The Cornelia H., operated by the People’s Ferry Company. The double-ended ferry boat was in service between Portland and Ferry Village from 1885 until 1892, when it was destroyed by fire. Etta Gregory Watts Collection/South Portland Historical Society

As most of us know, Ferry Village was so named because it was the site of the ferry landing for service across the Fore River. From the times when the early European settlers arrived, they needed a way to get across the river as there was no bridge until the 1800s. Irregular ferry service has been documented as far back as 1678.

Regular ferry service was not established until after Falmouth was incorporated in 1718 (the current-day cities and towns of Portland, Falmouth, Westbrook, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth were all one town, or parish, known as Falmouth in those early years).

The new town decided to regulate the ferry; one had to purchase the rights to offer this service. The first two men who were granted this privilege were John Pritchard and John Sawyer in 1719.

In May 1719, John Pritchard purchased the ferry rights on the Portland side of the river (the area called “the Neck” at that time). His ferry landing was near his house, on the eastern side of Clay Cove, near the foot of India Street. On the southern side of the river (the area called “Purpooduck” at that time), John Sawyer obtained the ferry privilege in 1719 and used a canoe to ferry passengers across.

According to William Jordan’s “History of Cape Elizabeth, Maine:” “John Sawyer had built a large crib-work wharf close by the foot of what is now Sawyer Street.” While these early ferry operators appeared to have built their own landings, throughout history the town(s) would generally be responsible for building and maintaining ferry landings on both sides of the river.

After the American Revolution, Capt. Cary McLellan purchased the ferry privilege for a period of 25 years; he would end up running the ferry service for roughly eight years before surrendering the privilege. Capt. McLellan, and many ferry operators before and after him, transported passengers by either rowing or sailing them across.

The power of granting the ferry privilege was later transferred from the town to the state. In February of 1847, the Maine state legislature granted the first charter for ferry service to the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Ferry Company. There was a lot of excitement in the community about the prospect of the first-ever steam ferry to service this line.

The ferry company had a side-wheel, double-ended steam ferry built at the Turner and Cahoon yard in Ferry Village; it was named the Elizabeth and launched on June 17, 1848. The Elizabeth was immediately put into service and ran between Maine Wharf on the Portland side and the Cape Elizabeth ferry landing.

The People’s Ferry Company had the steamer Elizabeth City built to replace the Cornelia H. The double-ended ferry was in service between Portland and Ferry Village from 1893 to 1912. Etta Gregory Watts Collection/South Portland Historical Society

There is not enough room in a newspaper column for a complete history of the Cape Elizabeth ferry; a more complete history is available at the South Portland Historical Society. I will share these additional highlights that give a feel for the operation of the ferry service over the years.

Most ferry operators seem to have had a hard time making enough money on this short route to make it work. The Portland and Cape Elizabeth Ferry Company declared bankruptcy in 1851.

The town came up with money over the next few years to pay Joseph W. Dyer, Benjamin W. Pickett, and Henry Goddard to keep the ferry Elizabeth running on the line. After the Elizabeth was destroyed by fire in 1856, a new company was chartered, the Cape Elizabeth Steam Ferry Company. That company had the ferry Little Eastern built by Joseph W. Dyer; the Little Eastern was in operation from 1857 to 1864 when it was replaced by the side-wheel steamer H.H. Day (also built by Joseph W. Dyer).

Throughout the mid- to late-1860s, that company had financial problems and, in spite of the town subsidizing the ferry over the next few years, that company declared bankruptcy in 1870. The Legislature incorporated another ferry company in 1872, this one going by the original name of Portland and Cape Elizabeth Ferry Company. The new company operated the ferry for the next decade with less than stellar service and with ferry rates that kept rising to keep the company in business.

The combination of poor service and rising ticket prices resulted in residents rising up in 1885 and demanding a change. Angry residents circulated a petition that went to the State Legislature, asking for the rights for a new company to be chartered which would be allowed to compete with the existing company. The State Legislature agreed and thus the People’s Ferry Company was incorporated. The town of Cape Elizabeth voted to lease the ferry landing to this new company for 10 years.

That, of course, left the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Ferry Company with no landing in Cape Elizabeth. In May 1885, they received permission from the Harbor Commissioners to build a new wharf and ferry landing, located between the original ferry landing and the marine railway.

For the next 10 years, there were two competing ferry lines offering regular service between Portland and Cape Elizabeth. By 1895, however, the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Ferry Company discontinued its service, leaving only the People’s Ferry Company.

The People’s Ferry had had a new steam ferry built, the Elizabeth City, which launched in March 1893 and proved to be a solid steamer providing regular, reliable service for many years. Due to declining revenue, she was removed from service in January 1912. One of the last ferries on the line was the little steamer Lottie & May.

Regular ferry service between Portland and South Portland was discontinued in 1934. Although many residents would love to see a ferry operating again, the costs of a boat, fuel, captain/crew and insurance have proven prohibitive on such a short run.

Note to readers: If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please consider a donation to South Portland Historical Society to help support its mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you.

If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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