New Boston Ferry of Mercer County, Illinois

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New Boston Ferry

One of the reasons New Boston had such a lively connection with the Iowa side of the Mississippi River was the New Boston Ferry.

The very first ferry license was granted to William H. Dennison, and is recorded on the survey done by Abraham Lincoln. The words "The privaleges of Ferrying from and keeping.." can just be seen on the survey. Unfortunately the rest of the words are obliterated by the tape that has been used to preserve the survey. The license to William Dennison was granted at the first term of the commissioner's court in New Boston in April 1835. Dennison paid four dollars tax for the license. He was allowed to charge for ferriage for 1835: "for each four-horse wagon, $1.50; two-horse wagon, $1; man and horse, 50 cents; one horse, 18 3/4 cents; cattle, each 18 3/4 cents; sheep and hogs, each, 6 1/4 cents; each footman, 18 3/4 cents; each yoke of work cattle, 50 cents" (Hist of Mercer Co, 1882) (note it was cheaper to send cattle alone and for a horse and rider to go over separately!).

Two residents of Mercer County, Eric Long and John Malone, wrote a very nice essay on the New Boston Ferry Service including several photos and drawings: The Origins and History of the New Boston Ferry Service. They mention that a franchise for building a bridge across the river at New Boston was granted by Congress in 1834 but the bridge never materialized. The history of Mercer County might have been quite different if the bridge had been built! They also mention that French traders and/or local Indians had profited by carrying people and their goods across the Mississippi long before settlers arrived.

The list of successive ferry operators as given by Long and Malone is: William Dennison, Erastus Dennison, Harley Ives, Zebulon Willet. In 1861 the City of New Boston took over but after only a year they sold the equipment to Andrew Noble . Operation then passed again to Harley Ives in 1877. In 1880 H. H. Roberts took over. J. B. Robins operated the ferry in 1899 when it became gasoline powered. About 1900 H. F. Babbitt ran the ferry. Long and Malone continue with the history of operators until the ferry finally ceased operation in December 1974. [Note: Leander Wade is listed as a ferry boat engineer in the 1910 census, and as ferryman in 1920 and 1930 censuses.]

An article in the Aledo Weekly Record on 10/11/1859 reported that business was slack, farmers holding grain for better prices. This bad news was offset by the announcement "New Boston has a splendid steam Ferry Boat operated by Captain Phillips." From the 1860 New Boston Census this was John Phillips, age 50, born Kentucky, wife Emma, 34, born New York, sons Arthur, 7, and Ralph, 2, born Illinois. Zebulon Pike Willett was still a ferry operator in 1860, so this must have been an additional boat, or they may have been partners as they are found next to each other in the census. If they were not partners, the competition may have prompted Z. P. to sell his landing in 1861 (ad below). This apparently was the time when the City of New Boston took over. Phillips and Willett are no longer found in Mercer County in 1870.

Advertisement The Golden Age, May 4, 1853: Are you Wanting Over? New BOAT at NEW BOSTON!! The undersigned informs the public that he has a new and superb Ferry Boat that will be promptly attended to, at all times. Being thankful for the very liberal patronage heretofore extended to him, he hopes, by perseverence, care and liberal charges, to receive a large patronage from the traveling public. Z. P. Willett.

Advertisement Aledo Weekly Record, April 9, 1861: Notice to Ferrymen - The subscriber offers to sell on reasonable terms the Ferry Landing at New Boston, Illinois, also the landing on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. Parties desiring an opening for good ferries - apply to subscriber at New Boston. Z.P. Willett