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This Is the Story of the Rise and Fall of the Ferrymen of the Willamette

In Portland’s earliest days, before the bridges, if you wanted to get across the river, you hired a ferryman to take you

Life in Portland has changed a lot in the last century. But if there is one facet of daily life that remains the same, it is that Portlanders have always been loath to cross the river. From even before the penny came up Pettygrove, giving this clearing on the Willamette its name, fording the 1,000-foot breadth of the river has been a bitter ordeal for all those living upon her shores.

The travails of those earliest residents become ever more apparent to me upon the recent discovery of journals kept by my great-great-grandfather Rudyard Millar, who worked for many years as a ferryman of the Willamette River. Yes, a ferryman. In Portland's earliest days, before the bridges, if you wanted to get across the river, you hired a ferryman to take you. Portland once had so many ferries that it was often called Ferrytown, a nickname that endured until sometime in the mid-1960s.

Perhaps I should reintroduce myself. My name is Dr. Mitchell Millar, and I am president of the Olde Portland Preservation Society, which seeks to beat back the cultural decay wrought upon us good Portlanders by the likes of real estate opportunists, out-of-state transplants, hipsters, gym teachers and many other varied flavors of iconoclasts and ignoramuses. In recent weeks, I have been allowed to share some of my knowledge about Old Portland, discussing topics that include our defunct polo team, the Portland Berries, and our long-lost Piscotty Castle that once stood on the hill where the hospital is now.

Lately, I have become immersed in the diaries of my great-great-grandfather. Papa Rudyard began keeping his diaries about the same time he drove his first ferry, at age 13. In doing so at such a young age, I have learned, he was not especially precocious. It was not uncommon at that time to see ferry-"men" just barely sprung into puberty.

My impression is that Rudyard enjoyed the adventuresome aspects of the trade, though his enthusiasm was tempered by a healthy respect for the risks it routinely presented. "It is easy to die as a ferryman," he wrote at age 15. Drowning, disease, drug and alcohol abuse, poisoning, accidental bleeding and homicide were all common causes of death among Willamette ferrymen.

They passed a bottle through the encampment. I had just woken from a long nap after spending much of the day with my own bottle, and I wanted to go out again for more money. When the bottle came to me, I declined. The next man, offended, took a greedy swig and spat the mouthful at me, endearing a capacious brown stain of stinking whisky and tobacco to the front of my shirt. (Rudyard Millar, age 16, 1882)

His journal is full of such delightful anecdotes, along with obscure and specific "slang" terminology that has long since passed to the ether.

One such term that will give you a flavor for the era is "Ferryman's Year." A ferryman's year is, quite simply, one season. There are four ferryman's years in one calendar year. The genesis of this euphemism, as far as I can tell, is that if a 25-year-old ferryman should expire unexpectedly, his comrades could try to cheer themselves by reminding each other that he lived to the ripe old age of 100—in ferryman's years.

In the morning, a passenger stiffed me. I tried to get him to pay, but he wrestled me to the ground and ran off. So I informed Thad and Broy and we tracked him to his farmhouse. When Thad pounded the door, the rube pretended he wasn't inside, thinking maybe we'd go away unsatisfied. We lifted some patches of dry, dead grass and lit it on fire, broke a window and pushed the blazing chunk of grass inside. When repeated a couple times more, he ran to the door and pleaded with us to help put out the flames. "Pay double what you owe from earlier," I said. He obliged, and handed the money to Thad. We let the fires continue for a bit longer to teach him the valuable lesson that you can't hope to stiff people in the service industry and get away with it, then we put it out. On the way back, Thad ran ahead and threw the money into the latrine pit. (Rudyard Millar, age 17, 1883)

It is estimated that at the height of Ferrytown, shortly before the first wave of bridge-building, Portland supported as many as 25,000 ferrymen and ferrywomen. Incredibly, that came to a ratio of two ferry operators for every Portlander who did not operate a ferry.

Despite the massive labor force, Portland in the 1880s managed a near-constant demand for ferry services. This was because Portland was in the midst of a population boom the likes of which it wouldn't see again for another 13 decades.

Chief among those coming to Portland at the time were homesteaders who tried settling in California but were driven away by overcrowding and skyrocketing land prices; emigrants from the eastern parts of the United States who dreamed of a slower pace of life or the ineffable mystique of the Pacific Northwest; others still were tempted by the proximity to our amazing hiking trails, or our underrated food scene. And then there was the high-tech sector—pendulum clock-makers, cannery workers, distillers, zinc smelters, denim manufacturers.

The demand for ferrying services led to fierce competition among ferrymen when it came to acquiring passengers.

