Typically, the ferryman rowed foot passengers on a skiff, but when carts or livestock needed to be transported, a ferry was required. These well-built “rafts” varied in size and needed to be strong enough to carry heavy loads. When the current was too strong to stay on course in a particular area, a cable was firmly anchored on each side of the riverbank and strung across the river. Chains were then attached to the ferry and to rings around the cable that kept the boat on an even course. The “power” was provided by the ferryman who stood at the front of the boat and held a wood clencher, grasped a wire strung above the cable pulling and walking backward at the same time. This forced the boat forward by one length. Multiple repetitions of this action repeatedly resulted in it arriving to the other side of the river. These were called “wire ferries”.
Ferrymen and their families lived nearby and were not always readily available, requiring a traveler to first get their attention. If the traveler was on the opposite side of the river, they shouted a loud “halloo” or clanged a tin plate or rang a well-placed bell on a post in hopes of attracting the attention of the ferryman. It could be a long, inconvenient wait as the ferryman could be out in his field hoeing his corn or doing other chores away from the shore. This was one of the main arguments in favor of constructing bridges. As bridges began to replace ferries on main roads, tolls decreased requiring towns to help maintain the ferries for public convenience.
The earliest known ferry locally was across the Connecticut River just above the falls that eventually became the Red Suspension Bridge. The ferrymen for this ferry lived on the Montague side of the river.
Both Northfield Farm ferries were maintained with expenses divided by the towns of Northfield and Gill. Munn’s Ferry was the upper Northfield Farms Ferry and established in 1825. At a town meeting January 3, 1825, it was voted ‘to accept the road beginning at the Connecticut River on the land of Seth Munn from thence to said Munn’s house, if anybody will indemnify the town of all expense.’ Mr. Munn assumed this obligation as he faithfully performed this duty for the next 40 years.
John C. Delvy married Mr. Munn’s granddaughter and in 1864 became the second ferryman over the next 8 years. During his tenure, it was redesigned to become a “wire ferry” and the road down to the river on the Gill side was altered to have a more direct approach for this type of ferry. Seven more ferrymen followed with the last being Fred Shantley.
Most ferry usage ceased to exist after automobiles were introduced (in the 1890’s) as it was quicker to detour several miles by driving to a bridge than it was to wait for a slow moving ferry. Munn’s Ferry was discontinued in 1935.