Horses of the River


Horse powered ferries once linked Windsor, Ontario, Canada with Detroit, Michigan, USA (from "Birth of a City" by Carl Morgan)

Driving past a country fair near Niagara-on-the-Lake yesterday, I spotted a pony ride. Wow, did that take me back – and not just to my youth. It reminded of a illustration I had recently scrutinized while browsing through “Birth of a City”, Carl Morgan’s iconic book about Windsor’s past.

Long before the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge were built, citizens on both sides of the Detroit River crossed it by horse power – the hay eating kind. These four-legged engines plodded endlessly in a circle to power paddle wheeled passenger ferries.

Horse powered ferries were once very common around the world. Patented in 1819, their design goes back to the time of the Romans. The Roman ox boat was an early war vessel propelled by a team of oxen. During the 1700s, boats propelled by horses could be found on various rivers and canals of Europe. It was a natural course of events that those people immigrating to America from Europe would bring their knowledge of horse powered boats to our lakes and rivers. By the early 1800s, horse powered boats could be found on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. By the 1820s, this mode of transportation had spread to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the Great Lakes, and to several other rivers and lakes in the Northeast.

Care to read more? Check out this cool article about a horse powered ferry boat found in Lake Champlain in 1983.

About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a series of peculiar events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, Walkerville Publishing Inc., (partner is Chris Edwards) launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999 and we produced 61 issues - the last in 2016. In 2004, we began producing local history books; that year we released "Best of The Times Magazine". Our current titles include 5000 Ways You Know You're From Detroit, 500 Ways You Know You're From Windsor, Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire, and Windsor Then - A Pictorial Essay of Windsor's Glorious Past. I also wrote a novel, Time Trespasser, that blends time travel with local history. I am working on a sequel. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, glass is nearly full person.
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