Volume VII, No. 1, Fall 1979

Power Mill Ferry


Edited by Linda Lee

From the early 1920's, when it was built, until a highway bridge replaced it in the late 1960's or early '70's, the Powder Mill Ferry played a prominent part in Euel Sutton's life. "It lasted from the horse and buggy days until the jet age," he said, remembering his experiences growing up near the ferry.

During the height of the Vietnam War, the mission of the boys from Chanute Field, Kansas, and Colorado Springs was to fly their jets and "bomb" Powder Mill Ferry, and the Cooley Ferry and possibly the Akers Ferry--simulation bombing. These young trainee pilots would have to fly a jet from Colorado Springs, fly through this range of mountains to this river and find this little bitty boat.

It was quite a navigational chore. Those boys were good. Once they found the ferry, they would "dive bomb" it from a certain height and turn their cameras on Some of them got real good at it. They could come right down on it.


Right at the start it would scare the hell out of everybody. They didn't warn anybody. They just started bombing. We didn't know what was going on until someone said, "Those boys are practicing to go to Vietnam."

Sometimes they would come in at about 600 miles per hour and we didn't hear them until they had "hit" the ferry and started back straight up. We could be standing at the ferry, and we couldn't hear them if we weren't looking in the direction they were coming. Then all of a sudden they'd be there. Those things were so fast it demonstrated how a jet would sneak up on you and bomb you before you knew what was going on. And you would be surprised at how big they were once they got down there on you.

When the pilot would bomb his ferry, he'd turn that jet to go straight up at a terrific speed, fall over on his back, do a sweep back under himself and bomb it again. Then he would turn east, wiggle his wings as if to say goodbye and go back.

Sometimes they would miss the ferry like four or five miles below it. Then they would go back up, get their altitude, and come along and swoop that ferry, just like a hawk coming in. Some of those boys would come so close to that ferry that we would just back off. They would shake that ferry all to pieces.

Some days five planes would "bomb" it. And then they sent over the large planes, big bombardiers, that would fly up high and "blow the ferry up." That went on for three years.

I talked to one of the boys from out at Chanute Field whose mission was to knock out Alley Springs, and Powder Mill Ferry. He came down on vacation later, walked in the store at Alley and said, "I just wiped this thing off the face of the earth about three weeks ago. The Powder Mill Ferry's not there anymore, either. I wiped it off, too."

Even though the Air Force boys didn't really bomb it off, the ferry doesn't exist anymore. There is a bridge there now. Powder Mill is half way between Ellington and Eminence. They had a tourist's resort there, at Powder Mill, a few cabins and a store there with fishing equipment in it. On the west side of the river there was a post office named Owl's Bend, that lasted until some time up in the '60's before it went out. On the other side of the river, it was called Powder Mill. Now there's a high bluff, four or five hundred feet high on the other side. It was said that back in the Civil War days that there was a saltpeter mine in the area where they made their gunpowder. They had the lead, and drop-shot--or as some call it, tearshot--off the bluff. That's why it was called Powder Mill Bluff. When they built the ferry, they called it Powder Mill Ferry instead of Owl's Bend Ferry.

The Powder Mill Ferry was started sometime in the '20's. The first time I saw the ferry, I was about five or six years old. I really think it was built in about 1928 or '30 when the Model A's were getting started. Now the original 106 Highway between Ellington and Eminence that crosses the river now was nothing but a country road used by horses and wagons and people afoot. A fellow named Tom Nash built the ferry out of wood. It was approximately twelve, maybe fifteen feet wide and two car lengths or better, say twenty-twenty-five feet long. It was made out of heavy plank timber, sawed of rough pine, not dressed out, just sawmilled sawed.

In the '60's they had as high as 150 cars cross there in twenty-four hours. Sometimes people'd have to wait as high as twenty or thirty minutes. Some people got a little hostile about it, but some of them enjoyed the river so much that they'd sit on the banks of the river while they waited their turn.

This is a tourist town and it was utterly ridiculous to leave that ferry there that long. But the Highway Department was slow, and it took them a long time to build that bridge. Today it's a barrage of cars that cross.

