‘When Horses Walked on Water’

“When Horses Walked on Water: Horse Powered Ferries in Nineteenth Century America,” by Kevin Crisman and Arthur Cohn

Every now and then I serendipitously come upon a fascinating book that I never would have found on my own.

Recently I began looking into a shipwrecked ferry boat discovered in Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vt. in 1983. At first, experts at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum couldn’t identify the seemingly intact craft. In time, they realized it was a horse-powered ferry.

The discovery stimulated quite a bit of research. One product of that effort was the book “When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth Century North America,” by Kevin Crisman and Arthur Cohn (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998). The story is quite an interesting one.

Let me admit that I’d never even heard of such a concept before. Yet I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Romans designed such a conveyance over 16 centuries ago. It’s not clear, though, whether they actually built one.

However, by the 1790s two men, John Fitch and Henry Voight, had both patented animal-propelled boats. Within 20 years, horse-driven ferries were transporting passengers back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The technology spread up the Hudson River, with multiple such crossings as far north as Albany. History reveals horse ferries in use on the St. Lawrence River (including several at Montreal), at several points on the Ohio River, and even across the Mississippi at St. Louis.

A gentleman named Barnabas Langdon, from Whitehall, patented a critical advance in 1819. His design called for a horizontal treadwheel under the deck of a boat. The horses (at least two, and sometimes as many as six) stood in openings on the deck, and simply walked in place atop this wheel. A series of shafts and gears transmitted the power thus obtained to the side wheels of the boat.

Horse ferries on Lake Champlain first came into use sometime in the early 1820’s. They operated, at various times, on at least five different routes. It’s not certain where the boat found in Burlington Bay might have worked.

There was one more major advance in horse-ferry technology: the utilization of the horse-powered treadmill. This apparatus could rest right on the boat’s deck, making construction cheaper, and allowing more space for passengers and cargo.

Despite the advent of steam, horse ferries managed to thrive well into the 1860’s. In some remote areas, they stayed in use almost until the onset of the 20th century.

Crisman and Cohn bring the story to light very effectively. Maps locate various crossings. Diagrams helped me understand the ingenious mechanisms involved. Their detailed analysis of the Burlington specimen gave me a sense of the difficulties associated with underwater archaeology.

The book reveals insight into a largely forgotten niche of transportation history that played a significant role in our region. It’s well worth reading.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.