Today I saw something I had heard about but never seen. What started as a fairly common tiff between two ferrymen, an argument over a passenger, escalated into dramatic prizefight on the water. When the first ferryman shoved his raft from the bank with his passenger aboard, the second ferryman shoved with his empty raft. I watched the second ferryman chase down the first, board the raft, punch the first in the jaw, throw him overboard and drag the poor passenger to his raft like a sack of loot. When they arrived at the other side of the river, the ferryman demanded money from the commandeered passenger, and probably more than the amount that had been agreed upon initially. (Rudyard Millar, age 18, 1885)

It was during the early 1880s that the city began considering bridge projects. Bridge-building in the United States was all the rage at that time. For a small river city such as Portland, a bridge could be more than just an important piece of functional infrastructure. It could be a source of civic pride, an emblem of what the city hoped to become, an attraction in and of itself.

I believe it was probably sometime in 1885 that Rudyard first became aware of plans to build a Willamette-spanning bridge in Portland, though the first mention of a bridge in his journal does not appear until 1886. In that instance, he refuses to properly refer to the structure as a bridge. Derisively, he calls it a "huge manmade log."

Lately, passengers have asked what I think of that huge manmade log. I tell them I don't care, there's no way it will have any intelligible effect on our business. In the hierarchy of things for a ferryman to worry about, the bridge rates somewhere between rope burn and remembering to tie up the raft at night after you've taken enough laudanum to make you able to forget about the rope burn. (Rudyard Millar, age 19, 1886)

Though he did not say it then, I believe Rudyard had a growing sense of the disastrous effect the bridge would have on his profession. How much anxiety did it give him? It is difficult to say because he was deeply absorbed in a laudanum addiction. But if we judge by the frequency with which he mentioned the bridge (and bridges in general) in his journal as the date went closer to the public opening date, we would venture he worried quite a bit.

In most of these entries, he disparages the bridge. Here is an example of his anti-bridge propaganda:

Today, I took a man across. He was with four children, and told me they had recently moved to Portland seeking a fresh start. I did not wish to probe but he told me of his tragedy. He said all 10 of them—he, his wife, and their eight children—had been walking across a bridge one day. A safe-looking bridge, he emphasized. Brand-new, with very little wobble. He was halted in his tracks when he heard a horrific groan, and turned in time to see an explosion of wood splinters, and his bride and youngest four children scream and descend forever into the salivating rapids below. Destruction is the ultimate fate of every bridge that has ever been built, they say. The only uncertainty is when this total destruction will occur, and who might be walking across it when it does. (Rudyard Millar, age 20, 1887)

The Morrison Bridge Grand Opening Celebration was the biggest party held in Portland in 1887. The whole city was invited to the riverbank near the Morrison Bridge to enjoy music, magicians, clowns, a petting zoo, and to drink for free and walk the bridge free of toll.

Rudyard and his friends Thad and Broy did not plan to attend, but ominously were having trouble drumming up business that day. They changed their minds and crashed the party, but on principle they refused to try the bridge. They loitered near the entrance and stood guard so others couldn't pass, telling people (among other things, I'm sure): "We've found a fatal defect in the design"; "One person already has fallen over the edge"; "We weren't expecting so many people, and the bridge has already exceeded its daily weight capacity."

Even after turning out and seeing with his own eyes all of the people who showed up to glimpse this marvel of engineering, Rudyard later maintained his stubborn façade of skepticism.

The novelty will recede and the people will walk away, I am confident. I have spoken to many with the same feelings. We like our city as it is. They say this is progress, but it is not. There is scarcely a way to describe the thing other than to say it is a terrible eyesore, a wound across the body of our majestic river. (1887)

But the demand for ferry services declined immediately. Within a day, Rudyard estimated demand was down by half; within a week, it was one-tenth of what it had been.

Suddenly, the city was thrust into a dangerous situation. It was full of restless ferrymen who had no money, serious chemical dependencies, limitless time and a shared belief that the sole cause of their problems was the new bridge.

And so in August 1887, ferrymen took control of the bridge. For the next several weeks, sentries of ferrymen controlled access to the bridge. Anyone approaching was ordered to go to the riverbank and support the local economy by hiring a ferry.

The siege helped the ferrymen stay artificially buoyant for a short time, but it did not have the overall effect they had hoped—that by depriving the citizens of Portland access to the bridge, people would gradually forget the bridge was there, and after enough time, they could simply lay down their arms and walk away, and it would be as if the bridge had never been built.

Instead, scores of people kept showing up every day because they wanted to use the bridge, and every day it was a few more who had to be turned away than the day before.

The Portland Evening Regular noted in its coverage of the second month of the Morrison Bridge siege: "Ironically, when one of the occupying ferrymen needs to get from one side of the river to the other, I watch him use the bridge rather than take a ferry."

Soon, ferrymen began abandoning the siege. It was a grand failure.

But there was one more plot hatched to attempt to sabotage the bridge. If ferrymen couldn't control access to it, it had to be destroyed. It had to be torn down, every piece of it washed away by the river so the entire city could see what an ill-conceived monument to human hubris it was.

"What about dynamite?" Rudyard reported suggesting as they were discussing the plan.

