History Highlight: The St. Croix River Ferry and The Carnes Sisters

Riveting recollections from one of the women who operated a ferry across the river in the 1930s and 1940s.




6 minute read

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the winter 2011-2012 newsletter of the Chisago County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The article is comprised of excerpts from a 1981 booklet by Mae Carnes Boyce titled, “My Childhood Memories.” It was provided to the Historical Society by her nephew (Vivian’s son), Stub Johnson of North Branch.

The Rush City Ferry was located in Almelund at the mouth of the Sunrise River, the present-day location of Wild River State Park’s Sunrise River Landing on the Minnesota side and the Sunrise Ferry Landing on the Wisconsin side.

The [St. Croix River] ferry was once owned by all our Wisconsin neighbors who each owned a share. As they moved away from the barrens, [Polk County, Sterling Township] some just needed money so my father bought them out. Then he became sole owner.

How long the ferry was in existence before my dad, Clarence (known as Ted) Carnes, ran it, I don’t know. But I do remember around 1922 it was run by Loren Carnes, my dad’s uncle, and Herman Lehman (Polly, to all who knew him). My dad had a government charter to operate the ferry, but I do not remember ever seeing it. It may have been valuable, but I don’t know. We had prowlers in our house when I was quite small and I do remember my dad saying “the only thing I can think they would be after would be the ferry charter.”

The first ferry was an old heavily tarred affair that leaked like a sieve. My brother spent a lot of time pumping it out. Then my dad made a new one. He sent to Washington state for the lumber— two huge, huge planks which were the sides. Then, of course, it had two floors and that was sealed till it was waterproofed. Then the top floor was about two feet up from the base. The cars drove on that floor. On each end had an apron which we could raise up or down. Down as we drove off and up as we were crossing.

We had one cable with two pulleys. They were attached to chains, one on each end of the ferry. Those we adjusted so the current in the river would help [with the crossing]. For many years we only had poles we pushed on to get across [the river]. Later, we had an Elto outboard motor attached to the side of the ferry. When we could get them [motors] started, that worked fine. But, as with anything mechanical, they failed to start much of the time. Us girls got to be pretty handy with pliers and wrenches.

The ferry my dad built would haul three cars at a time which was a big improvement over the old one. I believe that one held maybe two. My dad finished that new ferry in 1930. My dad was farming when we were tending the ferry. He also had a summer resort with four cabins and a campground. He also did guiding while my mother cooked for many of the resort crowd. She washed all the bedding by hand. During the weekdays, Sis or I were at the home place helping with family, etc.

My older brother and dad did not see eye to eye, so he moved to Iowa when he was 18. He married and lived there until he died at the age of 26. My sister Lila and brother Vernie were younger so they got out of a lot of hard work. Vernie died in WW I at the age of 22.

One time I wished with all my heart that (my mother) could row a boat. My brother, Vernon, who was four years younger than me, and I got trapped on the ferry in flowing ice. We were stranded on the ferry. We had no boat alongside like we usually did and we could go neither direction. My mother was watching us. Finally some neighbors (the Wards) just happened to come down. They took the boat out to us and we were (brought) safely back to land. That was really scary, not knowing if the ferry would break loose, sink or what. We had taken our dad across to go to work in Minnesota and it was late fall. We crossed over okay, there was lots of flowing ice, but it didn‟t pile up on the side of the ferry. We started back across and things went okay until we got halfway across. We still could push the boat with pole, but the ice built up till we couldn’t move. We let one chain out as far as we could. We were 3/4s across when all this happened.

One spring when Loren Carnes was operating the ferry, the waves were real high and the water was splashing onto the ferry. It filled with water and almost sunk. A passenger had been picking blueberries to take to town and sell and as the water starting going across the ferry it started sinking deeper. All he could say was “my blueberries? My blueberries! They’re all I’ve got.” We used to get a big laugh [about that story], but I suppose at the time those blueberries were pretty important to him.

Years back, there was not too much business except on weekends and during blueberry picking time. But during depression years, I think every back road and every spring and creek had a moonshine still, so we had many bootleggers. Most of their crossings were at night, of course. My sister, Vivian, and I were in charge of the ferry at that time. The moonshiners were very nice to us, so we were never afraid of them. Some of them were women. Times were bad and it [making moonshine] was a way to make a living. Most of them were from St. Paul and Minneapolis, but many of our neighbors were involved in the business, too.

The charge for crossing was a small amount. When it was someone with shares, I believe they crossed free. But by the time Sis and I stopped running it, I believe it was 75 cents one way and 25 cents if they came back.

