News From The Woods - March 11, 2004


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published March 11, 2004

"Life In The Slow Lane"


One day a couple of weeks ago as I was driving into town for some reason or another I noticed activity in the Henderson cove area. A construction crew was there, dismantling the last ferry barge on the lake. I pulled over and sat there, watching. I had recently learned that this barge, the last one left intact since the opening of the twin bridges in 1983, had been sold recently. The owners, who had purchased the barge and a tug from the Arkansas Highway Department many years ago had finally thrown in the towel. For years they attempted to operate the ferryboat as a tourist attraction. It could be rented for birthday parties, weddings, family reunions, and for special occasions and outings. In the past 20 years I had organized several parties on the barge myself as a mobile marine venue and an excuse to throw a lake cruise party featuring my band. Several years in a row we played for parties on the ferry on Independence Eve, which was a special night on the lake complete with a gala fireworks display. Whenever we scheduled a party there was no problem selling out as the ferry could only legally accommodate about 100 people.

When I was a kid, one of my fantasies was to someday have a band and play a dance on the ferry with all of my friends on it. How could I have known that years later bridges would be built and the ferry would indeed be available to throw a party on a moonlit summer night. It turned out to be the perfect place to have a party, where the audience could indeed be called a "captive audience". After all, once they boarded and the ferry pulled away from shore, no one could leave. Or board. Everyone on board seemed to sense that this was an intimate affair, and we were all thrown together in a kind of family unit. As the ferry cruised down lake and the band played on into the dark, time seemed to stand still. It seemed only a short time had passed when - out of the darkness -loomed the shoreline and the parking lot became once more visible, signaling the end of a "perfect evening". It was always a party to brag about afterward, even if it rained, in which case we would all stay under the canopy until the showers subsided. Those were some of the best times I can remember. Many old time friends still talk about a particular ferry party that stuck out in their minds.

As my mind flashed back to the present I remembered that I had my camcorder in the back seat of my car. I whipped it out, drove over closer to the construction site, and shot some footage of the crew cutting the barge up into four large pieces to be transported to Memphis, where it was to be reassembled and used for barge duty on the Mississippi River. I was overcome with emotion as I witnessed the process, with pieces of a canopy lying here and cable and metal ramp there And as I shot this piece of local history slowly being dissected, I could not help but remember the hundreds… no, THOUSANDS of times I had crossed the lake on this very barge. I remember in the past thinking that someday progress would overtake our sleepy town atmosphere, and that the ferries certainly wouldn't be here forever, but at that moment it all hit me like a sledgehammer. It was a day of mixed emotions when they retired the ferry operation and opened the twin bridges to traffic, but seeing the dismantling of this barge on this day was a graphic culmination of the passing of years between October 1983 and February 2004.

There is no question that the bridges have vastly increased the quality of life for Baxter County residents. Living in Henderson, if I still had to cross the lake by ferry, it would be a tremendous setback to not only my business but to our personal lives as well. And imagine the impact it would have on anyone's life being threatened and carried by ambulance across a ferry today.

Having said that, these modern technological marvels still spur bittersweet memories of the past. As a young man, I had to contend with the ferry schedules. In the daylight hours of summer, it was a very regular 15-minute turnaround between trips; but in the winter, it could be anybody's guess. You might wait "on the hill" for as long as 45 minutes with your car engine running so you could keep warm while waiting for the ferry to suddenly appear out of the fog and mist to fetch you. My personal curfew was midnight on weekends, and the trip from town to the lake was anywhere from eight to 15 minutes, depending on the traffic. So I had to say goodnight to my girlfriend at her house in town promptly at 11:30 p.m. in order to be at the ferry landing at Panther Bay at 11:45. The dash from the Henderson side to my house is only two miles, so I would arrive home by 12:05, which was acceptable. If I was late, I was grounded. Period.

I can recall many a night that I was running late with Trooper Bill Miles in hot pursuit and coming over the hill honking my horn to the ferry, hoping it was still there. Sometimes, it had just pulled away, and I was busted. Sometimes, they would be standing there holding onto the chain, and as I slipped up onto the boat, they would pull up the chain and hit the throttle. As we would pull away, I could see the state police car coming over the hill, and I had lived to tell the tale another day.

It was a game back then, between the trooper and I. Yes, I was young and stupid, but there was nowhere near the traffic we see today on Highway 62.

The ride across the lake was another thing. It is very difficult to describe the feeling you had as you glided across the lake on a hot summer night, the diesel engine running at a steady throbbing pace -- sitting in your car in the orange glow of the ferry's incandescent bug lights . . . . Windows rolled down with a constant breeze washing across your face. There are so many times that Charles Gibson (who recently passed away -- God bless him) would slam the hood of my car to wake me up as they lowered the ramp for us to drive off. There were also many late nights in the winter with fog and snow blowing furiously across the lake, and I would wonder just how they knew where they were.

One particular night, I learned firsthand that sometimes they were guessing, as we came up on the opposite side of the lake and were about 15 feet to the left of the landing and we ran aground! They pulled it off the bank and took another shot at it, and as the "ferry guys" fought with the wind and the winter sleet and the frozen ropes, I found a new appreciation for these Corps of Engineers workers who -- like the proverbial postman -- ALWAYS got the ferry to the other side.

Sometimes the ferry was full of vacationers, and you could have a great running conversation with a stranger for 15 minutes.

My mom used to write all her letters crossing the ferry. She always kept stationery in her car. And I used to silently cuss the ferry when I would come over the hill and spy a gasoline truck waiting at the front of the line. That meant we'd lose 30 minutes if the traffic count was low, because they would not put on an extra ferry to carry the flammable vehicle across the lake all by itself, which was the law.

I've seen a truck full of chickens run off the ferry dock, out of control. There were feathers everywhere, and the very next morning a lone rooster who had escaped was sitting on the roof of the tugboat, crowing. I've also seen (and have video of) a charcoal truck which also lost control and ran off the ferry dock in Henderson. I rode the last ferry ride on Oct. 21, 1983, and was one of the very first to cross the new bridges even before they were opened. My wife had broken her nose, and they allowed us to rush her to the hospital using the bridge on the day before they were officially opened.

I attended and shot video of the ceremony dedicating the twin bridges. All these videos and more about the ferries and the construction of the bridges can be viewed by the public by going to the Baxter County Library and asking for the "Centennial Video", a six-hour, three-tape video which is a copy of the original I placed in the Centennial Time Capsule.

I wonder if there will be any VHS tape players left when they open it up.

It's all gone now, part of another era. I suppose that's part of growing older. And I will miss those days and nights spent crossing the ferry. But I have to admit that -- despite it all -- the bridges had to be built. And thanks to the vision of people like Vada Sheid, we do not sit in a three-mile long ferry line waiting for a ferry to come fetch us.

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