his staff subsequently retreated to Washington, GA; he was captured several days later.

It was a particularly anxious time for South Carolina ferrymen. Under normal circumstances, theirs was an unpredictable lot of grubby toil, frequent danger and a daily profusion of tales to tell. Now, the byways swarmed with deserters, diehards headed west for some final show of courage, and Union agents hot on the trail of Davis and of what was rumored to be a vast Confederate treasury.

But for the ferry crew who watched the defeated legion ride toward the sinking sun that day, the passage must have offered a moment of melancholy. As the curtain rang down on the Civil War, a wider curtain was ringing down on the era of the river ferry. In 1825, more than a hundred ferries regularly crossed South Carolina rivers. By the end of the war, fewer than 20 were in operation. Today there is one.

Crude Travel

Roads were crude in frontier South Carolina: Indian trails, broadened just enough to accommodate a horse dragging a four-foot-wide sled. Yet they were vital to the growth of the new nation. Not only did our state's rugged byways launch settlers on their westward push; the important stage route from New York to New Orleans passed through South Carolina.

What happened when weary sojourners came to a river? Bridges were rare. Stephen Olin, a young northerner, wrote of his 1820 venture into western South Carolina: "In traveling above 60 miles, I did not pass over a single bridge. Horses ford the streams, and foot travelers go up or down to where the wind, more provident than man, has laid a tree across the river."

At certain points strategic to commerce, ferryboat operations were franchised by the state's General Assembly. Ferry owners were entitled to charge travelers a fee. But their investments were considerable. Abram Blanding, the state superintendent of public works, noted in his 1823 report to the legislature that Vance's Ferry on the Santee cost its proprietor $6,000 to prepare. Heavy rains called "freshes" or "freshets" often wrought considerable damage on landings and equipment. Furthermore, ferry operators were expected to maintain passengers' safety, within reason, and insure against customers' losses, whether by accident or negligence.

Their rates were established by the government. In 1800, Thomas Chappell operated a ferry at his "Saludy" River plantation in Newberry County at what is now Chappells. Sample rates: two cents for each small animal, four cents for a foot passenger or large animal such as a horse, 12 cents for a hogshead of tobacco, 25 cents for a two-wheel carriage and 50 cents for a four-wheeler. Exempt from ferriage were members of the General Assembly, Sunday worshippers, itinerant preachers, free Indians, soldiers and, traditionally, "all persons in time of alarm."

Depending on the season and weather, travelers, horses, wagons and farm animals might be queued up at a ferry landing for hours, sometimes days. In their ranks were westward migrants, traders from the back country, Indians, government couriers and an occasional nobleman from abroad, visiting some Low Country plantation. Courtship in those days contributed substantially to the ferryman's livelihood; young Gallahads wishing to see their lady loves across the river paid frequently for passage. And there were the unsavory elements of society: gamblers, thieves and vagrants - "the outcasts of Virginia and North Carolina," as one indignant chronicler characterized them.

In the wilds of the back woods, travelers feared such natural threats as cougars and wolf packs, as well as encounters with highwaymen. Approaching a ferry landing, they gained the security of civilization, such as it was, but the discomforts and dangers were likely to multiply. The dreaded yellow fever was common to swampy, riverside environs. Blanding, in his 1823 report, described a typical scenario:

One of the leading roads from the upper country of North Carolina and of this state to Charleston, passes the Santee at Nelson's Ferry. The swamp is very low, and when the river is swelled to any considerable extent, is under water, and to gain this ferry, the traveller has three miles of mud and clay, or of water to pass through. . . . That [the ferry] should never have been put or kept in repair, and has always been the terror of travellers, is not to be wondered at after this statement. It never would be crossed, but that the only two other ferries labor under the same difficulties, and are of course equally bad.

Two years later, Blanding observed there were no bridges on the Santee, "nor is there a ferry but what is troublesome to pass, sometimes dangerous, and always attended with delay." At high water, a Santee ferryboat's course spanned as much as seven miles of swamp before reaching a suitable landfall on the other side. "When this is the case," Blanding wrote, "the distance is so great that the delays are intolerable, carriages and waggons sometimes having to wait many days on the banks of the river before their turn for passing arrives."

Wind and ice posed severe problems for ferrymen. The "gale of 1822," Blanding noted, obstructed the Black River with fallen trees so large "it would require good machinery to remove them."

But flooding was far and away the primary affliction. Edwin J. Scott, in his Random Recollections of a Long Life, 1806-1876, described a tragedy that befell passengers of a stagecoach crossing the river by ferry near Columbia:

Once, when a freshet compelled the ferryman to let go the rope by which he pulled the flat across the Congaree, the stage, with a full load of passengers, went drifting down the river. Young Blocker, a college student from Edgefield, who was on his way home, being a good swimmer, stripped off his clothes to swim ashore, but it was supposed one of the stage horses that had been unharnessed and pushed overboard to lighten the load struck him on the back with his feet, and he sank to rise no more, till his lifeless body was found several miles below. Jack Wey, a dissipated young man from Sumter, was on board, and, fearing he would not escape, swore he would have one more drink before drowning, and, suiting the action to the word, pulled out his flask and swigged his liquor. In floating down the flat passed under a tree on the bank, and by holding on to a limb till help came from the shore, all were saved.