Another incident I remember was an old bootlegger who stopped his old Model T on the top of the hill on the Wisconsin side. For some reason he got out and must have forgotten to put on the brake, cause we heard ratteltybang and away went the car. Well, it completely missed the ferry and went in the water off to the side. It went into deep water, too. So he had no way of getting it out that night. The next day my sister got out our horses from home, and with his help, pulled out the Model T. So help me, we had it up high and dry and he was going to drive it on the ferry. It started after a little adjustment to the carburetor and he was all set. He had his young son with him this time. Well, he didn’t remember that his car had been in the water all night which affected the brakes. This time he was on the ferry but couldn’t stop. So he got on the ferry, but with no brakes he got hung up on the apron and there he stopped again, half in the water and half out. That young boy was so scared! I bet he never rode with his father again. We crossed the river with the car balancing on the end of the ferry. When we got to the Minnesota side, he could get the car off. We were surely lucky, and so was he.

The old ferry house was a two room tar papered house to the right of the road up on the hill. My brother, Leland, was the first to run the ferry after Ray Carnes and my dad took it over. But my dad built a log cabin on the left side of the road. There are barely any signs of it now. It was a one room with a screened porch. Sis and I stayed day and night because home was about a mile and a half away. We had a telephone and we usually had the car in case of trouble.

One night my dad called us and told us we’d better get home—a storm was coming up. We got home safely and there was a bad storm. We did not go back until morning cause so many trees were down across the road. Well, good thing we hadn’t stayed at the cabin; the main room was completely gone, the ferry was there, but sunk. All of our row boats had been blown away. We were in a sad state. But we were unharmed. Then we put a tent up behind what was left of the cabin and used that for a time. I was really afraid, but my sister was the brave one.

After my dad died, my mother moved to Iowa in 1938 or 1938, and she left Leonard Franklin (known as Blink) operate the ferry. I don’t believe he had it more than a year. He pulled it into the Sunrise River one fall, to keep it from ice damage on the St. Croix River. When the ice broke up in the spring, the ice took the ferry and it was found in the swamp below Wolf Creek, Wisconsin. The river was very high and flooded the swamp. As far as I know, the ferry is still where the high water took it. Parts may have been stolen. The cable is [most likely] still in the river as that must have broken loose. It’s probably buried under tons of sand.


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7 responses to “History Highlight: The St. Croix River Ferry and The Carnes Sisters”

  1. Russ Hanson Avatar

    My Grandmother, Nettie Carnes and her brother, Elza, ran the ferry in the summer of 1909. Elza was back from soldiering in the Phillipines with consumption and needed a job that was not too hard. He and Grandma ran it that summer. He passed away later that year.
    Her younger brother, Clarence (in the story here) took it over later. Mom was a first cousin of Mae Carnes Boyce. She grew up along the Wisconsin side of the St Croix a few miles from the ferry. That whole generation of Carnes from that era are gone with mom passing away a year and a half ago.
    Their father, Charles Wesley Carnes, and two of his brothers, Loren and Oren all homesteaded 160 acres each of the sandy land near the St Croix River, coming with a large group of settlers from Dunkerton Iowa about 1900-1910. They were drawn by the remaining free land, the second growth logging on the St Croix, and the Cushing Land agency (Baker Land and Title) advertising the sandy land as potentially good farmland. Of course it wasn’t.

    1. Sherry Avatar

      Thank you for sharing that information about Nettie and Elza. Mae Carnes was my grandmother and while having heard a lot of stories what you shared was new information.

  2. WynnM Avatar

    what a treat! Thanks so much for this story of life on the river.

  3. Brad Bjorklund Avatar
    Brad Bjorklund

    My kids, grand kids and I have been swimming out of Nevers Dam for the past six plus summers and we marvel at how much the river bottom changes from year to year, especially after a wet spring melt. This summer we found holes 13 feet deep that were 2 feet deep the previous year. One day that ferry cable and maybe even the old ferry itself will get exposed. Diligent observation may produce an historical find..

    1. troy Avatar

      The ferry still sits in the swamp by wolf creek. The steel hull is about all that is identifiable.

  4. Marian McLean Grider Avatar
    Marian McLean Grider

    Very interesting! Do you know when the last ferry crossed the river there?

  5. Karen Avatar

    Hi Russ,
    I just worked out the rest of the Carnes family line. We are from Scotland.


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History Highlight: The St. Croix River Ferry and The Carnes Sisters