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History of Ferries in Johnson County

First, a note. This entry will continue to be updated as I intend to do more research. This is in keeping with the Iowa City Downtown Architectural History post.

Sturgis Ferry Park was acquired by Iowa City in 1972. The name commemorates the early pioneer period of Johnson County and the use of ferries to cross major waterways. Though unconfirmed, a ferry may have crossed the river near the location of the park nearby its location.

William Sturgis was one of the early settlers of Johnson County, arriving in June of 1837, about six months before the county was established by the Wisconsin Territorial legislature in December of that year and four months before the second Black Hawk purchase was ratified in October. The land cession officially opened the area for settlement. Prior to Sturgis, John Gilbert had been in the area for some time, moving with and trading with the Meskwaki tribe under the leadership of Poweshiek. In the year prior to Sturgis’ arrival, Eli Meyers and Philip Clark had set up claim cabins in the area with Gilbert’s help.

Historian Jacob Van der Zee related that the Iowa Territorial Legislature, meeting in Burlington on January 8, 1840, provided for county commissioners to hear and settle matters for each county in a commissioner’s court. Included in these determinations was the licensing of private ferries, the charges they could make, the length of the term for the license, and the cost of obtaining the license.

Sturgis and Luke Douglass, both involved in county government, obtained the first license in the county on March 6, 1840. Their service operated under the name of Sturgis Ferry. The location of the ferry is not known, though the locations of other ferries in the area were recorded, namely one just above the old Napoleon town site, which is the location of the railroad bridge at Napoleon Park. Another ferry was licensed to to run between Sections 15 and 16 on the National Road, but that location is not otherwise clarified and the operation of the ferry was not ever actually established. A third known ferry location was located at what today is the Iowa Avenue bridge. This ferry was licensed in 1840 and this is the location that historian Benjamin Shambaugh considered the location of the National Road.

The rates of Sturgis ferry were established by the commissioner’s court to be 12½ cents for a footman, while a man and a horse were double that at 25 cents. It was 37½ cents for a horse and wagon. A yoke of oxen and wagon or a span of horses and wagon were each 50 cents. Each additional horse or yoke of oxen was another 12½ cents. A head of cattle in neat droves was 6¼ cents. Sheep and Hogs were 3 cents per head.

Although Sturgis Ferry was the first to be licensed, it was actually the second ferry in operation in the county and just one of at least eleven ferry services operating in the county at one time or another, including a ferry near Sutliff on the Cedar River. In part the large number was due to the fact the Iowa River cuts across most of the county, so many ferries are needed to shorten the time to cross the river. Also, it was due to the fact that licenses were limited to a time period and frequently the operators turned over when the license expired, sometimes after just one year.

The first ferry in the county was run by Benjamin Miller. He ran a ferry at about the location of the rail bridge on the north side of Napoleon Park. He operated from his homestead on the west side of the river during the winter of 1838–1839 and settlers paid him to use it. This was prior to the act allowing county commissions to issue ferry licenses and territorial laws regulated only ferries on the Mississippi at that time. Its location is shown in a map contemporary to when it was operating. The Government Land Survey Map 1836–1839 of T79N-R6W (Figure 1) shows cultural features in Section 22 including Miller’s Field, visible near the center of the image. This ferry location was licensed in 1840 to another individual.

Location of a ferry was not entirely random. They occurred where people would tend to cross the body of water, but also needed to be in an area with predictable and hopefully mild currents. The known ferry locations seem to indicate a preference for locations also picked by designers of bridges. This may indicate a preference for areas where the channel is shallower and may also occur near bedrock or other stone outcrops (Figure 3). The operator would live nearby on one side of the landing and a signaling device, such as a tin horn, would be kept on the opposite bank to summon the ferry keeper.

The construction design of the Johnson county ferries is not known for certain, but by inference to other known ferries they typically consisted of a type of flat boat, were constructed out of hewn logs, or were made of slab cut lumber. Since a saw mill was in operation at the time, all of these options were possible. They were steered with poles or paddles. Ferries in other locations in the country sometimes used sails to help move them or guide ropes where currents were constantly strong. Later, ferries became mechanized through steam and, later still, internal combustion engines.


________. History of Johnson County, Iowa: containing a history of the county, and its townships, cities and villages from 1836 to 1882. Iowa City. 1883. Available at Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/historyofjohnson00iowa

________. Iowa Geographic Map Server. Iowa State University Geographic Information Systems Support & Research Facility.

Aurner, Clarence Ray. Leading events in Johnson County, Iowa, history. Western historical Press, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 1912. Available at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=JHwUAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA186&dq=sturgis%20ferry%20johnson%20county%20iowa%20history&pg=PA186#v=onepage&q=sturgis%20ferry%20johnson%20county%20iowa%20history&f=false

Irish, Frederick M. History of Johnson County, Iowa. Annals of Iowa, vol. 6, no. 2. State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa CityF. 1868. Available at Iowa Research Online: http://ir.uiowa.edu/annals-of-iowa/vol1868/iss1/5

Shambaugh, Benjamin Franklin. Iowa City: a contribution to the early history of Iowa. State historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. 1893. Available at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=woUUAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA41&ots=HnnvQ6zlbj&dq=f.m.%20irish%20iowa%20city&pg=PA41#v=onepage&q=f.m.%20irish&f=false

Thompson, William H. Transportation in Iowa: a historical summary. Iowa Department of Transportation, Ames, Iowa. 1989. Available at Iowa Department of Transportation: http://publications.iowa.gov/id/eprint/18911.

Van der Zee, Jacob. The Roads and Highways of Territorial Iowa. Iowa Journal of History and Politics, vol. 3, no. 2. State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. 1905. Available at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=MgtKAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA175&ots=1iKKuRbx8d&dq=Van%20Der%20Zee’s%20’The%20Roads%20and%20Highways%20of%20Territorial%20Iowa&pg=PA174-IA3#v=onepage&q=van%20der%20zee&f=false