10.14.2008,12:26 PM
Butterfield Trail: More ghosts

Ghosts: Ferries

I stood on the sand bar looking across, down and up the sluggish river wondering, ‘Where are the boats?,’ ‘Where are all the wagons, horses, cattle, and bustling people?’.

A vivid imagination could conjure up hazy images of men pushing boats, long poles stabbed through the water into the river bed, strong backs and arms straining in rhythm across the muddy current. You might see scores of cattle submerged in water up to their shoulders and haunches forming a moving living bridge as they forged across the river, the calamity of bovine bellows punctuated by cracks of whips and hoots of cattle drivers on horseback.

One might envision the ghost of a steel or wooden bridge sitting quietly atop the two tall cement piers piercing upright out of the riverbed. The two pilings stand like giant tombstones, a testament to decades of humanity crossing indifferent flowing water. Imagine its predecessors -wooden bridges and creaking ferry boats- and its descendents, the steel railroad trestle and modern white characterless straightaway spanning the two shores.

Unlike decades, even 150 years ago, when events on both shores changed daily, weekly, monthly. Now everything around appears to be a long continuum, with only one road across the water. Yes, you can get there from here.

Close to the pilings upstream, I could make out a gently descending, grassy wide bank on the Oklahoma side. Barely discernable were two ruts down this bank, disappearing into the water. Could that be Colbert’s ferry landing?


The sand bar I stood on was at least 500 feet downstream, and I wondered if this was really the Texas ferry landing. The steep embankment we climbed down further caused me to question the validity of this location. When asked, the landowner offered the explanation that the ferries navigated downstream while crossing the river. Yet at least three sources I read disagreed, describing the landing on the Texas bank directly across from the opposite bank. Considering John Malcolm’s description of how two crossings operated simultaneously, this could have been an additional landing.


I shrugged to myself; I might never know for sure. Instead I was satisfied by viewing the expanse of the north river bank knowing that in this vicinity, so close now, was where thousands of lives crossed the river and dissipated into time. So little is remembered.

Casey and I compared notes of the trail through Texas and I recommended he not miss Jacksboro. In addition to the small town being a favorite of mine, it is also a good representation of mixing old and new, sometimes appearing suspended in time.

(photo courtesy of Ed)

I climbed back up the gouged steep bank, grabbing onto branches to pull myself up but avoiding the prolific growth of poison ivy. In the small grassy clearing, we turned the bikes around, mounted and rolled the throttle forward for the ride back to the main road. Riding the bouncy wide trail bordered by tall and dense trees caused me to wonder if Ormsby felt the same thrill of adventure as he gazed out the windows of his stagecoach.

Back on the wide sandy road, there I was on my green whining gasoline pony, standing on the pegs and coaxing it forward with an aggressive twist of the throttle. Knowing this was the old road to and from the toll bridge made me feel as though I was racing through decades in the expanse of a few minutes.

With a confident thrill of skimming over sand, I grinned widely as we approached the broken asphalt near the modern highway where people sped by in their boxes on wheels and entrenched in the fleeting moments of their short lives. As I left my visit to many ghosts spanning a river and 150 years, I felt as though I had emerged from a time machine.


We returned to the park, loaded up our camping gear and moved elsewhere to a shelter. At the end of a cul-de-sac, our shelter stood near the edge of a meandering cliff overlooking Lake Texoma. It was quiet, peaceful and dark with twinkling stars overhead. I awoke once in the night to a chorus of coyotes on the hunt somewhere nearby and I smiled before drifting back to sleep In the morning we would begin our journey along the old Butterfield Trail south into Texas.


Next: Dennison

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posted by Macrobe
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