Two ferries across the Delaware River in the Trenton area date from the late 17th century - the Yardley Ferry and the Trenton or Middle Ferry. Two more - the Upper and Lower Ferries - were added later in the 18th century. The Yardley Ferry, four miles above the falls, was established in 1683 and formalized through an act of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1722. It operated into the mid-1830s. The Trenton or Middle Ferry, which may have been in place as early as 1675, crossed the Delaware just below the falls from the foot of Ferry Street. The Pennsylvania Assembly authorized this ferry in 1718; it was also the subject of a patent granted to James Trent by New Jersey's provincial government in 1726.
On the Pennsylvania side of the river, the rights to the Trenton Ferry passed between the Chorley, Biles and Kirkbridge families before being purchased by Patrick Colvin in 1772. In New Jersey, during the colonial period, the ferry was controlled by the owners of the property known today as the William Trent House. The patent of 1726 guaranteed James Trent, William's son, exclusive ferry rights along the New Jersey riverbank for two miles upstream and downstream. These rights passed down through subsequent owners of the Trent estate (William Morris, George Thomas, Robert Lettis Hooper and Daniel W. Coxe), but the ferry was typically operated through lease arrangements with local ferrymen. In the 1750s, one enterprising operator, Andrew Ramsay, "late of Long Island Ferry," linked the Trenton Ferry to the stagecoach line between Trenton and New Brunswick and a downstream boat service to Philadelphia.
In the 1770s, as Lamberton was expanding from a fishing village into a river town and Trenton's port, a second trans-Delaware ferry was added. Set up in 1773 by Elijah Bond in New Jersey and John Thornton in Pennsylvania, this ferry was known as the Lamberton or Lower Ferry. For several years it competed successfully with the Trenton Ferry, serving between 1776 and 1781 as the "Continental Ferry" where Americans in active military service could cross the river at reduced rates. In May 1781 the Continental Ferry designation was shifted upstream to the Trenton Ferry where, later that year, French military topographers, compiling an itinerary for Rochambeau's army noted: "You reach the ferry, where there are several houses ?. There are generally 2 ferryboats and some sailboats available for crossing."
A third ferry, the Upper Ferry, also started up during the Revolutionary War period. Crossing near where the Calhoun Street bridge spans the river today, this ferry was apparently established by George Beatty and was in use around the time of the Battles of Trenton in the winter of 1776-77. All three Trenton ferries - Upper, Middle and Lower - competed for river crossing business for a quarter century or so. Their importance faded quickly after the first Trenton-Morrisville bridge was opened in 1806.
Crossing the Delaware at Trenton
Crossing the river between Trenton and Morrisville has always been a challenge. The so-called "falls of the Delaware," a ragged spread of schist in the riverbed between the Trenton Makes and Calhoun Street bridges, are barely passable on foot and horseback at low water. Yet, this ford was important as the furthest upstream point where the river could be crossed without resorting to boats. As a result, prehistoric and early historic land routes converged on this point in the landscape, providing much of the stimulus for the local settlement growth. With this confluence of roads, it was not long before ferries were established in the area to handle traffic too awkward or cumbersome for the ford. The boom ferry years extended from the late 17th through into the early 19th century. With the completion of the first Trenton to Morrisville bridge over the Delaware River in 1806, the need for ferries began to wane. Today, three road and two rail bridges carry traffic across the river in the immediate Trenton area.
Most ferryboats were either of raft-like pontoon construction or long, narrow, flat-bottomed vessels with low sides and hinged flaps at each end to facilitate loading and unloading. Poles, oars and sometimes sails were used to assist in navigating the river currents and various other items, such as hooks, chains and ropes, were part of the ferryman's standard equipment. The ferry terminus often emerged as the hub of a larger settlement complete with a ferry house, a tavern and other residences. Trenton Ferry, for example, was a small but lively riverside enclave in the mid-18th century, a place where George Burns saw fit to open and advertise a "house of entertainment" in 1754.