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An 1850 Ferry with Real Horse Power

Sketch of an 1850 Horse-Powered Delaware River Paddleboat Ferry (Collection of Don Gross)

Every Thursday, I post the next part of my Railcar Gold novel; a historically accurate multi-generational fictional tale of hidden treasure primarily set in York County during the later half of the Nineteenth Century.  The main character is now on his journey towards York, Pennsylvania.  I spent many years gathering background details for several planned historical novels.  The direction of the initial novel has changed more times than I want to admit; however right now it is as if I can see the whole novel crystal clear in my mind.

Generally on Tuesday I write the next few pages of Railcar Gold; to do so, I dig into my files of historical background that might be associated with that part of the story.  The Railcar Gold installment this Thursday has the main character crossing the Delaware River, thus my use of an 1850 horse-powered Delaware River paddleboat ferry.  This post provides the background on that ferry.


On a visit to the Gloucester County Historical Society in New Jersey I discovered the towns of Spring Mills and Blackwood; see my previous post: Historical Background for Dan DeWyatt’s Early Life; and George R. Prowell.  During that visit I asked about other subjects, including the types of Delaware River ferries in use during the 1800s.  After my question about the ferry, another gentlemen in the library came up to me and introduced himself as Don Gross.

Don Gross is a retired Chemical Engineer, he had been researching old Delaware River ferries to add something to a Family History his sister is writing.  The ferry sketch at the beginning of this post was going to be used by Don, until he found a ferry photo that he liked much better.  He let me copy the 1850 ferry sketch that his sister originally discovered as a page in an envelope of family history notes given to her.  At least two of their relatives operated this type of ferry.  Unfortunately it appears to be copied several times; I apologize for the image quality.

Since meeting Don Gross, the direction of my novel has increasingly shifted more to the railroad side of things and much of the canal and ferry research will not be used; at least not in the initial novel.  I tried to find the original of Don’s ferry sketch, but only found something similar.  If anyone knows the ferry sketch origin, post a reply because I may want to use it in a future novel.  In further researching this type of ferry, I found that the 1850 date is in the proper 1830s to 1880s time period when these ferries were used on the Delaware River.

Manufacturers started to produce horse-powered inclined treadmills in the mid-1830s.  No, these treadmills were not to exercise horses.  Farmers were the initial customers of these horse-powered treadmills.  All the farmers had to do was walk horse(s) onto the treads and start them walking at a steady pace.  The farmers hooked up various belt driven stationary attachments; anything from threshing machines to field saw mills.

Only a few years later these horse-powered treadmills were being installed on ferries.  The treadmill output being directly connected to side mounted paddlewheels.  These real horse-powered ferries were in use on the Delaware River until the 1880s and in other parts of the country into the Twentieth Century.

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