The old wooden ferry at Norfork, Arkansas, first started operating in the early 1940’s. Sid Hutcheson built it to carry folks across the White River from Martin Springs and the remote Leatherwoods beyond. Most ferries in those days were powered across the river by the pull of the swift current. The ferry was attached to a cable strung across the river and a pulley attached to the cable allowed the current to pull the boat to the other side with a little guidance occasionally from the ferry operator.
Before the ferry, folks had to ford the swift river on a flat boat and walk to their destination on the other side. This was a treacherous undertaking. Sometimes the river would flood. The water could rise as high as the railroad bridge that ran across the mouth of the North Fork River where it joined the great White. Back then there were no ferries or bridges to carry traffic across the rivers and no dams to help avoid the floods.
In the mid-1940’s Rudolf Martin, a teacher, farmer and Norfork merchant, purchased the ferry. Martin hired Chester and Goldie Smith, among others, to run the ferry. Smith and his family operated it during the 1950’s and 1960’s. They lived in a small house on the White River bank across from Norfork. Whenever traffic arrived on either side of the river, Smith ran the ferry to deliver the vehicle across the cold, swift, current. Usually the ferry could only carry one vehicle at a time.
In the late 1950’s Rudolf Martin bought one of the first steel ferries in Arkansas to replace the old wooden Norfork ferry that had become seriously waterlogged. The new steel gray ferry was manufactured in Newport, Arkansas. It was transported to Norfork on a large flatbed truck. When the new ferry arrived on a warm summer day the whole town came out to see it parade style. Onlookers lined the main street to look and wave as the new ferry was carried through town and down the riverbank to its new home. It was quite a celebratory day in Norfork.
After the new ferry was operational, two or sometimes three vehicles could now cross the river together. It rode much higher in the water than the old wooden ferry. The new ferry was still attached by a pulley to the old cable that ran high across the river and allowed the swift current to do most of the work. After the Norfork Dam was built in the early 1940’s the river no longer flooded as much as it had in the past, but it was still swift and cold.
The Norfork ferry continued to serve the community until 1972 when the Dr. Z. T. Sheid Bridge was built a short distance up the White River. Thanks to the persistence of Representative Vada Sheid, the Arkansas Highway Commission, and Norfork Mayor Ross Alexander, the new bridge greatly improved access for residents of the Leatherwoods. When the bridge opened, the Norfork ferry was no longer needed and was moved from the White River.
This article was written by Hazel Jean Martin Alexander and Donna Alexander Smith and originally published in the Baxter County Historical & Genealogical Society (BCHGS) quarterly for June-September 2011.
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