The basket ferry was the most primitive. A fairly high bank on both sides of the stream was necessary. A high tower was built on each side so that the weight of the cable and basket could sag as they did of their own weight and still clear the water. The basket, of varying sizes, consisted of a wooden box with low sides, as light as possible to carry expected loads. It hung from a couple of pulleys one ahead of the other, on a stout wire cable slung between the two towers.
The passenger climbed the steps to the tower-top, stepped into the swaying car and cast off. The basket zoomed down the cable at a speed that brought your stomach up hard against the diaphragm so that you held your breath of necessity. In the bottom of the curve you hooked a sort of meat hook over some other rope or cable that was within arm’s reach. I never had time to examine the mechanics of the thing, but I understood that it had something to do with getting the next passenger to haul me up to the tower if I didn’t quite make it to the other side, and had oscillated back and forth across the stream until the contraption hung motionless in the middle. I hoped that would never happen to me! Hopefully someone lived close enough to hear if you yelled loudly a tow by a friendly teamster.
As soon as you reached the bottom of the arc you began pulling like mad to maintain momentum as long as possible. With normal exertion you just made it to the opposite tower and tied everything in place.
Then down the ladder with whatever load you were transporting. If it happened to be a wagon or a piece of machinery, you had taken it all apart and must now go back for the pieces to reassemble on the side you were going to. On the last trip you swam your horses if possible, even if you had to travel a mile or two to a place where the current was not too strong. Many a driver made the crossing hanging on to his horse’s tail.
My only experience with basket ferries was at the West Pine confluence with the Murray in 1937, before the oil drilling took place at Commotion Creek beyond present-day Chetwynd. You wound down a narrow trail to the Murray River bank and crossed on one ferry. Then you walked across the point of land to another basket ferry across the Pine. We were there to pick the abundant berries on the far side of the Pine, and pulling the full pails over every night to preserve in a wash boiler over a portable stove always gave me the delightful sense of prickly fear — “Will I make it this time”? We always did. A basket ferry once gave access to Pouce Coupe near the present bridge on the way to Spirit River, Bay Tree, and Briar Ridge.
A cable ferry is a basket ferry with improvements. A raft large enough to carry one or more vehicles is slung by two long cables for and aft. The cables are attached to wheels, which ride the main cable across the stream. The raft is mounted on pontoons. A fairly strong current is necessary to propel the craft which the ferryman sends forward or backward according to the set of the slant of the craft to the current. Waterpower replaces muscle power.
The ferryman’s job is more exciting than it looks, especially when ice or driftwood is running. Submerged “dead heads” are a threat at any season. Encountering one at the wrong angle can hole a pontoon or put such a strain on the cable that it might snap. Released from tension, a broken cable is a writhing, whipping, lethal thing that could decapitate a man like a hot knife going through butter. Just a few years ago such an accident occurred at Hudson’s Hope on a ferry loaded with cars and passengers, luckily without fatality. In fear of such misadventures the passengers were more or less reassured by the rowboat that was always towed alongside.
Where the stream was too wide or too sluggish, the motor ferry came into use operated from a tug with a pilothouse for the motor man, while deck hands supervised loading and unloading. It required constant vigilance on the part of the ferryman, and intimate knowledge of the river, as well as good judgement when hazards were running, to know which would safely pass under the hull, and which had better be avoided by adjustment of course or speed. The ferryman was often the key to safety. Hours were long and all the ferrymen could tell stories of the life-and-death episodes when all depended upon their judgement.
No ferry . . . no go. It was as simple as that before every river had a bridge built across it!