Thursday, December 21, 2006

Farewell to the St. Francisville Ferry

by Anne Butler

Ferry at Sunset by Henry Cancienne
Ferry at Sunset by H.Cancienne
Construction of land approaches began in October 2006, and when the entire project is completed in the summer of 2011, St. Francisville and New Roads will be linked by the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. The gorgeous four-lane John James Audubon Bridge across the Mississippi River will be 1,583 feet long and supported by 136 steel cables stretching from towers built over drilled concrete-filled steel shafts sunk deep into the riverbottom. Estimated cost: $348 million.
The bridge will be an important east-west connector for the Zachary Taylor Parkway and a great boon for economic development. It is welcomed especially by those living on one side of the river and working on the other, whose commute time and expense greatly increase whenever the current ferry link is disabled.

But progress always comes with a price. The bridge will be big. The bridge will be fast. The bridge will be reliable. But match the charm of the car ferry across the mighty Mississippi, with windswept tourists standing at the rail marveling at the swift current and romantics admiring spectacular sunsets setting the muddy waters afire? Never.

Back in the 1930s, the ferry system between New Roads and St. Francisville consisted of two old tugs, The Melville and The Red Cross, pushing a wooden barge that could hold only 9 cars, which was plenty back in the days when a mere 20 vehicles crossed the river a day.

New Roads to St. Francisville, La
Crossing the River by ptWalsh
Retired ferry captain Morris Bennett of St. Francisville knows a thing or two about the river. He’s spent a lifetime on it, and there are those who say he has river water running in his veins. Son of longtime ferry captain P.M. Bennett, Morris Bennett as a child operated the pumps on the leaky old vessels his father was running, and by the time he reached 11 or 12 years of age he was running the ferry himself; he became a licenced pilot while still in high school and when he retired he was one of the Mississippi’s most respected boat masters. There were a lot of changes in all those years. “We used to drink the river water,” Bennett says today, “but now I wouldn’t even wash my hands in it.”

In those years Capt. Morris Bennett saw it all, ferrying not just vehicles but elephants and monkeys, runaway boar hogs and midstream motorcycle weddings, moonshiners and revenuers, through hurricanes, ice floes, fires and earthquakes. He came close to delivering babies more than once, and came close to losing his own life on the river as well. In the 1946 hurricane the Bennetts rode out the storm on the ferry and were swamped, with water in the wheelhouse and waves washing them out onto the bank where they held onto willow trees for dear life; their barge was washed up 12 feet on the bank.

He remembers in 1939 when the ice floes in the river were 8 feet deep, and another cold winter when a propeller was lost midstream and his father had to get overboard to fix it, requiring plenty of liquid refreshment to keep him from freezing to death. Said Morris Bennett, “That river is the hottest place in the world in the summer and the coldest place in winter.” He tried to get away from it once, briefly taking a job on land. “I didn’t like it,” he says simply, and he went right back to the river for half a century.

The ferry usually ran from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., but local folks knew all they had to do was ask and they’d be taken across whenever there was an emergency, whatever the time. The ferry was also called upon to transport the local firetrucks out into the river to fight fires on passing tugs or barges, or transfer wounded seamen from other vessels to medical facilities ashore.
Sunrise with Eagle by ptWalsh
Eagle over Mississippi River by ptWalsh
Morris Bennett is a natural-born storyteller, and he has a wealth of material from his years of running the boat. He remembers an old Model A truck loaded with chickens whose driver carelessly lit up a cigar too close to the fumes coming from the overheated gas tank. The ensuing explosion sent chickens flying and caught the boat railing on fire, and the crew just had water buckets for fighting fires back then. Folks living along the river ate plenty of chicken for some time afterward.
The ferry crew would also help evacuate cattle from flooded swamplands at nearby Cat Island when the river rose, and Morris Bennett recalls spending days trying to capture one big old bull. When somebody finally got a rope on the bull, it broke away and Morris and his father, in a pirogue, caught the flying end of the rope, which proved to be a big mistake, with the bull wheeling and getting into the pirogue with them and Morris setting a record for shinnying up a cypress tree. Other times, back gates would swing open on packed cattle trailers trying to board and there’d be more excitement on the ferry ramp than at a rodeo.

Old-time traveling circuses used to cross the river on the ferry, and when their old trucks couldn’t pull the grade on the ramp, they’d unload the elephants to push the circus wagons up the hill. And then there was the monkey that got loose onboard and made his way to the pilothouse, where, Morris says, “it was a standoff for awhile.”
Late at night, the bootleggers would cross, waiting until the last minute when the whistle blew to make sure the revenuers weren’t aboard, their old trucks loaded with chicken crates and a few moth-eaten chickens to make them look legitimate. And then there were the fully loaded gravel trucks, a couple of which slipped out of gear or lost their brakes, careened down the steep approach ramp and drove straight across the ferry deck and off the other side into the depths of the river.

Leaving SF dock
Leaving the Dock by Pat Walsh
Today the ferries are operated by the state and are all one piece, not tugs and barges, with 40-car capacities. They cross over a thousand vehicles every day and have over 1000 horsepower, compared to the early boats whose 30 hp sometimes left them at the mercy of the strong current. The present ferries also have all kinds of modern equipment, radar and radios instead of just a compass, and real life preservers instead of just cypress boards. “We used to have a four-car barge and had to squeeze the fourth car on by bouncing the third car over; no way they could have opened their doors if the ferry went down,” recalls Bennett.

Visitors from other areas are amazed to find that the ferry is part of the state highway system, and they are thrilled to be able to see the mighty Mississippi River up close and personal as they cross from West Feliciana Parish to Pointe Coupee and back again. The wait is rarely long, providing an opportunity to slow down and watch the barge traffic on the river while enjoying one of Miss Emily’s homemade pralines from her little red wagon concession stand and contemplating the fate of Bayou Sara, that important antebellum cotton-era riverport that once occupied these empty fields along the riverfront until the floodwaters washed away all signs of life.

Like we said, the new bridge will be big. The new bridge will be fast. The new bridge will be reliable. But Miss Emily won’t be strolling along the approach road pulling her little red wagon full of homemade pralines, and there won’t be time to watch as the setting sun paints a string of barges dayglow pink. Captain Morris Bennett, or his replacement pilots, won’t be fending off monkeys in the pilothouse, and the out-of-state tourists won’t be clinging to the rail in the stiff river breeze. And all of us will have lost a little something in the year 2010 as we whiz across a bridge high above the waters of the Mississippi.

Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site
Camellia at Rosedown by ptWalsh
Now’s the perfect time to visit the little Mississippi River town of St. Francisville, while the ferry’s still running. Located on US Highway 61 between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter of the year when the antebellum gardens are filled with blooming camellias. On February 9th and 10th, the Feliciana Nature Society joins Rosedown State Historic Site to present Camellias In The Country, featuring receptions, guided tours through one of the country’s great 19th-century gardens filled with hundreds of fine heirloom specimen camellias, planting and pruning demonstrations, photography exhibits and more (online, see

Six historic St. Francisville area plantations--Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--are open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the downtown area, reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities.
And for goodness sake, don’t forget to experience the ferry ride across the Mississippi River, even if you don’t intend to stay on the other side; ride back and forth, and a nominal fee is charged only one way. The main street of St. Francisville, Ferdinand St., runs right through the National Register-listed Historic District directly to the ferry. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.
High resolution photos for media use, email Patrick Walsh or