Hoofbeats Over the Water: I.N.A. Research on Horse-Powered Ferryboats

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slide 01.JPG (79148 bytes) Most people are aware that mules and horses walking on tow paths pulled boats through North America’s nineteenth-century canals, but fewer know that during the same century horses also served on board paddle-powered ferryboats.
The technology that enabled ferryboat owners to harness the power of horses for boat propulsion existed for many centuries. This sixteenth-century woodcut shows the most common form of horse machinery: the horse whim. Resembling a merry-go-round, this machine had a series of radial bars to which the horses were harnessed. It was simple, reliable, and relatively efficient, but did result in dizzy horses. slide 02.JPG (176097 bytes)
slide 03.JPG (241381 bytes) Here is another form of muscle-powered machine employed in the sixteenth century: the horizontal treadwheel. The human powerplants gripped a fixed bar and used their legs to spin the turntable under their feet. Similar versions were made for draft animals. This device will show up again in horse-powered boats in the early 1800s.
This unlikely-looking machine, an external vertical treadwheel, would have called for an unusually agile (or foolhardy) horse. A modified and much safer version, the treadmill, would re-appear on American horseboats in the nineteenth century. slide 04.JPG (202306 bytes)
slide 05.JPG (119510 bytes) Various European inventors design and in some cases tested horse-powered boats in the 1600s and 1700s. A French inventor, Maurice, the Compte de Saxe, prepared these plans for a horse-powered paddle boat in the 1730s. Horse-propulsion never really caught on in a big way in Europe.
In the era pre-dating large-scale bridge construction, lakes and rivers in North America had to be crossed by some type of ferry boat, in this case a sail-propelled scow. Sail ferries were notoriously unreliable (winds often would not blow at the right time, or in the right direction), while oar-propelled ferries required expensive human labor. What was needed was some type of paddle ferry boat that combined the reliability of steam machinery with a less expensive form of power. slide 06.JPG (123398 bytes)
slide 07.JPG (128864 bytes) The answer to the ferryboatman’s needs appeared in 1814, when New York City ferries began employing horse-powered paddle boats. The earliest boats used the horse whim-style machinery. Because the circle for the horses required so much space on the deck it was necessary to build these ferries as twin-hulled boats or ‘catamarans.’ Plan and profile from Marestier’s Memoir on Steamboats (1824).
The horse whim equipped catamarans were widely employed as ferries in the United States and Canada between 1814 and 1820, but they were still too expensive for most ferry operators, and dizzy horses were still a problem. slide 08.JPG (152442 bytes)
slide 09.JPG (204779 bytes) The solution to the whim’s drawbacks as a boat propulsion machine was to reintroduce the treadwheel: the animal walks in place while the wheel turns under its hooves. These machines were first patented in the U.S. in 1817.
Father and son inventors Barnabus and John C. Langdon of Troy, New York patented their horizontal treadwheel boat in 1819, and for the next two decades this form of horseboat machinery would dominate the horse ferry business. By placing the wheel under the deck, and cutting an opening just large enough for the horses, the Langdons created much more usable deck space and permitted the building of single-hulled (cheaper!) horse ferries. This is a detail from one of their patent drawings. slide 10.JPG (95718 bytes)
slide 11.JPG (125037 bytes) A six-horse horizontal treadwheel horseboat, circa 1827. These boats were surprisingly fast, capable of reaching speeds of six miles (9.65 km) per hour.
In the late 1820s a new form of propulsion for horseboats was developed: the treadmill. This device was lightweight and easy to repair, and once mass-production began it was relatively inexpensive to purchase. slide 12.JPG (134703 bytes)
slide 13.JPG (301659 bytes) Horse treadmills were welcomed by North American farmers, for with special attachments they could perform a variety of tasks around the farm. In this advertisement a two-horse treadmill powers a grain threshing machine.
Horse treadmills also had applications in the transportation industry. Yankee inventor Rufus Porter envisioned moving houses with one horse (an early version of the Winnebago camper?). slide 14.JPG (106456 bytes)
slide 15.JPG (149580 bytes) From the 1840s onward the treadmill began to replace the horizontal treadwheel as the preferred form of machinery for horse ferries. Cheap and effective, these treadmills horseboats would be used in North America right up until the 1920s.
Lake Champlain, situated between Vermont and New York, had a number of medium-distance ferry crossing that were well-suited to horse ferries. The earliest documented horseboat on the lake was the Chimney Point to Port Henry Experiment in 1826. slide 16.JPG (98501 bytes)
slide 17.JPG (188315 bytes) An estimated total of ten horseboats plied Lake Champlain between 1826 and circa 1860, but not much was known about their design, construction, and machinery. This 1844 poster advertises the six-horse Charlotte-Essex ferry Eclipse. Courtesy of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.
Sonar surveys of Burlington Bay, Vermont in 1983 and 1984 revealed the remains of a well-preserved horseboat, sitting upright on the bottom under 50 feet (15.24 m) of water. slide 18.JPG (149892 bytes)
slide 19.JPG (83843 bytes) A photomosaic of the horse ferry, taken in 1984 and prepared by Scott Hill, Milton Shares, and Dennis Floss. Photo courtesy of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. The bow, to the left, is missing its deck, but the wreck was otherwise in good shape, and all of the machinery was found to be complete. The first of its kind every to undergo archaeological study, the wreck provided many details of horse ferry technology and operations.
