SIC 4482 Ferries


SIC 4482

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in operating ferries for the transportation of passengers or vehicles. Establishments primarily engaged in providing lighterage services are classified in SIC 4499: Water Transportation Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.



Coastal and Great Lakes Passenger Transportation


Inland Water Passenger Transportation


In the mid-2000s there were over 700 ferries in operation in the United States, which carry some 175 million passengers each year. Most are small operations, but 62 were large ferries that could transport up to 500 vehicles plus passengers or 2,000 passengers. By ridership numbers, New York and Washington State operated the busiest ferry systems. In the first half of the 2000s there were approximately 225 total operators provided ferry service on 485 nonstop ferry route segments, comprising 350 ferry routes and serving 575 ferry terminal locations. Over 10 percent of ferries were high speed vessels, capable of going 25 knots or faster.

After falling to historic lows in the 1970s, U.S. ferry services began enjoying a revival in popularity as commuters sought alternatives to overcrowded highways. On July 1, 2004 new security measures were put in place under the Maritime Transportation Security Act, which sought to step up safety measures to guard against terrorist attacks on U.S. ferries. Despite security concerns, several large ferry operators were introducing new ferries, including expanded fast ferry services.


Ferries in the United States run the gamut from small floating parking lots capable of carrying a few dozen cars a short distance to huge ferryliners, such as those servicing the Alaska Marine Highway, that are capable of carrying hundreds of automobiles. Some even provide passengers with conveniences ranging from lounges and cafeterias to overnight accommodations on trips that could last up to a week. Some old-fashioned rope or steam-operated paddle-wheel ferries still run as tourist attractions and as a living monument to the long history of ferries in the United States.

Multi-route ferry systems, such as the Alaskan system or the Washington State Ferry System, are often operated by state departments of transportation. However, many commuter routes in urban areas such as New York and San Francisco are privately operated. Highway river crossings are characterized by a mix of government and privately run services. Federal law requires that all passenger ferries be inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard. There was no national organization of ferry operators, although many of them belonged to the American Waterways Operators.


Ferries are commonly defined as boats that carry passengers or vehicles across narrow bodies of water in return for payment. They have a long history. Even Charon, ferryman for the dead in ancient Greek mythology, demanded payment before transporting souls across the river Styx into Hades, prompting Greeks to place coins in the mouths of the dead before burying them.

The earliest accounts of European exploration in North America record instances of Native Americans charging to carry passengers across rivers in birch bark canoes. There are, in fact, written accounts of wagons being loaded into two canoes paddled side-by-side. Many early government treaties conferred the right of ferriage to the Native Americans, but the Native Americans were shunted aside as soon as a ferry route became profitable, as John Perry points out in American Ferryboats.

As late as 1828, ten years after Illinois became a state, the Winnebagos controlled the important commercial ferry route across the Rock River at modern day Dixon. When the Winnebago monopoly was challenged in 1827, the native Americans destroyed both the offending ferryboat and ferry house. Eventually, ferriage rights were negotiated as part of the Treaty of Green Bay. French trapper Joe Ogee established the first non-native American ferry in 1829. In 1832, Ogee sold the ferry to John Dixon, and the community became known as Dixon's Ferry.

Piecing together a history of the early American ferryboat industry is difficult because few official records were kept. What is known was usually gleaned from the diaries of travelers, or as was often the case, when squabbles over who had the legal right to provide ferriage ended up in court. However, by the 1640s, there were several established ferry routes in the American colonies. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a request for someone to begin ferry service between Boston and Charlestown. The first regular ferry service between New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island and Brooklyn on Long Island is known to have been in operation by 1643, and probably for several years before that.

In 1654, New Amsterdam also passed what may have been the first ferry ordinance in the New World. The ordinance declared that no one could provide ferriage without a license, that ferry service must adhere to a regular schedule, and that ferry operators must provide shelters for passengers on both shores. Despite the ordinance, however, ferry service between Manhattan and Brooklyn was a contentious free-for-all for more than 100 years as the two communities argued over which had the right to carry passengers across the East River. The dispute often turned ugly, as when Brooklyn radicals burned the ferry house belonging to the officially chartered and licensed New York Corporation. Brooklyn finally won the legal right to provide its own ferry service in 1775. Although the colony of New York appealed to the Court of King George III, the appeal was never heard because the American colonies declared their independence in 1776.

Current-Driven Ferries

Initially, native American canoes were replaced on ferry routes by flat-bottomed boats that were either rowed, poled, or paddled across the stream or river. On open water, ferryboats were often fitted with sails. The first technological improvement was simply to string a rope across the river. The rope allowed the ferry to be pulled across. But more importantly, it acted as a restraint so that the ferry would end up at the right point on the opposite shore instead of being pushed downstream by the current. This made it feasible to build permanent docks, rather than allowing the ferries to run aground along the riverbank somewhere close to their destination. In some places, horses or windlasses were used to pull the ferries.

The use of ropes led to the development of "current ferries." Ferry operators discovered they could use water power to drive the boats by turning them at a slight angle to the river current, much like tacking in a sailboat, except the rope also kept the ferry from moving downstream. The return trip could be made by reversing the angle of the ferry. The current ferry established the pattern of double-ended ferryboats, which removed the need to turn the boat around. Eventually, wire cables replaced ropes, but current ferries remained the most common short-haul ferries in the United States into the nineteenth century. Another innovation was the pendulum ferry. Fairly popular in Europe, although rare in the United States, pendulum ferries took advantage of a mid-river island to anchor a rope or cable strung along a line of floating platforms. Such ferries would then swing across the river at the end of the rope pendulums.

Team Boats

Current ferries were fine for narrow rivers that could be spanned by ropes or cables, but broad rivers or coastal bays required a different source of power. The "team boat," which appeared in America in the early nineteenth century, used mules or horses carried aboard the ferry to power a capstan or treadmill that drove a paddle wheel. The Romans apparently used oxen in a similar manner to propel war boats, but team boats were considered an ingenious new invention by early Americans. The first team boat in the United States is believed to have been put in service in 1814 on a run between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Long Island Star reported that the boat took 8 to 18 minutes to cross the East River and carried an average of 200 passengers, plus horses and vehicles. The team boat was the principal type of...

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