The man with the hat is back. And this time, he’s bringing his Mom.
Over the Labor Day holiday, I took my mother to Ferryboat Campsites outside Liverpool, PA, to cross the Susquehanna on the historic Millersburg Ferry. While the exact beginning of the Millersburg Ferry is unclear, it has been in continuous operation since 1817 and is the oldest transportation company in Pennsylvania.
Since I wasn’t brave enough to put my Honda Ridgeline on board, we made it a round-trip adventure, leaving time between voyages to explore the hamlet of Millersburg. The Millersburg Ferry is the oldest all-wooden double stern-wheel paddle boat operating in the United States and the last known operating on the mile-wide Susquehanna River. Here’s a brief history.
Maps from the 1760s show the existence of early ferries in the Millersburg area. Daniel Miller reserved ferry rights for himself when he founded the town in 1807. Then, in 1817, documents show that George Carson of Upper Paxton Township and Michael Crow from Cumberland County (now Perry County) negotiated to use Crow’s land as a ferry landing.
In the early 1800s, the ferry boats were man-powered. The ferrymen rowed or poled skiffs transporting passengers or flat ships hauling freight across the mile-wide river. The ferry operated this way for at least 56 years. Then, in 1826, a sheriff’s sale transferred Daniel Miller’s proprietary reserve and ferry right to David Kramer.
From there, the ferry passed to his sons, George and Joseph. In the 1870s, Joseph Johnson purchased and resold it to John Freck, who sold it to Ramsey Moyer in the 1880s.
In 1873, the first steam-powered boat entered service. The “Enterprise,” 12 feet wide and 60 feet long, was a side-wheeler similar in design to the “Pointy Boat.” Due to the larger and heavier boat designs and the accompanying deeper boat drafts, the ferry wall was constructed to provide deeper water in the ferry channel. The wall consists of piled rocks and dirt retrieved from the river bottom.
In 1890, Levi McConnell bought the ferry. Levi and his brother Richard had been operating another ferry in competition, so this purchase combined the operations.
The McConnells improved Crow’s landing on the river’s west bank by adding picnic tables, bathhouses, and a concession stand. Since the east side of the river contained raw sewage and coal mine drainage, the improved west side became a popular swimming and recreational area for residents.
In the 1920s, the first editions of the current boats, the “Roaring Bull” and the “Falcon”, were launched. These stern wheel boats had a pilot house, a roof over the passenger deck, and a barge alongside to carry vehicles.
The 1920s and 1930s were a golden era for the ferry system, and as many as four boats were required to keep up with the demand for service. The closest bridge is either 15 miles south or 30 miles to the north. The ferry stayed in the families of Hunter and Radel until 1968 when it was sold to Bud Wallis, Robert Wallis, and Jim Zeiders.
In 1972, Robert Wallis became the sole owner of the Millersburg Ferry.
In 1990, Community Banks, N.A. of Millersburg purchased the ferry from Robert Wallis and gave it to the Millersburg Community, which then formed the Millersburg Ferry Boat Association, a board of nine members from various community organizations, which oversees the seasonal operation of the boats while preserving the historical value for future generations.
In 1998, “Roaring Bull” was rebuilt for the fifth time, and its gasoline engine was replaced with a diesel engine, and the paddle wheel was upgraded to a hydraulic drive.
After 35 years of work, the Ferry system finally achieved National Historic Register status in 2006, just before Millersburg Bicentennial.
The Ferry Boat Association is under the purview of the United States Coast Guard, and as such, the pilots and boats must be Coast Guard certified.
The Ferry transports nearly 20,000 passengers annually, including bicyclists and Amish buggies. Local lore has it that celebrity passengers have included Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.
I would recommend taking the round trip on the ferry option. On our first trip, I had the opportunity to walk the deck and examine the paddle wheel in action. On the return voyage, I stood near the wheelhouse and was able to talk with the captain. He was a wealth of knowledge filled with colorful stories.
The low-tech method of “calling the ferry” is ingenious. Using a door attached to a post on each side, swing it so it faces the river. Before long, the ferry will be along. I even got to call the ferry myself. It was lots of fun!
Planning Your Visit
The ferry operates weekends in May, daily during the summer, and weekends until the end of October. Call or text 717.692.2442 to see if the Millersburg Ferry is open for the day you plan to visit, or visit their Facebook page for daily schedule updates. Estimated travel time is 15 to 25 minutes each way and varies depending upon water levels. The ferry can accommodate up to four vehicles or 20+ motorcycles. Walk-on passengers are welcome as well.
From Dauphin County (the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River), you can access the ferry from 1 North Street, Millersburg, PA 17061. On the west bank of the Susquehanna in Perry County, the ferry can be accessed from inside Ferryboat Campsites at 32 Ferry Lane Liverpool, PA 17045.
Earliest known photo of the Wrightsville and Columbia Bridge
This is the earliest known photograph of the massive covered bridge that once spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia. Charles Himes, an amateur photographer in the early 1860s, took it. Click the link to learn more about this famous bridge.
Union forces burn Wrightsville Bridge to prevent invasion of Lancaster County.
On June 28, 1863, Union forces burned the Wrightsville Bridge to stop the advancing Confederate Army. This action saved Lancaster County and set the stage for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, beginning on July 1. Click the link to read more.