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THE HARVARD COLLEGE FERRY
Settlements were hardly established at Boston and Charlestown before it became evident that a ferry across the Charles River would be a great convenience. Probably before any action was taken by the Colonial Government, private individuals had engaged in ferrying passengers across the Charles; but the first public act in reference thereto was on November 9, 1630, at a meeting of the Court of Assistants held at Boston, shortly after Governor Winthrop and his party reached Charlestown. At this meeting were the Governor and Deputy Governor of the Colony, with Mr. Coddington, Sir Richard Saltonstall and others; and it was ordered, “That whoesoeuer shall first giue in his name to Mr. Gounr that hee will vndertake to sett vpp a iferry betwixte Boston and Charlton, & shall begin the same att such tyme as Mr. Gounr shall appoynt, shall haue Id for euy pson, & Id for euy 100 waight of goods hee shall soe transport.”
Thus was launched the Boston-Charlestown ferry, or, as it was known at the time, “the great ferry,” perhaps the first enterprise undertaken by the infant colony. Edward Converse was the first man to take advantage of the act. At first the ferry could not have been a very lucrative proposition, for on June 14, 1631, it was ordered that Mr. Converse should receive twopence for every single person, and one penny apiece if there were two or more persons to be ferried.
On November 9, 1636, the ferry was leased to Mr. Converse for three years, at £40 a year, on condition that he should see that the ferry was efficiently run and equipped with the proper number of boats, and that he should build a convenient house on the Boston side of the river and keep a boat there when it was needed. Besides the fees for persons mentioned above he was allowed to charge sixpence for every pig ferried across. “And if any shall desire to pass before it be light in the morning, or after it is dark in the evening, he may take recompense answerable to the season and his pains and hazard, so as it be not excessive.”
In 1640 the General Court ordered that the ferry privilege between Boston and Charlestown be granted to Harvard College for the financial benefit of the institution. In 1639 £50 had been received from the ferry, and it was expected that this sum would increase yearly with the growth of population. For one hundred and forty-five years Harvard received the ferry tolls, which were no mean help in those days of the college’s struggling infancy.
The ferrymen evidently had their troubles, for in 1648 James Heyden and Francis Hudson, who then had charge of the ferry, complained to the General Court that the ferry was very unproductive, that disorderly persons would force their way into the boats and refuse to pay their fares, and that the payment tendered was “usually in such refuse, unwrought, broken, unstringed, and unmerchantable peag”—meaning wampum, or Indian money—at six a penny, that they lost twopence on the shilling, as they had to take peag at six a penny and pay it at seven. The General Court acted favorably on this petition August 10, 1648, giving the ferrymen the right to collect their tolls before ferrying and to refuse poor peag, while, persons allowed free passage by order of the Court were to show credentials or pay.
President Henry Dunster of Harvard petitioned in 1650 that the College be given the right to dispose of the ferry by lease or otherwise, and this was granted.
Oars were probably the sole means of propulsion, the channel being narrow and the current strong. In winter, when the ferry could not run, no doubt the thick ice made a convenient bridge between the shores for at least part of the season. At first the ferry served only foot-passengers, but later larger boats were put into service and chaises were ferried across. The ferrymen collected double tolls on certain days, evidently not to the liking of the townspeople; for in 1783 the town refused to sanction the ferrymen unless they agreed not to charge these extra tolls.
The ferry played a worthy part in the early history of Massachusetts. In May, 1632, it carried across the Charles to Boston a throng of men to aid in fortifying Corne Hill, later Fort Hill, and when the colonial rebellion against Andros broke out in 1689 hundreds of stanch colonial militia were ferried across on April 18 to help their brothers in Boston overpower the tyrant governor. The rebellion was successful and Andros was thrown in prison, but the limitations of the ferry kept some fifteen hundred eager men fuming on the Charlestown side, unable to share in the good work.
When Paul Revere made his famous ride on April 18, 1775, he could not use the ferry to get to Charlestown, because while the English fleet lay in Boston Harbour the ferry-boats were moored alongside the ships-of-war at nine o’clock every night, in order to prevent possible foes of the English from crossing under cover of darkness. Revere got around this by hiring two men to row him across in his own boat, which he kept at the North End, “a little to the eastward where the ‘Somerset’ man-of-war lay,” and landed safely at Charlestown below the ferry.
As the population of Boston and Charlestown increased, it became evident that a bridge must be built in place of the ferry, and when Thomas Russell and others petitioned the General Court in 1785 for the right to build a bridge over the Charles River between Boston and Charlestown “where an ancient ferry had been established,” the petition was granted by an act passed March 9, 1785, and John Hancock, Thomas Russell, et al., were incorporated as proprietors of Charles River Bridge.
The grant provided for the annual payment to Harvard College by the grantees of £200 for forty years, the bridge to become the property of the State at the end of that time, “saving to the said College a reasonable and annual compensation for the annual income of the ferry, which they might have received, had not said bridge been erected.”
Thus, after one hundred and fifty-five years of useful service, did the old Charlestown ferry pass out of existence. The wonder is that the people of Boston and Charlestown put up with such a primitive arrangement for so long, affording as it did for a century and a half their only means of communication except by making the long roundabout journey through Roxbury and Cambridge. Apparently the efficient management of the ferry must have made up for some, at least, of its limitations, for in 1741 Oldmixon’s “History of the British Empire in America” states that between Boston and Charlestown “there is a ferry so well tended that a bridge would not be much more convenient, except in winter.”
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