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"First Ferry"

The Mormons first reached the Missouri River on June 14, 1846.  The next challenge was crossing the Missouri River and then crossing the Indian country ahead.  First, it would be necessary to regroup, acquire the proper outfitting, and determine the best method of continuing the journey.  The initial obstacle was that the only ferry wasn't large enough to handle so many wagons, and it was a little south of where the Mormons were arriving.

Gen. Peter A. Sarpy operated a trading post between St. Mary's* and Council Point (Belle-vue).  He also operated a dingy-type ferry boat on the Missouri River near the trading post.

The ferry didn't have a lot of traffic so it was sufficient to handle the load, that is up until the Mormons arrived.  The Mormons had no intention of staying in the Iowa area being aware of the lands west of the Missouri.  Settlers were already reaching the west coast from the San Francisco area north to Oregon Territory.  The Mormons had plans to travel to a place further west than Iowa without actually knowing exactly what it looked like or where exactly it was but it was definitely west of the Missouri River.  The only thing they had to go on was Brigham Young's study of John C. Frémont's travels where he described the Salt Lake area.

The first day that the Mormons arrived at the Missouri River, they decided they would need to build a ferry themselves to handle the great number of wagons traveling west.  Instead of building their own ferry, they approached Peter Sarpy to discuss a joint venture.  Both parties agreed to work together.

The first Mormons arriving camped in the southern part of present day Council Bluffs near present day Iowa School for the Deaf.  The area west of where the Mormons were camped was chosen to construct a ferry.  A volunteer workforce of around a 100 workers were called upon to build the ferry and improve the river sites to accommodate the new ferry.

The ferry was completed and operational shortly after the first of July 1846, barely two weeks after the Mormons first arrived.  The ferry rope ended up on the Omaha side in the South Omaha area around the L Street bridge.  The new ferry was built to carry 3 or 4 fully loaded wagons and oxen in a single crossing, so the ferry was huge by any standards.

A ferry needs to have a cutout in the river bank to get out of the way of the flow of the river while being loaded and unloaded.  Three of these need to be made in order to adequately transfer goods both ways.  Modern ferries use a motor powered floating barge of sorts and need only two such cutouts.  In 1846, that wasn't the case.  The power to get the ferry across the river is provided by the river itself.

The ferry is attached to ropes anchored at the cutouts to guide it to the other side.  As the river attempts to drag the ferry downstream, it traverses a path slightly downstream as it crosses to the other side. The same operation is repeated to get the ferry back across.  This means that one side has to be the point of a V where the ropes are attached.  On the other side, ropes are attached upstream and downstream of the apex of the V.

The point of the V was on the Council Bluffs side.  The ferry was poled out into the force of the water, and then allowed to travel downstream, then poled back into the cutout on the other side.  After unloading, the ferry is poled back out into the force of the river but it is also firmly attached to a team of horses, mules, or oxen that drag it upstream so it can be poled into the third cutout and reattached to the upper leg rope.

If necessary, the ferry is loaded with goods for transportation back across the river before poled back out into the force of the river.  The force of the stream carries it back to the starting point.

Loads were almost always on wagons with harnessed oxen so loading and unloading took little time.  The entire process, a full loop, took about an hour so 12 to 16 crossing could be made in a full day, depending upon the number of hours of daylight available.

In the heaviest traffic periods, the ferry was busy starting early in the morning, and worked until past sunset.  The starting point was easy to spot in the early morning as a big fire was already started.  Just before the sun broke over the horizon, fat burning lanterns provided the first working hours light for the workers.

The ferry area on both sides became a popular gathering spot as folks waited for their turn to cross the river.

The help of the Mormons to build the ferry was something that wasn't going to happen otherwise for quite some time so the whole area benefited as a result.  It is reported that Gen. Sarpy not only allowed crossing free of charge but he also gave supplies to the Mormons.

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