"Anything can be exploded with dynamite. If we were to blow it up with dynamite, then they would just build another one. This bridge must go down in a fashion that proves to people what we've been telling them about it.

"But are we sure the plan will work? If we use dynamite, we can be sure the bridge will be destroyed."

Rudyard's suggestion that they use dynamite was ignored. This, I'd wager, is when he began to shift his perspective on the future of ferrying, though he never wrote of that.

Shunning dynamite, the ferrymen adopted a subtler plan, and conspired with local ranchers who were sympathetic to the cause. The ranchers donated horses, asses and oxen. Ropes were tied to the trusses and yoked to the livestock. On the count of three, everyone pulled. One hundred men and a hundred more livestock pulled, and pulled. With all of their combined strength, they could not collapse the bridge. It was too structurally sound.

That was when the police showed up, and started firing. For many ferrymen, that was it. They dropped their ropes and ran away. What happened to them? In most cases, I don't know. Maybe they found new opportunities, or maybe they didn't. Maybe they went to a different place, or maybe they stayed here. Maybe they died, or maybe not. Thad and Broy and I remained ferrymen. There were a few of us who did. With so many others gone, there wasn't much competition. And though the demand was lessened, there were other places to cross the Willamette besides Morrison Street, and thank God, there was only the one appalling bridge to look upon. (1887)

Despite his bluster, Papa Rudyard never intended to be a ferryman his whole life. Driving rafts sated the thrill-seeking part of his spirit, but he also had the wisdom to know he could not keeping doing it forever.

As he revealed only in his final entries, at some point he secretly undertook a savings program, squirreling away a penny of each fare and burying it in a canvas bag in the ground near the latrine pit. Eventually, he had saved enough to make a trip to City Hall to apply for his license to practice the fine art of foot massage.

He wrote a long entry about the day he went to get his license—font of my family's fortune for most of the last century and ultimately the source of our disgrace.

When I woke, I didn't have the luxury of wincing. Thad and Broy and I had celebrated the night before. I didn't tell them what the occasion was because I fear how cruelly the coming years will treat them, and I didn't want them to suspect they will be spending them without me.

After a brief hike up Second Street, I stepped into the echoing, disconcertingly empty lobby of City Hall. I was overcome by the feeling that I was late. This was the first day of the year that they accepted applications to practice foot massage in Multnomah County, and they only awarded a finite number of licenses per year. If other aspirant reflexologists had arrived before me, submitted their applications, and been taken into rooms for their interviews, I might have had to wait until the following year.

My feet filled with tension—the space between my trapezius and parathyroid gland tightening in a manner that would take a good five minutes of elbow work to loosen. If only I could have shed my boots and applied some moderate pressure to the calcaneus of my lateral arch, everything would have been fine.

There was one clerk in the lobby whom I could have approached to ask if it was too late to apply for a license, but I did not want my fear confirmed. Instead, I surveyed the lobby and decided on one of the closed doors.

The room beyond, I told myself, was the scene of one of the interviews with a prospective licensee. I would barge into the room and demand they consider my application.

I turned the knob and pushed forward declaring with great confidence, "I will not be turned away!"

But my estimation was incorrect. It was not an interview. It was a roomful of veritable titans of industry—fat cats, I could tell by their barbershop beards, their new hats and shoes, the salty waft coming from their cans of fancy seafood.

I started backing out of the room, but something pinned on the wall caught my attention. It appeared to be an architectural drawing of that gruesome Morrison Bridge. What was it doing there? But before I could answer myself, the clerk from the lobby had punched me in the back of the head, swept my legs, and I found myself on the floor.

"You're not allowed to be in here, ferryman," his voice crackled in my ear.

As he dragged me out, I looked at the architectural drawing. I realized it was not the Morrison Bridge. It was a different, equally hideous bridge. All the walls in the room had architectural drawings of bridges.

The titans of industry glowered at me as I was forcibly removed from the room. Their brows doubted if anyone would believe me or care when I reported their evil enterprise.

"Do you have any idea what you're doing?" I screamed. "You're jeopardizing the very soul of Portland!" (1887)

The door slammed in front of Rudyard. He could no longer see the tycoons in the room, or their drawings, or the map of the city that showed exactly where they intended to put all of their bridges.

They refused to review his application that day. They said he would have to come back another day, which he did. As longtime Portlanders surely know, he would go on to become Portland's pre-eminent foot masseur of the early 20th century.

He wrote of that day in his final entry, which I'll share.

I realize now there are probably always groups behind closed doors negotiating changes they want to make to the city. When on a raft, it has never bothered me that I had no control over the water—how cold it was on a given day, which way it heaved the raft, how it leapt up and stung me in the eye. A ferryman knows he cannot change the direction of the river to suit him, and accepts that he will travel with the current when he can, and work around it when he cannot. Why would I not do as thus in my present circumstance? (1887)