by Joe David Rice // Photos Provided by Casey Crocker, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Progress is good, I’m told. That may be true, but I still lament the loss of certain features that used to be common across Arkansas’ landscapes. Swinging bridges, for instance, are increasingly rare, as are grist mills. The same for dogtrot houses and split-rail fences. Heck, even the traditional wooden barns are rapidly vanishing from the Arkansas countryside, the classic structures being replaced by pole barns or metal sheds.
And then there are the ferries. Dozens of these – some dating from territorial days – existed throughout the Natural State over the years, transporting passengers and their vehicles across our diverse waterways. The index of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly confirms at least 50 of these operations were in place at one time or another. Name a major creek or river, and there was likely a ferry operating on it. There was even a ferry crossing on the Buffalo River (known as Grinder’s Ferry where US Highway 65 now spans the stream).
Vintage state highway maps regularly illustrated the location of ferries, informing the traveling public about charges to expect. Several were free, such as the St. Charles Ferry over the lower White River. Taking the Helena ferry across the Mississippi River cost $1 per car – or $1.50 roundtrip – in 1941. Rates at the Oil Trough Ferry across the White River ran 25 cents a car and 50 cents for trucks.
Many Arkansans who visited the Mountain Home area through the mid-1980s remember the Lake Norfork ferries, one hauling motorists over a long, watery stretch of US Highway 62 at Henderson and the other a shorter route extending Arkansas Highway 101 north to Gamaliel. There was also the Toad Suck Ferry which connected Faulkner and Perry counties across the Arkansas River. I was one of those ferry aficionados, and can vividly recall the bright orange barges and tugs and the thrill of standing on the deck of the boat and feeling the spray of water against my face when whitecaps covered the wide channel of the lake. Construction of two modern bridges made life a lot more convenient for local commuters but put the ferries out of operation.
And that brings us to our current inventory of a single operating ferryboat in the entire State of Arkansas. It’s called the Peel Ferry and can be found way up in Marion County, within sight of the Missouri state line. It’s a three-quarter mile extension of Arkansas State Highway 125, connecting opposite shores of Bull Shoals Lake. Like its predecessors on Lake Norfork, this one is owned and operated by the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
I can recommend a Peel Ferry experience for at least three reasons: it’s fun, it’s free and it’s safe.
As vehicles approach the water’s edge, a series of signs warn visitors to reduce their speed, that a ferry’s ahead. You’ll stop a little way short of the access ramp, waiting for the boat to arrive. You may be surprised at the pilot’s crab-like approach, bringing the ferry in sideways. But this clever maneuver avoids a head-on meeting between the ferry and the landing dock, allowing the pilot to deftly swing the barge around for a gentle coming together. Once the gate’s raised and the incoming vehicles depart, you’ll be asked to drive forward and park. The Lady Marion Barge, operating during the slower months, can handle six cars at a time. During the summer season when traffic’s heavier, the Christmas Barge goes into service, capable of transporting a dozen vehicles at once. In a year’s time, the boats will handle approximately 35,000 cars and trucks.
Once all the cars are in place, you’re free to exit your vehicle and roam around on the deck. This one-way voyage across the main channel of Bull Shoals takes about 20-minutes, depending, of course, on the weather and the height of the reservoir. Please be advised that the Peel Ferry operates only during daylight hours and will remain temporarily docked when foggy or stormy conditions arise.
Given the wide-open channel, it’s not unusual to experience a windy crossing, and whitecaps breaking across the lake’s surface aren’t uncommon. And should you be curious about the depth of the water, the ferry passes directly over the original channel of the White River, some 150 feet below. As for wildlife, you may get lucky and spot a great blue heron or bald eagle on your ride. And you may find yourself crossing with members of a classic car club, a motorcycle group or even the rare bicyclist. Strangely enough, a couple of “quickie” weddings have taken place mid-voyage.
Also, I should mention that each ferry has a three-person crew – and these friendly state employees are proud of their boats and are eager to answer any questions you might have. But don’t let their welcoming attitudes fool you. The men are trained professionals, each one accumulating 2,860 hours of service on the vessels before applying for a Master’s License with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). They’ve passed physical exams, first aid/CPR training and a rigorous vetting by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In addition, they have monthly safety training sessions and an annual USCG “man overboard” drill incorporating a heavy, life-like dummy. The boats themselves (each equipped with more than enough contemporary life preservers) also undergo an annual USCG inspection.
The Peel Ferry sits smack dab in the middle of some of the prettiest country in the Natural State. My recommendation is to make your Peel Ferry excursion part of a fun-filled weekend getaway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates a number of excellent campgrounds on Bull Shoals Lake, two of which are virtually within walking distance of the ferry. Fishermen will enjoy Crooked Creek, the White and Buffalo rivers, and lakes Norfork and Bull Shoals. Campers and hikers will find plenty of exciting opportunities at Bull Shoals-White River State Park and the Buffalo National River. Other worthy attractions in the general area are Calico Rock, Mountain View, the Ozark Folk Center State Park and Blanchard Springs Caverns. The Norfork National Fish Hatchery, perched at the base of Norfork Dam, is always lots of fun. Finally, for an introduction to one of the state’s special streams, check out the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center on Crooked Creek (closed Sundays and Mondays) operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. More information of these attraction can be found online at the www.Arkansas.com website.
Oh, did I mention that riding the Peel Ferry is free?