There were several wrecks involved with this ferry, especially as they got faster cars. It started out with the first hydraulic brake systems. Those things had a habit of leaking out fluid to the point where you wouldn't know that you didn't have a brake until you stepped on it and it was gone. On the west side of the river at Powder Mill, they had a long hill coming down to it. Just before you'd get to the ferry there was a sharp turn that dipped down to it. The east side was a long flat field so there wasn't too much problem there, but there have been several vehicles come down that west road and when they started to hit their brakes, they didn't have none, so here they come right on toward the ferry. The local people who knew the ferry would go by the side of the ferry into the water which was maybe waist deep all the way across the river. They'd run down in there and just drown out. Then they'd get pulled back out of the water with some mules or horses, maybe a rig, and they'd dry out their motor and go on. But if people didn't know the situation, they'd get excited, and some of them would cut into the bluff there. There have been a few people killed there, not too often, but there have been several of them with their heads banged up.


The Powder Mill Ferry at Owl's Bend on the Current River ferried as many as 150 cars a day, one or two at a time, before a bridge replaced it in the 1960's. This picture taken in 1946. Old photos courtesy Edna Staples.

The funniest one of the wrecks involved a dairy truck, which crossed the ferry every day with dairy products. He would go around to local farmers, pick up their milk in milk cans--regular creamery cans--haul them all the way to Willow Springs and come back with the empties. Well, he had an old bed on an old Ford truck and he had a top on this. We could hear the milk cans rattle continuously. We could hear him coming for half a mile. Well, this one particular day, he was coming rather fast, and we could hear him trying to hit gears on that old Ford truck, for he had discovered he didn't have any brakes. He had crossed the ferry enough he went to blowing his horn to get everybody out of the way because he was free-wheeling. When he came around the curve toward the ferry, it was all clear. The ferryman was standing there watching him. By this time the driver had reached a speed of probably forty or fifty miles per hour. He drove right out on the ferry and momentum of the truck carried him clear and on out into the water. His truck almost floated.

Of course they tell some good tales on this fellow, what all he said when he went out and hit the water. He really didn't say anything, but they said he was a-hollering and praying at the same time, but he didn't. The funny part was all those tin milk cans rattling around in that old tin bed. He knew the river was about four feet deep, so rather than to hit the water at the bank or swerve his truck, he went right out on the ferry and right off.


Now when something like that happens you have 106 Highway shut down from Ellington to Eminence. Before you can move the ferry you have to call Ellington on the east side, get a wrecker to drive the thirteen miles, hook a chain on to his truck, take a boat and go out and hook the other end on the truck and pull him across. So anybody that showed up wanting to cross the ferry in that length of time had to sit and wait until this happened, or they had to drive around through Van Buren to Eminence, about a forty mile drive. Now they had signs in Eminence and they had a sign in Ellington, right on the highway, that would say the ferry's closed.

One of the other times--I was about fifteen years old--a fellow came down through there with a pickup full of watermelons. He didn't know the ferry was there, even though there was a sign that said ferry, but he had missed it. He came flying around there and got scared and ran off the end of the ferry with his watermelons. So here's all his melons floating and bobbing up and down in the river. He tells us boys, "Catch those melons and bring them back, and I'll give you a nickel apiece for them." So four or five of us got in a boat and started going down the river over the shoals and out of sight. We put a lot of those melons over on the bank but gathered the rest and took them back to him. Then we collected five cents apiece for the ones we'd got to him. We still had fifteen or twenty that we'd stole off him while we were getting them, and we tried to peddle them.

The only time the ferry ever sunk was when it would hit the bank and punch a hole. No one would know it, but the next morning it would be sunk. That didn't happen too many times. They pretty well maintained it.

Sometime in '58 or '9, '60, sometime along in there, the old wooden boat was replaced by an iron metal barge that was motor-powered. They put on a car motor and rigged it up to the windlass, and fixed it to where it would push the barge across the river and back. That one could haul four cars at one time. The old wooden one could only take two cars and the first one could only take one car.

The first time I saw the ferry when I was real young, we crossed the river in wagons and teams for we didn't have an automobile. And in the space between the '20's to the '60's they were bombing with jets. They had walked on the moon by that time.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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