When ferry boats crossed the Missouri River, it could become a real circus at times.

Researcher Craig Ernster has the photos to prove it.

“They used a ferry at Meckling to traverse a circus back and forth. They brought the animals from Nebraska for a show in Vermillion,” the Yankton videographer said. “One photo shows a ferry bringing an elephant across the river, and another photo shows a lion in a cage.”

Those passengers may have been unique, but Missouri River ferry travel was the norm before riverboats and bridges, Ernster said. The ferries crossed the “Mighty Mo” from 1855-1984, he added.

In this region, the final ferry crossed between Springfield-Running Water on the South Dakota side and Niobrara-Santee on the Nebraska side in 1984.

“Ferry boats were the water bridge of their time,” Ernster said.

Now, he’s offering modern-day adventurers a step back in history. He will share progress of his documentary, “South Dakota Sternwheelers,” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, in the Springfield Community Center. The event is free and open to the public. His appearance is sponsored by the Bon Homme Heritage Association of Tyndall and the Springfield Historical Society.

Through interviews, photos and video, Ernster takes viewers on a journey as he follows the path of ferries in days past as they crossed the Missouri River throughout South Dakota. His audience will learn about the ferries, the people who operated the vessels and the area where the boats provided cross-river transportation.

“The video is about 36-38 minutes long, just to give the audience a taste,” he said. “The final documentary will last around two hours.”

After Saturday’s video, Ernster has allowed time for audience questions and comments. He asks attendees to bring any ferry-related photos or documents as he continues to expand the story with release of the documentary expected next year.

Ernster is looking to digitally scan these potential contributions to the story, enabling the public to keep their original documents. He invites the public to provide feedback and comments to help tell the story.

“There was something like 75 to 80 ferry boats along the Missouri River from roughly Sioux City to Mobridge and even up to the North Dakota border,” he said. “There were steam, diesel and gas-powered ferries that traversed the river. I’ve even researched horse-powered ferries.”

Ernster has worked on the documentary for about two years. While he finds the ferries fascinating, he said the story is much larger.

“It’s not just about the boats. It’s about the area and its people,” he said. “They expanded our frontiers and broke down barriers. This was the water version of road trips.”

His research includes Press & Dakotan photos and articles. He believes Yankton contained more ferries than found in the newspaper. “Yankton had nine ferries, according to the P&D, and there were six to eight little ferries,” he said.

One new arrival changed the reliance on the vessels, Ernster said.

“The ferry boats took on less importance when the bridges came into existence,” he said. “That’s particularly true for Yankton, which had the Meridian Bridge in 1924. Still, ferries would play a role in crossing the river for various reasons.”


Based on his research, Ernster estimated six to eight ferries ran in the Vermillion area. “You had promoters who wanted the ferries because they were afraid of losing the Nebraska business on the other side of the river,” he said.

The boats played a key role in the westward expansion across South Dakota, he said.

“The ferries were so important for crossing the Missouri River. Because of the Homestead Act, you had a number of settlers, many of them immigrants, who were headed for West River,” he said. “You also had the Black Hills gold rush, which drew prospectors and others seeking their fortune. They were headed for Lead, Deadwood and other sites.”

In addition, the vessels were important for ranchers, Ernster said. He noted particular use of ferry boats for that purpose at Pierre.

“Before the railroads, the ferries were instrumental in moving cattle,” he said. “Scotty Philip worked with the ferries, which were considered water pontoons.”

The ferries also played a key role in the fur trade, moving trappers back and forth as they set up traps and brought back furs.

The ferries did not have free rein on the river, Ernster said.

“The Department of Commerce licensed them, and you had the federal registry that listed the Merchant Marine vessels,” he said. “We had regulated commerce moving up and down the river. They needed to know where the ferries were located at any given time.”

As part of the effort, mapmakers sought to chart the lay of the land — or in this case, water — so merchants and travelers knew the location of ferries up and down the river.

Even with the advent of riverboats on the Missouri River, the ferries remained important for taking supplies back and forth across the river, Ernster said.

“The riverboats would drop supplies at the ferry locations,” he said. “It could be nails, wood —whatever was needed.”


The river contained many hazards for the ferry boats, including sandbars and snags. The river raged uncontrolled, long before the construction of the Missouri River dams that provided channels for the river. The dams kept “the Mighty Mo” fairly tamed and following a particular path rather than the ravages of spring flooding.

“The Missouri River wasn’t a kind river,” Ernster said. “From Chamberlain down(stream), it was more dangerous. Yankton had sandbars. You had the turning river and the rapid rising of it.”

He pointed to the 1881 flood that devastated Yankton and Vermillion not only with high water but also ice jams and debris. “You had ice embedded in sandbars,” he said.

As part of his research, Ernster found a fascination with the pilots who operated the ferries and the people who used them to move back and forth across the river.

The pilots could be local farmers, and his research found some of the first women pilots. The boats contained a bell and life preserver, a sign of the dangers awaiting travelers.

“The ferry pilots had a tough life. You had the maintenance of the boats and keeping up a landing on both sides. You also had to navigate the river, which could be rough,” he said.

“They had the ‘Raise The Flag’ arrangement where passengers on one shore signaled the ferry boat on the other shore. It would take two hours to go over and come back.”

Eventually, the ferries went out of business for various reasons, Ernster said.

“They became the victims of technology,” he said. “When Pierre received its Missouri River bridge, the ferry was put up for sale.”

Ernster said he received considerable assistance from people contributing newspaper articles, photos, videos and even personal interviews.

“I have tremendous resources thanks to librarians, historians and even descendants of those who operated or rode the ferry boats,” he said. “I’ve talked to people at places like Mobridge, Chamberlain and Pierre. They helped save a lost history that would be dead by now.”

Ernster considers himself fortunate to find such links to the past. “I was lucky to talk to the descendants. One woman showed giddiness about sharing her story,” he said.

The river and its traffic even inspired artwork, Ernster noted. He showed a professional artist’s charcoal painting of a ferry boat, filled with intricate details.

Ernster wants to share his passion for the ferry boats through his documentary.

“I want people to feel these are very important boats,” he said. “They were really popular until cars came along. It all adds to the richness of their history.”

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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