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Please Don't Quote Me

By Caralee Aschenbrenner

ISAAC DORMAN had as good an idea as any for crossing the Mississippi from Savanna downstream two miles where a welcoming beach on the Iowa side was the only place where there was an opening for a steam wheeler or other craft to moor. Dorman crossed by clinging to a log.

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Of course, back in 1835 the river was much more narrow and less deep. It was a hundred years yet before the lock and dam system made the wide, deep pools there are today.

For a rugged frontiersman like Dorman it wasn’t much of a chore to maneuver the river but as settlers and seekers increased in number another way had to be used for wagons and goods so in 1837 Dorman and a partner, Hinckley, developed a rough kind of ferry to cross between Iowa and Illinois.

Dorman made the first claim at “Carroll Port.” A reference also gave Luther Bowen, Savanna entrepreneur, with an on the ferry venture. The ferry was merely a scow, or flat boat, poled or propelled by oars.

“Carroll Port” was a practical name for the settlement but when someone with poor penmanship addressed a missive to “Carrion Point” that did it! Another name had to take its place: “Charleston.” Well’ weren’t Charleston and Savannah close together?! Unfortunately, this one didn’t suit either so a reader among the residents looked through the dictionary and found “sabulum,” sand. The ending was dropped and Sabula became a distinctive alternative. During very early times when the French plied the river trapping and trading, the site was called “Prairie La Pierre” but it didn’t last either, especially since there was an Indian village there even years after the white settlers came in. It had several identities until Sabula became the choice.

Land back of the town site was sloughs and swamp, the site itself only a foot or two above water level of the Mississippi. Water had to ultimately be contained with dikes and turnpikes that the Sabulans worked at for decades.

Sabula became a thriving center of industry—railroads, clamming (button making) a slaughter/packing house, theatrical troupes; traffic greatly increased as the nation west deserved to be explored. A more accommodating ferry had to be made.


A ferry powered by horse power came into being by 1850, literally, horse powered for one monotonously trod a treadmill to move the “boat.” It was a large barge-like affair with a shaft, one end of which was attached to the paddle wheel, the other end to a horse tethered to it. As the horse moved back and forth the gears controlling the shaft caused the shaft to move and propel the boat forward. Such ferry could carry six wagons and horses and a dozen passengers. Wade Eldridge, a pioneer at Sabula, developed it. By 1859 a steam ferry, quite a modern day apparatus for the rural heartland, but a time when the lead mine discoveries and prairie wildernesses still beckoned. “Technical difficulties,” however, caused early retirement of the thing.

A horse ferry owner from East Dubuque (then Dunlieth) brought in his ferry, hired a man to run it but lasted only a few years. It was arduous duty.

At about the same time that Wade Eldridge initiated the horse ferry on the Mississippi he was also warded the job of having a ferry across the Plum River at the south edge of Savanna, southward towards Bluffville (now Rt. 84). He would not block the crossing but would collect toll to be paid a percentage to the county Board of Supervisors. Footman, 5¢ going and coming same day; Horse and rider, 10¢ both ways—same day; 15¢ horse and buggy—same; wagon and two horses or two oxen 5¢, both ways, same day—25¢. This was in 1851. By 1859 Eldridge gave over the ferry. If more than one ferry was in operation at a time, reference isn’t solid. In 1862 the tolls had slightly risen and these rates were also included: Herds of horses or cattle, 10¢ a head. Hogs and sheep, 5¢ a head. If there were more than 20 in the herd, 4¢ per.

By 1880 three Savanna merchants Pulford, McCracken and Whistler entered a steam wheeler in the ferry business, the “Iowa.” It operated a few years.

Fred Chambers, an Englishman in 1840 stopped in Savanna at the Pierce Hotel. He had been traveling throughout America seeing the sights, having gone all the way to the Rocky Mountains and took a notion of going to the Galena lead mines.

The next morning after a pleasant night a the hotel, he saw the landlady chopping wood for the breakfast cook stove and offered to do the chore. Instead he almost cut off his foot. It took three months of recuperation in which period he grew to appreciate the folks who were so good to him and he decided to stay and invest in the bustling steamer port, steamers that docked there for wood. He took on many jobs to make a living, one of which was to manage the blasting powder mill over on the east side of the bluff near Plum River crossing, the trail eastward.

