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Ferryboats have operated on the rivers of West Virginia since the days of early settlement. Ferries were well established by the end of the 18th century. By 1803, ferries operated across both the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers at Parkersburg, across the Guyandotte and the Kanawha, and elsewhere. The types of ferries used were as varied as the streams they operated on, and they changed and improved over time.

The earliest and simplest ferries were canoes, skiffs, and rowboats, which transported only foot passengers. These were followed by larger boats capable of carrying livestock and horse-drawn vehicles and pulled across the river on a continuous cable loop attached to pulleys on each side of the stream. This cable-pulley system could be lowered to the bottom when other boats were traveling up or down the river, so as not to obstruct river traffic. The pulling of the ferry flatboat across the stream required a lot of manpower, although ingenious harnesses were sometimes contrived to allow the current to propel the ferry across the stream in both directions.

Animal-powered ferryboats or teamboats were used before the middle of the 19th century. Teamboats were outfitted with paddlewheels that were turned by animal power, usually by horses walking on a treadmill. A horse-powered ferry was advertised in the Kanawha Register in 1830, operating as the Charleston Middle Ferry at Charleston. With the coming of steam as a source of power, ferryboats were outfitted with steam engines and side wheels or sternwheels.

In the absence of bridges, ferries were an absolute necessity for any town located on a stream that wished to grow and prosper. Although operated privately, they were licensed by government as an important public service. Many ferry landings became identified by their operator’s names and some, such as Harpers Ferry on the Potomac, gave their names to entire communities.

Where ferries were located was of great importance to the operator as well as the area he served. It was not unusual for town maps to include the location of all ferries. An 1850 map of Charleston shows Davidson’s Ferry near the mouth of the Elk River and Goshorn’s Ferry crossing the Kanawha River at Court Street. The 90-mile section of the New River area between the Narrows and Kanawha Falls exemplifies the importance of ferries along streams in West Virginia. Between 1761 and the 1940s, 27 ferries operated along this stretch of the New River.

Ferryboats were gradually replaced by bridges. In 2000, there were only four ferries still operating on the Ohio River. By the 2020s, only one remained: from Sistersville, West Virginia, to Fly, Ohio. The Sistersville ferry has been running at the same location since 1817.

Written by Gerald W. Sutphin


  1. Leahy, Ethel C. Who's Who on the Ohio River. Cincinnati: E. C. Leahy Pub., 1931.

  2. Snively, W. D. Jr. & Louanna Furbee. Satan's Ferryman: A True Tale of the Old Frontier. New York: Frederick Unger Pub., 1968.