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Usk ferry marks 100 years of service

THE SINGLE remaining ferry service on the Skeena River is still going strong as it turns 100-years-old this year.

Dan Hamilton was the Usk ferry man for 10 years and says he knew of seven ferries on the Skeena River and that this one is quite unique.

“It runs off the biggest motor there is, the Skeena River,” he says.

The ferry goes with the current, which wants to push it downstream, and an overhead cable suspended by towers is anchored on each riverbank.

Another cable attaches the ferry to the overhead cable and rudders are used to steer it across the river.

“You turn it into the current and the current is trying to push it downstream, but it’s tethered so it has to shoot across [the water],” says Hamilton.

It’s a very simple design, he adds.

When the ferry was switched from its wooden construction to steel, around 1947, a counterweight was added, he says.

The ferry’s wooden pontoons, which were lost in a flood in 1947, were replaced with steel pontoons.

The original wooden ferry was constructed in 1913 and run privately until the government took it over in the early 1920s, says Hamilton.

It was installed because Usk was an important station on the railway and the area was being promoted as having great agricultural and recreational potential.

When the ferry began operating, Usk had a hotel, a store, churches and a sawmill on the opposite side of the river to the railway.

Lumber produced by the mill was transported across the Skeena to the railway by means of an aerial tramway.

In addition to this, there was gold and copper mining activity nearby.

Later Usk, believed to be named after a town in Wales, began to decline as Terrace grew and people moved to the city.

The flood of 1936 was when most residents left and Terrace had all the jobs anyway at that time, he adds.

Hamilton has been living in Usk for 22 years and says that back then, more than 50 people lived there and then the population dropped, but then for years it’s gone up and down.

However, there is still enough people, at a population of about 20 full-time residents, to warrant having the ferry.

In addition, people in the area have weekend property there, including two U.S. citizens, says Hamilton.

People like living in Usk, not just because of the peace and quiet, but also because the only access to it is by ferry or train.

This time of year, people use the ferry to bring their winter supplies across before the ferry shuts down after Halloween for about six months or so, says Hamilton. Then people use the cable car, which operates on the same schedule, he adds, saying it was put in around 1961.

What people don’t know is back then, before the cable car, the only way across in the winter was walking over the frozen Skeena River, says Hamilton.

“The ferry man still was responsible to get people across the ice,” says Hamilton.

That meant checking the ice for safety and then laying boards across it for people to walk on. In areas where there still was water, people would get into a little boat to cross to the next section of ice, he says.

And the ferry men never lost anyone, he adds.

“Now you wouldn’t even consider it but it was commonplace then,” he says about walking across the river on the ice.

The costs to run the ferry today are basic maintenance and wages for the ferry man.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Usk Ferry being installed, the Ministry of Transportation will be unveiling a plaque at 1 p.m. Oct. 17 in the upper Usk ferry parking lot. People will be able to take the ferry across the river and there will be refreshments.

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