The wreck of the horse ferry was opened as an Vermont State Underwater Historic Preserve in 1989, and in the same year a multi-year program of archaeological recording and excavation was begun under the direction of Kevin Crisman and Arthur Cohn, and sponsored by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, the University of Vermont, and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. The R.V. Neptune, owned and captained by Fred Fayette of Milton, Vermont, served as the project dive vessel. slide 21.JPG (111045 bytes)
slide 22.JPG (180721 bytes) A perspective view of the wreck on the bottom of the lake. Logistically, this was a fairly uncomplicated operation. Excavations mostly focused on the bow, where the missing deck permitted safe, easy access to the interior of the hull.
A diver removes soft lake bottom sediment from the interior of the ferry wreck with a water dredge. slide 23.JPG (95071 bytes)
slide 24.JPG (165798 bytes) Artifacts found in the interior of the wreck consisted of mundane objects, such as these broken iron horse shoes and leather harness fragments.
The ferry wreck also yielded this cheap brown-glazed earthenware teapot. slide 25.JPG (172668 bytes)
slide 26.JPG (128348 bytes) Also found in the wreck were numerous clues to the ferry’s career. For example we found three gear wheels in the bow. They were thought to be spare wheels, but...
When the gear wheels were recovered and conserved they were found to be heavily-used and quite worn out. slide 27.JPG (131246 bytes)
slide 28.JPG (133356 bytes) A worn-out axle bushing from the paddle wheel axle.
Perhaps our strongest evidence for how the ferry met its fate was the rudder, which was unshipped from the stern and stored in the bow at the time of sinking. slide 29.JPG (122645 bytes)
slide 30.JPG (134154 bytes) We temporarily recovered the rudder for measurements and photographs. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the rudder had seen much service, for both the wooden and iron portions showed signs of repairs.
The fact that the rudder was unshipped from the stern pintles and inside the hull tells us that the ferry was probably not under its own power at the time of the sinking. We believe that the ferry was at least ten years old, and possibly as many as twenty years old, at the time of sinking. Horse ferries never worked out of Burlington, so it must have been brought to this location for repairs or perhaps to sell, and then was subsequently scuttled in deep water. slide 31.JPG (188537 bytes)
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this wreck is its propulsion mechanism, a horizontal treadwheel of the type patented by the Langdons in 1819. Here Arthur Cohn examines the gear shift mechanism on the side wheel axle. slide 34.JPG (115334 bytes)
slide 35.JPG (110181 bytes) A plan view of the ferry’s propulsion mechanism. Two horses, walking in place on opposite sides of the treadwheel, generated enough power to turn the two side wheels
A profile of the treadwheel beneath the ferry’s deck. The horses faced in opposite directions, one forward, one aft, when the ferry was underway. slide 43.JPG (102332 bytes)
slide 36.JPG (103591 bytes) The power transmission from the treadwheel to the side wheel axle had a shift mechanism that permitted the captain to shift between forward and reverse (handy for getting out of tight ferry slips!).
One of the two oaken side wheels. The spokes are now quite deteriorated. slide 37.JPG (109976 bytes)
slide 38.JPG (128443 bytes) The ferry had some unusual construction features. The hull was framed with straight lengths of oak that were cut across their width, probably steamed to make them more flexible, and then bent on a mold to the desired shape.
We have never seen a wreck with sawn and bent frames from this period. The use of this technique suggests that the Champlain Valley was running out of good shipbuilding timber by the time this ferry was built (around 1830). slide 39.JPG (90832 bytes)
slide 40.JPG (130328 bytes) The technique of sawing, steaming and bending timbers for frames was developed by a Royal Navy shipwright in England, William Hookey, in response to the timber shortage that plaguing English shipyards in the early nineteenth century. These are Hookey’s patent drawings of the technique.
A second unusual feature of the horse ferry wreck was the ‘bridge’ built to support the after deck. Because the treadwheel extended out beyond the sides of the hull the deck structure had to be supported from above by a series of longitudinal timbers. slide 41.JPG (147185 bytes)
slide 42.JPG (105460 bytes) Upright king posts on the two outer deck supports helped to reinforce the structure. The Lake Champlain horse ferry Eclipse was reportedly destroyed in 1847 when a deckload of cattle collapsed the bridge over the treadwheel.
The deck construction and interior profile of the Burlington Bay horse ferry. slide 44.JPG (94531 bytes)
slide 45.JPG (99636 bytes) The deck and exterior profile of the Burlington Bay horse ferry. Not the prettiest vessel ever to sail Lake Champlain, but certainly a wonderful example of early nineteenth century technology. The ferry’s hull was 60 feet, 4 inches (18.4 m) in length and 15 feet (4.6 m) in beam, and the deck measured 62 feet, 5 inches (19 m) in length and 23 feet, 8 inches (7.2 m) in breadth.
Ferrying on the lake continues. Throughout our four seasons of archaeological study of the horse ferry wreck its descendants, the Champlain Transportation Company’s ferries Champlain, Adirondack, and Valcour (pictured here) passed nearby on their daily rounds between Burlington, Vermont and Port Kent, New York. slide 33.JPG (124191 bytes)


Want to read more about North America’s age of horseboats and the horse ferry wreck in Lake Champlain? See:

horses.JPG (52409 bytes) Kevin J. Crisman and Arthur B. Cohn. When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth-Century North America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).
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