Wartime

In wartime, ferries were important landmarks and gathering places for armies of both sides. They also were critical to troop mobility. In May 1780, during the American Revolution, British Col. Banastre Tarleton surprised an American cavalry unit in broad daylight while the Continentals were crossing the Santee River at Lenud's Ferry. Forty-one Americans were killed or wounded, 67 more captured; others had to swim to escape.

In March the following year, Gen. Francis Marion attacked a British force at Witherspoon's Ferry on Lynch's Creek. When the Americans arrived, they found the British scuttling the ferryboat near the opposite shore. The troops traded rifle fire across the water, the Redcoats retreated, and Marion's men had to detour five miles up the rain-swollen creek before finding a fordable crossing, by which time the British were beyond hope of pursuit.

A humorous incident from the Revolution was described by William Dobein James in his book A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, published in 1821. (James, later a judge, was one of Marion's officers.) A British Col. Thompson, fresh from a minor victory over the Swamp Fox near the end of the war, devised a scheme to surprise Gen. Green's Continental encampment above Charleston. Thompson brought his cavalry to Ashley Ferry on the Ashley River, and finding there was no ferryboat, he ordered the men to swim across on horseback. It was ebbtide, with the water running swiftly. The crossing was more than 100 yards at that point. The landings at each side were "so miry as scarcely to support a crab."

One Maj. Fraser openly balked at the notion of swimming. After a sassy exchange with his superior, he proposed a trial run. "Here is Sergeant Allen, the best trooper and the best swimmer in the corps. And here is my horse that cost me one hundred guineas. Let Allen try it first. Better that he than that all should be lost." Whereupon a fearful Sgt. Allen mounted the major's horse and pledged to give it his best attempt. "But the Lord have mercy upon me," he prayed aloud as he entered the Ashley.

The 100-guinea horse drowned. Sgt. Allen, swept a quarter of a mile downstream, managed to save himself. The repose of the Americans was secure.

As for the ambitious colonel, James sneered, "That was the last notice we have of Col. Thompson (Count Rumford) in this country; he was a burning meteor but soon disappeared."

A Fortuitous Delay

Were it not for a spell of opportune flooding at the Lynches River ferry above present-day Bishopville, the late W.D. "Bill" Lucas once said, he reckoned he never would have been born.

Tiller's Ferry, operated at the Lynches River fork by James Tiller during the early 19th Century, happened to be on the main road from New York and Washington to New Orleans; now known by locals as the Old Wire Road connecting Lucknow and Camden, the byway then was called the Stage Coach Road, later 13 Bridges Road. (Not hard to visualize; a road near Kingstree reportedly has eight bridges across one swamp.)

Congressmen and businessmen venturing north or west frequented the road and the ferry. Among them was Lucas' great-grandfather, Benjamin Simons Lucas, a Charlestonian educated in England. On one of his journeys north, Benjamin Lucas took the train from Charleston to Camden, then boarded the stage for Cheraw via the Stage Coach Road. Unfortunately - or so he thought at first - a freshet on the Lynches delayed the stagecoach for three days at Tiller's Ferry. The good news was Melita Tiller, the ferryman's daughter. Lucas took more than passing notice, and his northerly ventures thereafter always followed the stage route. The two were married in December 1830.

The ferry landing there also served as a stage and express station where couriers could rest and horses could be changed. The Lucas family is fond of the story of James Tiller's tirade against one Joe Burton, an express rider contemned for his unbridled profanity. "I don't swear in my own yard," Tiller stormed, "and I'll be damned if you can do it!"

One of the most extraordinary vignettes in the annals of ferry lore occurred at Tiller's Ferry at the beginning of 1815. The long, muddled War of 1812 finally had reached its climax and a peace treaty had been negotiated by the American and British leaders - but Andy Jackson didn't know it yet and was preparing to humiliate the Redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans.

Enter one government courier at the east bank of the Lynches River, opposite Tiller's Ferry, in the dead of one of the most wretched nights of the winter. Sleet had driven the ferryman, an aging slave, to the warmth of his cabin fireplace. At the main house, situated on a knoll about a quarter of a mile up from the river, James Tiller heard frantic hails in the distance. By the time Tiller reached the water's edge, the courier on the opposite shore had fallen asleep atop his horse. The racket of the ferryboat's chain awakened him. Brought to the house, the rider briefly detailed the urgency of his mission. Tiller's family dried his clothes, fed him a hot meal and sped him on his futile way.

A footnote to the chronicle came to the Lucas family's attention in 1981. Raymond Finch, a friend of the family, was a member of incoming Secretary of Energy James Edwards' transition team. Finch, who was familiar with the courier story, attended an energy conference in New Orleans. There he was approached by a Louisiana native who told him, by way of introduction, that his tiny hometown's claim to fame is that "it was as far as the government rider got before they fought the Battle of New Orleans."


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