The blasting powder mill’s market were the lead mines in JoDaviess and Carroll counties. The mill blew up the first time in 1845 killing Hiram Balcom of Bluffville and seriously injuring many others including Chambers. The powder mill was a very lucrative business and was immediately rebuilt. It blew up a second time also, nearly killing Chambers and his wife Laura, the sister-in-law of the owner, Porter Sargeant. But they continued at the mill until the market for powder declined as the lead did too.

By 1862 Chambers, apparently, wished for a more quiet existence and went into the ferry business, just one enterprise he invested in; that and buying the Pierce Hotel where he’d been introduced to the town. The name was changed to “Chambers House.” If rivalries existed among more than one ferry operation, reference isn’t clear but the affable, splendid early day citizen traveled, loved to play host, liked music and dance but as he grew older became disabled. He was in southern California when he died but his remains were returned to Savanna to be buried. He is just one example of the individualists who formed our northwest. Ferry boat operators, or owners who were investors were colorful, talented, able, all around interesting.

Richard Kimball built an “old fashioned” horse ferry, actually two horse power with a treadmill on both sides of the boat. On each end was a hinged plank ingeniously rigged so that either could be used for mooring without having to be turned around in the water. It had been christened the “Sabula Belle.” In the 1890’s Kimball and Thomas Lambert had a ferry boat built in LeClaire, Iowa. It was named the “Midget.” It became a sentimental part of river lore with users of the Savanna-Sabula ferry. After ten or twelve years it was sold to Henry Leonard who renamed it the “HL” and converted it to a steam wheeler. The expense of that didn’t justify the cost of running it after times so it was sold to an excursion company. A gasoline launch next came on line, the “Hiawatha.” By 1909 Walter and George Whitney brought in the “Irene D.” It was forty feet in length, quite roomy. Sorry we have no copiable picture of a ferry to show you.

By the 19-teens and twenties the automobile had so developed that people were driving longer distances, trying new destinations and the ferry business prospered. The “Leola May” and the more powerful “Iona Pearl” became part of the Whitney fleet. They were named for Whitney’s daughters. Many Iowans worked on the Illinois side of the river—Savanna’s large railroad yards and later the S.O.D. had jobs so the ferry was a necessity. It ran night and day. They plied Old Man River until 1932 when the bridge now there was built, the ferry no longer necessary for the first time in ninety-five years. George Whitney was offered a job as toll taker on the bridge but he declined. Being a river pilot was in his blood. In October, 1932 he and his family (his wife had a pilot’s license) packed their goods aboard the Iona Pearl” and sailed down the Mississippi for Louisiana where they entered the ferry business there, St. Francisville, LA, living the rest of their lives in the Southland.

Ferries ran on a regular schedule as you can see from that printed here. Many hours, much energy. It and the ticket (ten rides for $1.25) are dated 1933. They were donated for an article about ferries, according to the donor, Jerry Strohecker of Pearl City. We appreciate the idea and the pictures for this item. Thanks a lot.

Ferries began running in the spring as soon as the ice went out, closed in the fall when the water froze, preventing passage. Later, cabins were built for passengers to be comfortable as the passed shore-to-shore in the cold.

The Savanna-Sabula ferries had a variety of owner/operators that are fairly well documented. Or could be.

Besides the residents and travelers who utilized them was the railroad ferry. In 1870 the Chicago, Clinton, Dubuque and Minnesota Railroad ran only along the bluffs west of Sabula, north and south. In 1872 the Sabula, Ackley and Dakota ran west to Marion, Iowa. Passengers and freight increased rapidly and more train traffic occurred. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul took over both earlier companies and in 1880 began a railroad bridge in lower Sabula to expedite the volume. It took two years before completion with several men being killed and many seriously injured in the day of hardships and dangers before and during and perhaps, after the bridge a ferry was run by the railroad to carry cars and train gear back and forth. In deep winter tracks were laid on the ice and the train chugged over, if you can imagine.

By 1906 that iron bridge was torn down and a new, stronger one constructed—40% heavier than the first ... The rail ferry running beneath. The first ferry of the railroad was named the “William Osbourne.”

The motor traffic bridge now standing is part of Rts. 64/52 as the ferry line was part of then Rt. 117. A new bridge will replace the one in existence since 1932, a little south of this one. We probably won’t need a ferry this time. When in 1985 this bridge was being repaired, a ferry was run by the Rodgers family. Many rode it purely for the picturesque reminder of the ninety-five years of history the ferry gave to residents here and afar. Let’s all hope the new bridge is wider!


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