Old-timers reminisce after discovery of old ferry
There it was -- a relic of pre-lake days. Harold Echols knew it was there because he’d seen it 15 years earlier during one of the quinquennial drawdowns of Lake Sinclair. But when he saw it again during the autumn 2020 drawdown, he was inspired to pull it out.
“I saw it three drawdowns ago under the water and assumed it was a ferry,” Harold recalled. “I’ve never crossed anything on a ferry myself, but I’m old enough to know about them. And I see all the roads around here named ‘something-ferry this’ or ‘something-ferry that,’ because they used to have a ferry on them over the river. Anything that says ‘ferry’ in it, there’s a reason.”
Harold said he went in the water and cleared away as much mud as he could, then hooked a chain to the old boards. After failing to pull the ferry out with a hand crank and a four-wheeler, Harold succeeded with his truck. “It’s made out of old heart pine, so it’s good because all that pine tar in it is a good preservative,” he said of the old ferry.
Before the Oconee River was dammed to fill the lakes, which brought about the necessity of bridges, ferries were the only way for travelers to get across the Oconee and other rivers as they went from town to town.
Billy Waller remembers those days. “I have crossed the river on the ferries,” the 92-year-old Putnam County resident said as he went down memory lane with Sheila and Terry Clopton. “There was a ferry on the Oconee River at Sparta Highway, and there was a ferry across the Ocmulgee River in Jasper County, and I crossed both of them.”
The ferry discovered by Harold was attached to what was once Clopton Island on the Oconee River, now covered over by Lake Sinclair. His discovery embarked Terry and Sheila on a mission to talk with old-timers and learn more about their family’s past.
Eatonton’s resident historian Jimmy Marshal’s memory of one of the ferries is actually from before he was born. “I heard the story 1,000 times growing up,” he said with a chuckle. It was December 1945, and his mother was nine months pregnant with Jimmy. She and his father were on their way back from Greenville, where his father had just been discharged from the Army.
“They were moving back to Eatonton and came down through Sparta. It was about 10:30 p.m. and usually you just drive up, blow the horn and flash the lights, and somebody would bring the ferry over. But Mr. Little (the ferryman) wouldn’t bring it over because it was late,” he said. “So, my dad held onto the ropes and pulled himself across to the ferry and got on it and pulled it back, hand-over-hand along the rope to pull it back to get the car. He was able to get the car on the ferry and then drove it on the gravel road to Highway 16 in Eatonton. I was born two days later. Dad never had too much to say about Mr. Little after that, because he got all wet being knee-deep in the river.”
Larry Manley, 87, who grew up on Pea Ridge Road in Putnam County, not only remembers the ferries and riding on them, but his father briefly owned one.
Larry explained that ferries he remembers were about 40-50 feet long, “big enough to fit two cars on them,” and the ferrymen were employees of the state because the ferries were on the state highway. The ferries were located where the river intersected the road. “You’d just pull up there onto the bank, and there was a wooden ramp, and cars could pull up onto the ferry and go across the river.”
The ferries ran along two cables that were stretched across the river. “If the ferry was on the other side, you had to wait about 15 minutes while they untie the chain, throw it up there and start turning it until the water would push it,” Mr. Manley described. “Once on it, it’d take about 10 minutes to get across, and sometimes there might be a car over there waiting to come back. … And if the water was too high or too low, you couldn’t get up on the ferry at all. It was usually high in the spring and low in the fall.”
The Manleys used the ferry every time they went to Sparta. “We didn’t go that much, but when we went somewhere, that’s where we went,” Larry said. He remembers ferryman Joe Royal; “he lived down there, right there on the bank, as far back as I can remember. You go up there and blow the horn, and he’d come out and get you on the ferry and take you across. That was way back, we had a ’41 Plymouth. Joe ran it until it about quit, and his son ran it some. They gave it up when they got the new bridge up there and everybody started running on the highway.”
That was when Larry’s father bought the ferry to use as a boat, or possibly make into a boathouse. Larry remembers that he, his father, and two other men went by boat to get the ferry. Using the boat, they were navigating the ferry (which was no longer attached to cables) along the Oconee River the same time that Lake Sinclair was being filled in the late 1950s. “We made it to the mouth of Crooked Creek, seems like to me the lake was up there already, up to about 20 feet or so, but we never made it to that water. We ran up on some rocks and that thing hit the rocks and we couldn’t turn it because it was floating with the water. It hit that rock and turned sideways and that was all she wrote. We couldn’t get it off the rocks, so we tied it with a chain to something and left it. We got in the boat and went on down where we were going. We never did go back and get it. I’d like to know what happened to it.”
Larry also worked with the state highway department as an engineer staking out the new roads and bridges over the lakes. He was a part of the construction of the Milledgeville Highway, and he continued to work with the state for 30 years until his retirement.
Further back in the area’s history, difficulties crossing the Oconee River are mentioned in the book, Oconee River Tales to Tell, by Katherine Bowman Walters, found at local libraries. “The swirling waters here had always made a difficult fording for the loaded pack horses on the trade route,” is a sentence on page 79 referring to the 1790s.
Several ferries are named throughout the book, along the river and its tributary creeks. Making plans and laws to make the Oconee River navigable for moving freight to markets, the Georgia Legislature granted a charter for the incorporation of the Oconee Navigation Company in 1805, according to page 134 of Walters’ book. But from the beginning, there were difficulties funding the clearing of obstacles which included trees and stumps as well as mills and dams already built and flourishing along the river.
The Oconee Navigation Company operated many ferries in the area, all named for the owner of the property on which they were located. But in 1820, the Navigation Company and all efforts to make the Oconee River navigable were abandoned after many failed attempts.
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Story by Lynn Hobbs, photos contributed, published in the January/February 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.