I’ve just returned to Essex via ferry from Charlotte, Vermont. This waterway commute is an integral component of our life in Essex, New York. 30 minutes from ferry dock to ferry dock. Sometimes a little less. Sometimes a little more. No longer a sail ferry or horse ferry, but in some ways virtually unchanged across history.
3 Miles in 30 Minutes
While waiting for the ferry I re-read the visitor information plaque at the ferry dock. I was struck by the fact that two hundred years ago the ferry voyage across Lake Champlain between Essex and Charlotte took about the same time as it does today.
In 1820, Charlotte’s Charles McNeil and Essex lawyer Henry H. Ross began operating a sail ferry here. In 1828, they replaced the sail ferry with the horse powered Eclipse, whose treadmill-walking six horses made the three-mile crossing in 30 minutes. The Eclipse was retired in 1847, after it collapsed under the weight of fattened beef cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.(Source: LCT interpretive sign at Charlotte ferry dock)
Apparently at the time multiple ferries plied Champlain, industriously transporting commuters from port-to-port up and down the lake.
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.(Source: Texas A&M University, Nautical Archaeology Program)
Remarkable. There were more transportation options for crossing Lake Champlain two centuries ago than there are today!
This detailed illustration offers a helpful rendering of what the Eclipse — trafficking sojourners band and forth between Essex and Charlotte in the young days of our Essex history, the very days when Rosslyn was being constructed — may have looked like.
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… The first of its kind ever to undergo archaeological study, the wreck provided many details of horse ferry technology and operations.(Source : Texas A&M University, Nautical Archaeology Program)
Here’s a closer look at the “engine” that powered these clever forebears to the diesel powered vessel that just ferried me, my groceries, and my car home to Rosslyn.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this wreck is its propulsion mechanism, a horizontal treadwheel…
Two horses, walking in place on opposite sides of the treadwheel, generated enough power to turn the two side wheels… The horses faced in opposite directions, one forward, one aft, when the ferry was underway.(Source: Texas A&M University, Nautical Archaeology Program)
Genius! And a notable evolution in mobility, transportability, commerce, and travel. Innovation advancing the lives, careers, and wellbeing of our long ago neighbors. It’s an intriguing metaphorical bridge across the lake AND across history.