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  • When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth-Century America *
  • Thomas A. Kinney (bio)
When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth-Century America. By Kevin J. Crisman and Arthur B. Cohn. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. Pp. xvii+292; illustrations, figures, notes/references, appendixes, bibliography, index. $37.50.

The 1983 discovery of the remains of a wooden paddle-wheel boat on the bottom of Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vermont, sent ripples of excitement through the ranks of at least some maritime historians and archaeologists. The absence of a steam engine and the presence of a large, horizontal treadwheel confirmed initial suspicions that this was the wreck of a horse-propelled ferry, the only one of its kind known to exist. In a work inspired by this discovery, Kevin J. Crisman and Arthur B. Cohn explore the origins, use, and decline of horse-powered ferries in North America, and provide a detailed analysis of the wreck as well. Crisman, associate professor [End Page 892] of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University, and Cohn, cofounder and director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont, bring their respective talents to bear on this little-understood form of inland transportation.

The book consists of two parts. The first and longest contains contextual material assembled in an effort to understand and interpret the find. Like so many basic inventions, the concept of horse-driven machinery dates to antiquity, and the authors begin by exploring the ancient roots of horse machinery as well as the earliest examples of what came to be called teamboats, or horseboats. But they rightly devote much more space to the history of the horseboat in North America. Tracing their mechanical evolution from simple whims to more efficient treadwheels (like that of the Burlington wreck) and finally to a variety of homemade and factory-produced treadmills, the authors rely on patent records, newspaper accounts, contemporary illustrations, and photographs. Finding that the limits of the design and the horse generally restricted horseboats to short-run ferry service, they punctuate the narrative with examples of horse-propelled ferries across the United States and Canada. In so doing they methodically uncover the history of a form of inland transportation that made up for its lack of glamour with its simple utility.

The authors note the understandable irony that the workaday nature and good safety records of horse-propelled ferries—which kept them from the newspaper headlines—made for a very faint footprint in the historical record. Many readers will note with surprise the nearly simultaneous advent of the horse- and steamboat and their parallel development over much of the last century. While both saw service in short-distance haulage, many ferry operators preferred horseboats over their more expensive and accident-prone competition. Much less costly to build and maintain, they were an attractive option in locations where sporadic traffic limited the amount of money a ferry operator could realistically expect to make. Though increasingly reliable and affordable steam engines made inroads at more heavily used crossings, horseboats remained in service in a few remote locations into the early twentieth century.

The second and much shorter section of the book deals specifically with the Burlington wreck. If this account is somewhat more engaging than the first half, parts of it are also less informative. Following a short history of the exploration of the site, the authors devote a considerable amount of space to their diving and surveying methodology. This and a lengthy analysis of the detritus found in the bottom of the vessel, while interesting, would perhaps have been more appropriate as an appendix. Of much greater import is their illuminating explanation of the unique construction of the vessel and its drive train, both admirably enhanced by several excellent line drawings. Indeed, given the lack of mechanical detail in most of the primary sources, these underwater discoveries comprise the most significant [End Page 893] contributions of the book. In the end, the authors’ joint effort handily underscores the contributions that carefully executed archaeological investigation—whether above or below water—can lend to our understanding of long-forgotten technologies.

Thomas A. Kinney

Dr. Kinney is a...

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