Roger Wolcott’s Mysterious Ferry

A small boat on the Farmington River near the Loomis homestead, a little ways upstream from where the Wolcott Ferry was previously located. 1910. WHS collections 1985.6.2, gift of Antiquarian and Landmarks Society.

Most people know that there were once two ferries in Windsor: the Little River or Rivulet Ferry on the Farmington River and the better known Bissell Ferry across the Connecticut River. However, there was also another, almost unknown, ferry operating here. It was called the Wolcott Ferry. Let me tell you first a little something of the man behind this mysterious ferry.

Roger Wolcott was born in 1679, the son of Simon and Martha Pitkin Wolcott. Roger was born across the Connecticut River in what is now South Windsor, but was then still a part of Windsor. He married Sarah Drake in 1702 and they also resided in the current South Windsor. In 1707 he began his political career as a selectman, then later became a state representative, sat on the Bench of Justices, the Council, and was appointed a judge of the County Court. He was chosen Deputy Governor of the Colony in 1741 and appointed Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, and in 1750 he became Governor of the Colony. In 1754 he was dismissed as Governor over an incident concerning the plundering of a Spanish ship in New London from which he spent some years trying to clear his name. At that point he retired from public life and divided his time between agriculture, his devotions, reading, and the enjoyment of his friends. He died in 1767 after an illustrious career.

Now on to the tale of this mysterious ferry and the times surrounding it.

A band of approximately sixty to 100 men, women, and children came in a caravan driving their cows, horses, and swine along Indian trails and reaching Windsor in 1635. They forded the Great River (Connecticut River) somewhere near the present day Loomis Chaffee School meadows and joined traders who had established a trading post in 1633. Another fording place was located on the Little River or Farmington River which would have enabled them to get from the Plymouth Meadow over to the Great Meadow, providing them with access to many acres of good farm land. This ford was located at the corner of Joseph Loomis’ home lot.

1648 – Bissell Ferry across the Connecticut River started operating under John Bissell and continued to operate until the mid-1920s.

1650 – The Little River ferry shows up in the Windsor town minutes in reference to getting the clergy across the Rivulet to the meeting house. The minutes refer to a great canoe carrying thirty-five people and a little canoe holding six people.

1725 – Roger Wolcott, wanting a ferry for his own purposes, petitioned the General Assembly for a double ferry. He wanted a double ferry because at that time there was a long peninsula at the junction of the Great River and the Little River. Today it is one long island and a small channel north of it.

When Wolcott came across from his South Windsor property, he had to land on the peninsula, cross it on foot, and then have another ferry to cross the Rivulet to Plymouth Meadow. Without the second ferry, passengers would have to go across the foot of the Great Meadow to ford the river at Loomis’s site or go another half a mile north to the Little River Ferry site. Wolcott wanted the town to pay for this road and there was much litigation over it. He had paid for the road on the east side of the river at his own expense. It went from the river to the road called, to this day, the Governor’s Highway.

1735 – The town voted “that there be a ferry set up acrost the Connecticut River near against the Little Ferry” at a place called “Newberries Landing Place.” They also formed a committee to oppose Wolcott at the County Court “for a way [highway] from the ferry over the Little River through the Great Meadow to the point the ferry crosseth the Great River.” So, you see, they were still opposing Wolcott’s road.

1736 – A committee was chosen to negotiate with Wolcott concerning his ferry and to buy his ferry house and boat if they judged it best. They did purchase it!

1737 – The town voted to move the “new ferry lately set up at Newberry’s Landing.” Nothing said about where it was going to be moved to.

1738 – It was voted “to have but one ferry acrost the Great River on the town cost.” They also voted to reimburse the committee for the amount of £192 13s 3d which had been expended in the purchase of Wolcott’s ferry boats and grants.

1741 – Wolcott obtained from the General Assembly a renewal of his former grant of a ferry across the Connecticut and Little River “where he formerly had it.” The town remonstrated against this, but from that time on there was no mention of the Wolcott Ferry in any town meeting records. It is as if they washed their hands of it!

1745 – The General Assembly regulated the fares on Roger Wolcott’s ferry over the two rivers so he must have still been running two ferries at this time. The regulations spell out the fare over each river.

1746 & 1749 -The General Assembly reduced rates.

1748 – Mention was made of a bridge across the Rivulet. A good cart bridge, the first ever erected across the Little River, was built in 1749.

1755 – The town voted “to take into their care the Little River ferry house, boat, and ropes, and to dispose of them according to their best judgment for the best advantage of the town.” Thus ended the Rivulet Ferry!

1762 – The second bridge across the Rivulet was built, funded by a lottery authorized by the General Assembly. Storms carried away several of the bridges throughout the years, and they had to be rebuilt many times.

1785 – The Higley family of South Windsor is said to have taken over the Wolcott ferry but little evidence of this can be found. The last mention of Wolcott’s Ferry was found in a Hartford Courant ad in April 1785:

Aerial view looking south toward the confluence of the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers, showing the open channel that creates an island adjacent to the meadows (Plymouth Meadow) east of the current Loomis Chaffee School campus. WHS collections 2003.41.62, photo by Philip F. Ellsworth Jr.

TO BE SOLD,
SIXTY THOUSAND WELL BURNT BRICKS,
LYING AT WOLCOTT’S FERRY, EAST WINDSOR
ENQUIRE OF NATHAN HIGLEY, FERRYMAN.

Legend has it that Wolcott cut a channel through the peninsula so that he only had to use one ferry to get across the Connecticut and the Rivulet. Proof of who actually did this has not been found, but obviously through the years something or someone cut the existing channel, creating an island out of the former peninsula and changing the access to the present Farmington River.

The change in landscape is significant for another reason. History tells us that the 1633 trading post was “at the mouth of the Little River.” Today this would make you think that it was in an entirely different spot; in reality it was much further south at the tip of the peninsula. Quite a difference!

There is nothing definite about when the ferry was permanently discontinued. Roger Wolcott kept a journal which now resides at the Connecticut Historical Society. While he writes about his many undertakings through the years, he makes no mention of ever having owned a ferry. What was its true purpose? It would seem to have been mostly a convenience for the Wolcott family in their agricultural pursuits on both sides of the Connecticut River. It plied the waters here for over sixty years but so little is known about it. With few historical records and a completely changed landscape, it is not surprising that knowledge of this ferry has faded from our historical memory. Hopefully more research will help solve the remaining mysteries about it.

 

By Beverly Garvan, historian, 2012

2018-05-30T13:57:20+00:00