Our dad loved ferries. We grew up ferrying across the Willamette River on the Canby Ferry, and back when I was little, we crossed the mouth of the Columbia by ferry between Astoria, Oregon, and Megler, Washington enroute to the Long Beach Peninsula. Rivers fill me, through and through.
The Canby Ferry has only been around since 1914, with a temporary closure between 1946-1953. The Boone’s Ferry, also a cable ferry, was a much older ferry that our dad and mom rode to cross the Willamette near today’s Wilsonville. That early ferry operated from 1847-1954, and was a major thoroughfare connecting our early pioneers with the pre-territorial government of Champoeg, and later Salem.
I profess to already having shared stories in my memoir about the ferries meaningful to me in my life, from my earliest crossings of the Columbia River by ferry prior to the completion of the Astoria-Megler 4.2 mile bridge of today, to our family’s favorite crossing by Canby Ferry. In an early chapter of My Music Man, it was essential when writing about early Wilsonville to also mention the Boone’s Ferry, as so many today only vaguely know it as the busy road connecting Southwest Portland with Lake Oswego and Wilsonville, dead-ending at the original Willamette ferry crossing. Skipping back a generation, I noted as well, how my parents preferred traveling by this ferry when returning to college from Portland in the early 1950’s, rather than driving Oregon Route 99, the faster driving option of those days.
But what about ferry travel in Oregon today? While there were once as many as hundreds of ferries serving early Oregonians, now there are only three that still move people across water bodies. And, Clackamas County ferry admirers were close to losing one of those earlier this year. Some of the popular early ferries included one first built in 1843-1844 by Jesse Applegate crossing the Willamette River between the old Jason Lee Mission site north of Salem and the town of Wheatland on the west. It’s fair to say my great great greats would have traveled that ferry. Just a few years later, though, that ferry was replaced by one known today as the Wheatland Ferry, still operating today as it connects Marion and Yamhill Counties.
A ferry I admit to having never yet ridden is the Buena Vista Ferry which connects Marion and Polk Counties, crossing a short span. Buena Visa had its hey day beginning in 1847 by Reason B. Hall, settling on a land donation claim. Much of the pottery used by early pioneers came from the Buena Vista factory, an operation that allowed the community to build a thriving population toward the end of the 1800’s, a community also supported by being situated in a prolific hops-growing area. This early town included two doctors, drug stores, saloons, hotel, school, churches and stores: quite a recipe for a booming town by that era’s standards. It was, in fact, even considered, back then, as a potential state capitol site. Yet, when the railroad line bypassed Buena Vista and instead connected the town of Independence, Buena Vista slowly faded. Today its area is recognized as unincorporated. And yet, it still operates one of our three existing Oregon ferries.
And then, there is that Canby Ferry, a ferry in operation since 1914, excepting the years 1946-1953. Since it costs $400,000 to operate each year, the car and bike five dollar crossing fee doesn’t do much to cover its annual $400,000 operation costs, creating a problem the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners struggles to solve. The eight car ferry runs seven days a week, but its hours can vary depending on the year: plan on driving around during times of high water or inclement weather. During a somewhat contentious and emotional conversation in 2019, authorities contemplated shutting down this ferry permanently, and replacing the crossing with a bridge. Beyond the loss of this historical feature, the outpouring of community concern voicing worries about the negative impact arising from additional burdens of heavier traffic on narrow, rural Clackamas County, Canby and Wilsonville roads led the authorities to dismiss the bridge replacement and ferry closure brainstorm, at least for now. Call me old fashioned. Call me unrealistic. But, honestly, I can’t imagine not crossing that stretch of the Willamette River without the Canby Ferry.
Back in early Portland days there were at least 16 ferries linking East and West Portland by crossing the Willamette River between today’s southernmost Sellwood Bridge, all the way north up to the St. John’s. And while many talk and even begin to plan for the creation of water taxis and other river travel to combat the snarls of our roads and interstates, none have yet fully emerged. And if we offer the more efficient passenger ferries, many people still insist on a need for a place to park the vehicle that they aren’t ready to give up: straining space needs for parking lots. And yet, as our roads continue to burgeon with too much traffic, carbon emissions, not to mention road rage – might we begin to rethink the use of our river highways? While I’m one who tends to lean toward slower and more sustainable ideas, edging on being unrealistic, I’ll also keep an open mind to imagining how we can learn from our past to build our future. And because I’m as sentimental as my dad was, I’ll continue to hope ferries are part of the solution.