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A River Runs through the Lives of Lyons Ferry

by Ferguson
Lewiston Tribune, April 18, 2004

Ruth Turner watched from shore
as her whole life floated away down the Snake River. It was May 1949.

Three months earlier, Ruth and her husband, Nae G. Turner, sank their life savings from Nae's 19 years as maintenance supervisor with the SP&S (Spokane Portland & Seattle) Railroad in the Tri-Cities into purchasing Lyons Ferry.

"Little did we realize the power of the Snake River," Ruth wrote in an unpublished memoir.

After waiting awhile for a fare to come along, Nae Turner had given up and headed empty for Columbia County on the south side. In midriver, he spotted a car grinding down the canyon on the Franklin County dirt road from Washtucna.

Turner attempted to stop the ferry and return.

A day earlier, Turner had tightened "a very loose and wobbly ferry wheel," wrote Ruth, "and, to his regret and dismay, found he could not turn the tightened wheel fast enough."

The ropes that guided the ferry were attached to the slow-moving ferry wheel. A 2-foot-deep lee board underneath the ferry, which caught the current to power the 25-ton boat from landing to landing, was left broadside to the river.

The great force snapped the ropes.

Ruth, who was childless and in her early 40s, could do nothing but watch her husband and her business float toward the foaming turbulence of the Joso Rapids.

Adrift in high water, Nae grabbed a plank for buoyancy and swam for the north shore. Wet and morose, he walked home by crossing the Joso High Bridge, an engineering marvel nearly 4,000 feet long and 300 feet high, built in 1914 by the Union Pacific Railroad.

"All Nae's dreams and mine, we thought, were gone forever."

Airplane pilot Wayne Casseday of Dayton located the lost ferry beached on a sand bar only 3 1/2 miles downriver. The Turners paid Capt. Leppalatto of The Dalles, Ore., to haul the ferry back home three days later with the tug boat Ostrander.

Once back in service, the Turners never lost the ferry again -- not until it was lost forever to the stream of progress: a traffic bridge and slackwater from Lower Monumental Dam.

Today, strangers still walk into Starbuck Market to ask store owner Ruth Shearer how long it takes to cross the Snake River on the Lyons Ferry.

Thirty-five years ago, the answer would have been about 20 minutes. The record was about three minutes, made during high water on a day like the one when the ferry broke free.

"I say, 'That ferry hasn't run for a long time,' " says Katherine (Ruth) Shearer, 43, of Starbuck.

Shearer was known as Little Ruthie when the ferry last crossed the Snake. She remembers well.

From 1959 to 1968, her father, James E. Shearer, ran the ferry with the man he respectfully refers to as Mr. Turner. Shearer was given one-third ownership of the boat.

The last crossing was Dec. 23, 1968, the day the bridge was opened.

"We took it over there and parked it," says Shearer, 64, a bit wistfully. "Then we took the bridge back, which was very unusual for us."

Both Shearers have vivid recollections of a different time on the river. Their pantry was stocked with Spam, pickled pigs feet and all manner of other canned supplies to survive times when the road to town was impassable because of washouts or weather.

The ferry was open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except when the river was iced over. It crossed seven to eight cars a day at $1 apiece. If vehicles showed up after dark, the drivers flashed their headlights for the ferry. Although it was illegal to make crossings at night, the Shearers have only heard of one person who had to spend the night in a car.

"Mr. Turner must not have been home," says James Shearer.

Along with Ruth Turner's memoirs, Ruth Shearer has the ferry's log books back to 1873. Logs from the 1860s were lost in a fire.

In 1876, one entry shows the military paid $5 to cross a six-mule team and $4 for a four-mule team. It cost $10 to stable the animals overnight.

"I guess you could say there was no inflation on the ferry at a dollar per car after that," Ruth Shearer says.

The ferry opened in 1860 under the ownership of Edward L. Massey. It became a vital part of the 624-mile Mullan Road, which opened in 1862 and linked Walla Walla with Fort Benton, Mont.

By the time the Shearers and Turners made their living crossing people, the ferry had changed hands several times.

The ferry was formerly called the Palouse Ferry until W.J. Cummings, who sold the ferry to the Turners, changed the name to honor the previous owners, Daniel and Olive Lyons. Olive ran the ferry by herself after her husband died.

During the 1950s and 1960s, life on the ferry was idyllic.

Fishermen trolled for fish on their way across. James Shearer recalls catching salmon as well as an 11-foot sturgeon off the ferry.

When the fishing was hot near Kahlotus on the north side of the river, the ferry would move between 150 to 250 cars per day coming from Walla Walla. At 64 1/2 feet long and 20 feet wide, the ferry could haul seven cars, so long as one was a Volkswagen, says James Shearer.

The ferry was also an important shortcut for small town sports fans and moved many cars during high school basketball season.

Every year, rancher Mervin DeRuwe crossed 2,000 to 3,000 sheep at a penny a head. The operation took two to three days and required a chase boat to fish out sheep that jumped overboard. Sometimes cars shared the ferry with the sheep.

"They (the people) thought it was comical," Shearer says.

The Turners retired after the ferry closed. And James Shearer worked for the DeRuwe sheep ranch and other jobs over the years.

Ruth Shearer, who was named after Ruth Turner, moved away from Starbuck for college, but moved back in 1994 to care for Ruth, who died of leukemia at age 86 that same year. Nae Turner died in 1978.

Ruth Shearer purchased the Starbuck Market in 1997.

The old ferry has fallen into disrepair, but remains afloat in the slackwater on the Franklin County side at Lyons Ferry State Park, which is now under private management.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the park property, but has no plans for preserving the ferry, says Ruth Shearer.

"It's hard to find anyone who wants to talk about it," she says, noting Grandma Turner couldn't stand to look at the ferry because of its condition. "There's nobody in charge."

It pains the Shearers to see the final remnant of so much history, personal and regional, wasting away.

"Your mom used to take you across in a little baby carriage," James Shearer says to his daughter while sitting on the wooden bench in her store. He now lives in Dayton.

The Turners never had children of their own. So when James worked the ferry, they were a family of six with the Turners as adopted grandparents, James and his wife, Ida, and the two girls, Ruth and her little sister Naedene, who was named after Nae Turner.

The trips across the Snake left an impression on Ruth. When the river was inundated by slackwater, she speaks as if she lost a cherished friend.

"I remember the sound of the river, the beaver, the sand beaches, just how different it was," she says. "It didn't even sound the same."

A River Runs through the Lives of Lyons Ferry
Lewiston Tribune, April 18, 2004

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