Thursday, June 20, 2013

Eagle Rock Ferry Across the Snake Opens for Business

On June 20, 1863, a new ferry north of today’s Idaho Falls carried its first load of wagons and stock across the Snake River. The ferry had been built by William Hickman and Harry Rickard. Hickman took the lead on construction while Rickard scouted the best route to reach their crossing from the south. (Records also give the name as “Rickards,” “Rickets,” “Rickett,” and other variations.)

In the summer of 1862, prospectors discovered gold along Grasshopper Creek, about twenty miles west of today’s Dillon, Montana (then part of Idaho Territory, of course). That set off a rush into the area, and Bannack City was founded on the creek. Because the camp was east of the Continental Divide, newcomers generally came from that side, rather than from the Pacific Coast. One of the best routes for supplies, and newcomers, departed the Oregon Trail near Soda Springs and headed north.

The following spring, even richer discoveries in Alder Gulch strengthened the rush. At some point, the wagons – many with freight, plus some emigrants – had to cross the Snake River. By May 1863, Jacob Meeks and John P. Gibson had established a ferry near the mouth of the Blackfoot River.

Trains could also use Flathead Crossing, a ford about forty miles further up the river. But high water virtually closed the ford, and even moderate flow made it unsafe.

We know very little about Rickard or Hickman beyond their involvement with the ferry. They appear to have been freighters themselves, and saw opportunity at the spot. They began building their vessel and rig near the ford in late May. Eagles nesting on a lava rock island downstream from the crossing provided a name: Eagle Rock Ferry.
Rope Ferry Illustration. National Archives.

By the time the ferry was ready, some 230 emigrants and freighters had backed up at the crossing. About two hundred of them made it across when the ferry opened on the 20th.

Rickard and Hickman operated the ferry for about a year. They then sold out to freighter James Madison “Matt” Taylor and two partners who had formed the Oneida Road, Bridge, and Ferry Company. That company received a legal franchise for both the ferry and a bridge when the Territorial Legislature met in December 1864.

The following summer, the company built a toll bridge where the river narrowed, about nine miles below the ferry crossing. Later, pioneer writers called the settlement that grew up there Taylor’s Bridge or Eagle Rock. After Taylor sold his share to a partner in 1872, the Eagle Rock name prevailed. That was formally changed to Idaho Falls in 1891.

References: [Illust-State]
Barzilla W. Clark, Bonneville County in the Making, Self-published, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1941).
“Eagle Rock Ferry,” Reference Series No. 71, Idaho State Historical Society (1982).

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