Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Canby Ferry






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Longtime readers of this humble blog might be familiar with the ongoing bridge project I've been doing on and off for the last few years. So far I've covered the Portland metro area bridges on the Columbia, Willamette, and Clackamas rivers, the Willamette as far upstream as the OR 219 bridge at Newberg. There are a couple of other river crossings I haven't covered yet, however. Even today, in 2011, there are still three ferries operating on the Willamette River: The Buena Vista Ferry south/upstream of Independence; the Wheatland Ferry north/downstream of Salem; and the subject of this post, the Canby Ferry at Canby, which is operated by Clackamas County. And then there's the Wahkiakum County Ferry on the Columbia, which I did a post about way back in July 2007.

Canby Ferry

If you've never used a car ferry, the procedure is very simple. You drive to the ferry landing, where there will be a stop sign or a red light, and you wait. The ferry, inevitably, has just left, and you have to wait for it to go all the way across the river and back. Which gives you time to make low-quality mobile phone videos of the ferry slowly crossing the river, which is exactly what I did. When the ferry arrives, it lowers a ramp and oncoming traffic drives off. Then the light will turn green (if there's a light), and an old guy will motion you forward. In my limited experience, ferries always employ a couple of old guys to run the show, and apparently nobody under age 60 or so is permitted to operate them. Depending on what sort of old guy you get, he may motion you to a particular spot, or he'll just assume you already know to drive forward and leave room for more vehicles behind you. You'll pay a small fare, usually a dollar or two, to one of the old guys. At the Canby ferry they do this before the ferry departs, I suppose so they can kick people off who didn't bring a spare dollar. Once the ferry's loaded, they raise the ramp you drove aboard on, and head toward the far bank of the river. The ferry doesn't turn around; there are ramps on both ends of the ferry, and the operators simply face the other direction and the stern for the last trip becomes the bow of the current trip, similar to the situation with Portland streetcars and MAX trains. Also similar to streetcars & MAX trains is the source of power, a set of overhead wires crossing the river above the ferry. Ferries are sometimes also connected to an underwater guide cable, which cuts down on the possibility of being swept downstream in a strong current.

Canby Ferry

It seems to me that would also cut a lot of the challenge out of sailing a ferry. But I'm not going out on a limb to say it's an easy job. I can already imagine the angry responses I'd get if I did, pointing out various difficult and dangerous parts of running the thing that we ignorant landlubbers have no clue about. Still, easy or otherwise, it seems like the job would get monotonous at times. If I happened to be a ferry operator, I'd be looking for ways to liven things up a little. For instance, every October we'd become a haunted river ferry, and we operators would get scary skeleton outfits and be Charon for Halloween.

Canby Ferry

Where was I? Oh, right. The ferry departs and slides along its guide cable to the far bank. So you get to sit in your car, not driving, as the scenery glides by for a few minutes. It's kind of weird. The Canby Ferry only takes a couple of minutes to cross, but you can use that time to make another video clip, which is exactly what I did.

Once you're at the other bank, the ramp in front of you is lowered and you go on your merry way. Vehicles may be two or three abreast, and it's not clear who's supposed to go first. I don't recall that being part of the Oregon driver's test, although it's been a couple of years since I took it. A handful of years, even. In any case, this being Oregon the right-of-way thing usually gets sorted out peacefully after a few rounds of false starts and polite oh-no-after-you-please-I-insist handwaving. Then you drive away, and the ferry handles a load of traffic going the other way.

Canby Ferry

In the research I've done so far, there's a distinct lack of colorful historical anecdotes associated with the Canby Ferry or its surviving cousins. Ferry service at Canby only began in 1914, which is quite late by Oregon ferry standards; many ferry locations were in use by the early 1840s. Since then there have been occasional difficulties, such as in 1946 when the ferry broke free during a storm and was swept over Willamette Falls to its doom, and wasn't replaced until 1953. An article in the November 12th, 1952 Oregonian details the launching of the replacement vessel, which wouldn't go into service until the following year. The article mentions that the Wilsonville ferry just upstream would soon be replaced by what's now known as the Boone Bridge, and describes the new ferry at Canby as the "newest, and probably last, of river ferries to be placed in service in Oregon". This turned out not to be the case; the 1953 vessel was replaced by the boat shown in this post in 1996, and I believe the other two ferries both received new ferryboats around the same time.

Canby Ferry

Which raises a question: Why is there still a ferry here instead of a bridge, here in the second decade of the twenty-first century? I can think of at least three possible reasons:
  • Money's one, obviously. Building bridges is expensive, and apparently none of the 3 remaining ferry crossings has ever been a high enough priority to justify the expense. The Wheatland Ferry sometimes gets traffic jams of vehicles waiting to cross, but I've never heard of that being the case at Canby. Although I don't think you can reasonably estimate potential bridge usage by current ferry usage.
  • Another reason specific to the Canby Ferry is suburban sprawl, or more precisely the avoidance thereof. Portland urban planners tend to see the Willamette River as a natural southern border to the Portland metro area, and there's a fear that if suburbia jumps the river, there will no stopping it until it fills the Willamette Valley down to Salem and possibly points south. So a bridge at Canby would be one too many ways across the moat, I think.
  • And of course there's nostalgia, because ferries are a vestige of the distant past and some people want to keep them around even if they lose money and don't carry a lot of passengers. Which is more of a reason why they haven't been discontinued entirely rather than replaced with bridges.

Canby Ferry

In any event, the ferry's apparently cheap enough to run that it's not on the short list for budget cuts even in these austere times, and I haven't seen any recent proposals to replace it with a bridge. So it may be with us for some time to come.

Canby Ferry

Canby Ferry

Canby Ferry

3 comments :

Mark W. said...

I don't know about only old men running ferrys. A friend of mine worked both the Wheatland and Buena Vista Ferrys for a couple years. I don't think he was 40 yet. I do know you have to be a Master of Inland Waterways, A certification from the Coast Guard that is rather difficult to pass (yes there is a huge test)

And during the summers at that time they had college coeds working as the fare takers. A couple of them I met when I would hang out on the Ferry with my friend were quite attractive.

digitam said...

If any one never used a car ferry
then procedure is very simple find ferry service providers.

Jayne says READ MORE BOOKS said...

"it's not on the short list for budget cuts even in these austere times"

Actually, it IS on a list of budget cuts. Even with substantial raises in fees, the ferry service may be cut:
http://www.oregonlive.com/wilsonville/index.ssf/2012/01/clackamas_county_commissioners.html

This would leave no way for bicyclists to safely get across the river between Wilsonville and Canby.