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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"History of Trempealeau County Wisconsin, 1917":

Chapter 10:

McGilvray's Ferry

-As transcribed from pages 181 - 184


McGilvray's Ferry, located on the Black River, in Caledonia Township, occupied an important place in Trempealeau County history for nearly four decades, from 1854 to 1892.  Many of the early settlers passed into the county over this ferry, and the route of which it was a part is still an important thoroughfare, the ferry being now replaced by a neat bridge.

Alexander McGilvray, from whom the ferry took its name, located in Trempealeau (Reed's Landing) in 1852, and the following year moved his family to a homestead.

At that time people desiring to go to La Crosse, overland, went by way of the ford at what was afterward Gordon's ferry.  The need of a ferry to shorten the route was imperative.  Therefore in March, 1854, with the assistance of Charles Utter, Mr. McGilvray built a scow in the streets of Trempealeau, and later in the spring hauled it with teams to McGilvray's place, where it was launched and poled across Black River with Mr. Utter's team as its first cargo.  The ferry was a reality now, and the first wagon road was opened into the south end of the county.

Poles to push the boat across the river were used only for a short time, when they were supplanted by an ordinary rope cable which was used one season, and was then replaced by a three-quarter-inch iron rod put together in sections.  This was used until the wire cable took its place when the new cable was utilized until the ferry was discontinued.

The first ferryboat lasted two years, when a new one was constructed.  In all five boats were built, the last one by G. O. McGilvray (now of Canyonville, Oregon), in 1890 and was run until the McGilvray bridge was completed February 22, 1892, when it was sold up the river to Decorah Prairie for Gordon's Ferry.

The rates charged for ferrying across the river were 25 cents for a team; 35 cents for a four-horse wagon and 10 cents for a foot passenger.

The tide of settlers increased with the drifting years, and the traffic along the river assumed larger proportions.  Stage lines, and freight lines were established, and in the winter when the steamboats were frozen in, the travel was entirely by team and horseback, and by French train.  Four-horse freight wagons were commonly used, and the stages often used two teams on their coaches when the roads were heavy.

McGilvray's place assumed a busy aspect at times with the long line of freight wagons and stage coaches on the river bank waiting for their turn to be ferried over the river.  Many of the travelers remained all night at McGilvray's, and the country inn, or tavern, was a hurry and bustle on days of heavy travel.  Here were congregated at times a rough and hardy lot of characters, and around the evening fire were told wild and fascinating stories of pioneer life, filled with thrilling adventure, and the comedy and tragedy of the backwoodsman's career, whose nearest neighbor lived miles away, and whose skill with the rifle furnished his rough-hewn table with plenty of savory venison, and made the wary Indian reluctant to disturb his cabin home.

The stage driver told of his wonderful feats of driving, and of his narrow escapes from robbers in attempted hold-ups; and of the perilous risk he took of being thrown down some rocky embankment on murky night drives.  The trapper told of his long journeys alone into the pathless wilderness in quest of furs; and the freighter was ready with his tales of hardy endurance, and of the miraculous journeys made with ponderous loads, up almost impassable roads, through snowdrifts or mud, until his destination was reached and he was a hero in his own mind, as well as the minds of some of his fellow listeners.  The hunter and trader swapped yarns and mixed lies almost as strong as the rum in the freighter's wagon.

Alexander McGilvray entertained his guests occasionally with music on his bagpipe, an instrument he had brought from Inverness, Scotland, and the weary traveler would be stirred by the strains of "A Hundred pipers and a'," and would beat time to the Highland Fling as the piper weaved to and fro by the glowing fireside.

Rankin McGilvray was at this time a youth.  In speaking of the early days in after years he said:  "When the Civil War broke out, we began to carry soldiers across the ferry.  Hardly a day went by until the close of the war that we did not carry some of the boys, and along at first they were all going one way, bound for La Crosse, and from there to Madison or Milwaukee, and then to the front.  But after the first battle of Bull Run the wounded soldiers began to return, and then we were carrying soldiers both ways until the war ended.  You could always tell one of the wounded ones, for they were bandaged, and crippled; a great many had their arms in slings, and others were walking with crutches; while some had bandaged heads.  I recollect one fellow who came back nearly shot to pieces.  He was the most dilapidated looking soldier I ever saw.  He was lame and his right arm was in a sling and he had been hit in the face, and lost one eye, and couldn't see very well out of the other one, and was sour and cranky, and rather discouraged and I didn't blame him.  Father kept him all night, and had one of the boys drive him to Trempealeau the next day.  Father never charged the soldiers anything for carrying them across the ferry or for board and lodging and although he could not go to the war, he did this patriotic service for his country.  My chances for going to the war were spoiled on account of the ferry.  I was on fire to go all right, but instead of going to the front and dying for my country, I had to stay at home and bail the water out of the ferry boat and help run it."

Along in the early sixties logging began to interfere with the ferry.  Sometimes teams would be compelled to wait for hours until a log jam was cleared.  Usually the logs bothered only a few weeks in the spring or for a few hours only but occasionally the ferry was laid up a week or two on account of the jams, and in 1885 the logs extended in a solid mass from Lytles to the head of Decorah Prairie, about 200,000,00 feet in a jam, and in the summer of 1890 the ferry was blockaded for five months.  This was done for the convenience of the logging companies by putting a jack boom across the river half a mile above Lytles and letting just enough logs go though to handle during the day, thus saving the company from employing the men to do the work the current did, when the river was kept open from Lytles to Onalaska.

After Alexander McGilvray's death in 1878, his son, G. O. McGilvray operated the ferry until the bridge was erected, with the exception of one or two seasons when it was rented to William Kribs.

Referring to the ice stopping the ferry, G. O. McGilvray once wrote, "On November 6, 1868, five or six West Prairie farmers drove to Onalaska for lumber.  The river was open and the ferry running.  The next day the men returned and found the river had been closed twelve hours.  The horses were unhitched and the wagons loaded with a thousand feet of lumber were run across the ice by hand and the horses led over in safety.  That was closing in rather suddenly."

When one turns and looks backward at the changeless past, what strange visions come floating through the brain.  One can see the long procession winding down the road  and passing in grand review along the old ferry at Black River.  The foot-sore land seeker walking along the blazed trail and dreaming of the land where he can find a free home in the unsettled wilderness; and following in his footsteps comes the prairie schooner drawn by a yoke of oxen, and headed toward the new settlement where lies the richest land that the sun ever shown on, almost unmarked by the plow share.  And then the stream of pioneers increases, and the stage coach comes into view, and the long train of freight wagons, and the trader, and lumberman mingle with the varied throng. And now we see a line of blue creep into the procession as on it moves and we feel a patriotic pride as our soldier boys slowly cross the river, facing the grim reality of war where death stalks abroad.  And we see the wounded return with empty sleeves and wan lips  and take their way homeward.  Onward the procession moves until on every vacant piece of land there rises a home, and the subdued soil blossoms with cultivated fields, where once the wild deer ranged.  And anon the procession changes, the French-train and stage coach fade away, and in their place comes the lumber wagon filled with golden grain for the market while the hum of our commercial age makes the very hills tremble; and the slow old ferry of long ago retreats up the river to sleep where old Chief Decorah once looked out upon his peaceful village of smoking wigwams.

(By Eben D. Pierce.)




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