The Clearwater Area Historical Society marked where the landing on the far side of the river was located with orange tape. The cable that spanned the Mississippi River was anchored farther back in a field. (Photo by Aleah Stenberg)

Ferry Tales at the Landing: A history discussion

Contributing Writer
Aleah Stenberg
Around 45 people attended Ferry Tales at the Landing put on by the Clearwater Area Historical Society Saturday morning. 
The group met at the Ferry Landing on the Mississippi River, just off the corner of Main Street and Oak Street, to hear stories from Dennis Miller, the last living Ferry operator, and others who rode the ferry. 
This is the first field outing for the Clearwater Area Historical Society, who have been meeting for two years to locate and share the rich history of the Clearwater area, which goes back to the time of the Dakota tribe, fur traders, and the building boom of the mid-1800s. 
Clearwater History
After welcoming the group, Rita McCooley gave a brief history of early Clearwater. In 1851, there was a treaty made with the Dakota for settlers to live in the area, and in 1854 the first settlers came with claims to the land. After dispelling a dispute between the first and second settler parties, the town of Clearwater was positioned on the bluff  by 1855. In the mid-1850s, the building boom required the lumber, and then the wheat, of the Clearwater area. 
Clearwater, perched where the Clearwater River joined the Mississippi River, used the fast-moving waters to power saw mills and transport people and goods, but the swift current was also a formidable barrier. With the closest bridges in St. Cloud or Monticello, the ferry that ran from Clear Lake to Clearwater, was an important means of crossing the Mississippi River.
Then the program was turned over to Dennis Miller, who looked at a collection of photos of the ferries and he gave his commentary, while fielding questions from the audience. 
The First Ferry
The first  ferry was the Kirk Ferry which ran along the first cable strung across the river in 1856. The Kirk Ferry landed where the railroad trestle used to be. A landslide later made the bank too steep to be used. Pictures of this ferry show people, horse and buggies, and also Model T's using the ferry to cross the river. 
The river also invited steamboat traffic. When the steamboat, destined for St. Cloud or Sauk Rapids came through, Miller recalls they moved the cables so the steamboat could pass. Miller also believes the steamboats stopped coming when the bridge was built. 
1932 Bridge
In 1932, a bridge between Clear Lake and Clearwater was established and was used until the spring of 1943 when an ice dam caused the water to back up, destroying the bridge. 
"Plugged up the current," remarked Miller. 
"We heard this crack, and my brother [Curtis Heaton] said, 'The bridge is going out.' As far as I know, no one was on the bridge when it went out," said Lyle Heaton, who added his experiences to the discussion. 
The Stickney Ferry
Another ferry, the Stickney Ferry, was made out of the wreckage of the old bridge. It took two years to turn the 6x16 inch planks from the bridge into the ferry that Miller estimates was the 16 feet wide and longer than 32 feet long, since he remembers fitting three cars on it at one time.
The Stickney Ferry is the ferry that Miller operated for the 1947 season, from April to November. He leased the ferry from Charles Stickney for $5. The fee for crossing the river was only $0.35 per car. 
All in a Day's Work
"The the ferry boat had a winch in it. The current pushing against it brought the ferry to the other side. It is entirely powered by the current. If the river was high, you got there faster. If there was a high wind and the river was low, you couldn't operate because the wind was stronger than the current, but I never had any issues getting across," remembers Miller.
The ferry was built in an inverted trapezoid shape, the longest base acting as the platform where the cars and people rode across. To load or unload the ferry, Miller would step down on the edge of the ferry to slant the platform down to meet the bank so the cars could drive off. 
Miller recollects he worked from around 6 a.m.. until it got dark, around 8 or 9 p.m. Sunday mornings, his father, Morris Miller, would run the ferry so he could go to church. 
"I stayed with the ferry all day. People would just come down. If I was on the other side and didn't see them, they would blow the horn," said Dennis Miller. 
After one season as Ferry operator, he farmed in Clearwater and later moved California for better employment. 
The current bridge was built in 1958, but the ferry stopped running in 1952. Even so, the Clearwater ferry crossing is generally considered the last and longest running ferry service across the Mississippi.
Heritage Days Events
The Clearwater Area Historical Society will be hosting several events during Heritage Days in August. The 1996 book, Clearwater Remembers, has now been made into a DVD and will also be available for purchase during Heritage Days. 
For more information on the Clearwater Area Historical Society, visit their website at


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