BR ferry’s end: ‘They just tied up their boats and went home’

Group remembers BR-Port Allen ferry

On April 10, 1968, the New Mississippi River Bridge opened with a large and elaborate ceremony, signaling a new era for travelers trying to cross the mighty Mississippi.

At the same time, it heralded the end of the nearly 150-year history of the Baton Rouge-Port Allen ferry that carried generations of Louisiana residents across the river, some even after the Huey P. Long Bridge opened in 1940.

“There was no ceremony for them; they just tied up the boats and the crews went home,” ferry historian Harold “Coley” Hill Jr., 86, told members of the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society on Saturday regarding the closing of the ferries.

About two dozen members and visitors attended the society’s monthly meeting at the East Baton Rouge Parish’s Bluebonnet Branch Library to view a 17-minute video presentation Hill cobbled together from first-hand accounts, old ferry pictures and modern-day pictures of the ferry landings on both sides of the river.

“This was the end of an era that had lasted for over 150 years, but now it was over,” Hill said.

Hill’s father and uncle both worked as chief engineers on the ferries for a combined 50 years, and Hill remembers traversing the river several times from the comfort of the engine room.

After the ferries were shut down for several years, Hill’s connection to it led people to ask him to create a presentation about the history of the ferry.

It was a task he gladly accepted because of the historical value.

“It didn’t take me very long because I lived the ferries,” he said, adding it took him about a year to gather the materials for the presentation.

The history of the ferry goes back to 1820, when a man named C. Hubs obtained the license to operate the first ferry from Baton Rouge city officials.

About 12 years later, H.B. Favrot began operating the ferry for a dozen years before selling it to a family member, Louis Favrot.

Frequent ownership changes occurred in the 1850s and ’60s, including the city of Baton Rouge operating a ferry for about two months, Hill said.

Despite the ownership changes, Hill said most of the boats operated for about 30-40 years, unless they suffered tragic accidents, like the Istrouma and the Brookhill.

The Istrouma sank on Sept. 29, 1915, after about 20 years in service when it broke loose from its moorings during a hurricane and sank just north of the present-day Interstate 10 Bridge, Hill said.

The Brookhill sank shortly after the Istrouma when driftwood punctured the wooden hull while it sat in the docks, Hill said.

After the two boats sank, a ferry named the Hazel was brought in from New Orleans and renamed the Port Allen, Hill said.

In 1916, a boat named The City of Baton Rouge, began operating, continuing until the ferries were finally shut down in 1968.

The Baton Rouge Transportation Company began running the ferries starting in 1916 and oversaw day-to-day operation of the boats for 52 years, the longest owners in the history of the ferries.

Other notable boats during those years were the Steam of Louisiana, which began operating in 1924 and the Thomas Pickle, which came to Baton Rouge in the 1930s to help deal with the increased traffic crossing the river.

“When the Louisiana was completed, it was said to the finest Mississippi River ferry ever built,” Hill said. It was built entirely of steel and also operated until 1968.

Even after Huey P. Long Bridge opened, Hill said people continued to use the ferry for 28 years.

“I think it was mostly convenience, and it was cheap,” Hill said in an interview after the presentation.

Another possible reason people continued to use the ferry was because of the ferry landing’s proximity to LSU and south Baton Rouge, Hill said.

It was easier, and just as fast, to take the ferry to cross the bridge, then catch the bus to the campus, than it was to drive over the bridge in north Baton Rouge, then navigate the streets down south to campus, Hill said.

During their heyday in the 1930s, the ferries ran once every 15 minutes and cost a quarter for every car and driver and a nickel for each passenger, Hill said.

Because people only paid for the ferry at the Baton Rouge landing, it was common that children in Port Allen would hop on the ferry, ride to Baton Rouge, stay on the boat and catch the return trip to Port Allen.

“A lot of people living today don’t realize that was the only way to cross the Mississippi River” he said.

One person in the audience remembered taking frequent trips on the ferry while she was in high school to reach Donaldsonville to go dancing with friends.

“It was fun, and you could see all kinds of characters,” Lee Jackson, president of the Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society, said following Saturday’s presentation.

She said while it may not have been true, she felt at the time that taking the ferry was safer than crossing the bridge.

“It was just really exciting because we were going somewhere,” she said. “Kids in my day, it didn’t take much to excite us. That was a treat and a half.”