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 Texas : Features : Columns : Bob Bowman's East Texas

Ferries in East Texas

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
Long before modern bridges were built to span rivers in East Texas, ferries were maintained at places where roads crossed streams that were not fordable.

Many of East Texas’ earliest immigrants entered Texas at James Gaines’ Ferry on the Old San Antonio Road crossing of the Sabine River east of Milam in Sabine County. The ferry was originally known as Chabanan Ferry.

Gaines’ Ferry is notable in East Texas because it was operated continuously for more than 150 years--from 1785 to 1937. Pendleton Bridge now crosses the river and Toledo Bend Reservoir.

Ferries often had different styles of construction, but the most common ferry was a flat, raft-like barge which could carry wagons, people and animals.

As a part of their charter, ferrymen had to keep the river banks graded so that access to the ferry was not impeded.

Many ferrymen also stretched bank-to-bank cables as a guide for the ferry crossing. Several old ferry cables can still be seen at Burr’s Ferry, which also crossed the Sabine between Wiergate, TX and Leesville, LA.

Ferrymen were allowed to charge for the ferry’s use and were required to post their fares, which averaged one or two dollars for light and heavy wagons, twenty-five cents for one man and his horse, six to 12 cents for a man on foot, four to six cents a head for cattle, and lesser prices for smaller animals.

Ferry owners were allowed to raise their fares for crossings at night or during inclement weather.

Among the earliest ferrymen in Texas was John McFarland who was issued a license by Stephen F. Austin and Baron de Bastrop in July of 1824 to cross the river at San Felipe de Austin.

By 1836, the Republic of Texas was regulating ferries, spelling out their responsibilities to the public, and requiring them to be chartered by the county in which they operated. In 1850 and 1854 the Texas Legislature passed new laws related to ferries.

Ferries have found their way into East Texas history on several occasions.

In 1849, Watt Moorman, a central figure in the Regulator-Moderator War in East Texas, was shot to death by Dr. Robert Burns of Logansport at a ferry crossing on the Sabine River.

As Moorman and several accomplices crossed the ferry with the intention to kill Burns, the doctor stepped from the corner of a building and fired two shotgun blasts into Moorman’s chest. Moorman staggered a few feet, uttered a curse in Burns’ direction, and fell face-forward into the dirt.

Burns was tried “for making an assault with a certain dangerous weapon called a shotgun with a value of five dollars,” but was found not guilty.
Bob Bowman's East Texas
August 23, 2009 Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 40 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)

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Bob Bowman's "All Things Historical"

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This page last modified: August 23, 2009