Peter Post. Operator of the Ouray ferry on the Green River.
A substantial portion of the history and lore of the Southwest took place at or was made possible by its network of river ferry crossings. Entire towns would spring up at these sites, typically with general stores, hotels, saloons, and other services for travelers. These ferries were invariably owned and operated by colorful characters who transported pioneers, Native Americans, cowboys, and outlaws alike, as well as stagecoaches, freight wagons, mail, livestock, and eventually automobiles.
The dynamic nature of rivers themselves --- scoured by floods, subject to drought, occasionally covered by ice, and always exposed to extreme weather --- contributed to the drama surrounding all ferry operations. Accidents were commonplace and drownings occurred regularly. Livestock sometimes jumped overboard, taking wagons and people with them. Lightning would strike the exposed ferries, killing the ferrymaster and his passengers. About Fort Selden in New Mexico, the story is told of Native Americans periodically sneaking down to the ferry to cut the cable and let the boat float away downstream.
Floods and high winds could break the river-wide steel cable to which most ferryboats were tethered, either causing the ferryboat to upset or allowing it to be swept downriver into rapids and rocks. And careless (or intoxicated) automobile drivers would step on the gas pedal instead of the brake, resulting in mayhem and death. Nevertheless, the risk (and the financial cost) of crossing rivers by ferryboat was generally accepted by travelers as being preferable to the alternative of swimming or not crossing at all.
Yet the collective legacy of historic river ferry crossings would appear to be all but lost. Many of the lesser-known and more remote ferry crossings have almost attained legendary status, as no photographs and few records are known. While images and anecdotal accounts of some ferries are to be found in regional and local archives, the exact locations, dates, and details of their operation are only partly known. Lee's Ferry in northern Arizona is probably the best-known historic ferry crossing. Several books have been written about this ferry, since it represented the only reliable crossing of the Colorado River for more than 300 miles, played a pivotal role in regional transportation, and was established by an infamous Mormon pioneer wanted for murder.