A History of the Florence Ferry

A History of the Florence Ferry

Called the Winter Quarters Ferry, Golden Gate, the North Mormon Ferry, and the Mormon Ferry, for more than a century there was no way to cross the Missouri River north of Omaha except for a small flat platform moving back-and-forth on a rope, then a cable. This is a history of the Florence Ferry.

A ferry was located on the Missouri at the Florence Bend at least as early as 1845. Chosen for its relatively flat coastline, this crossing was originally for explorers, fur traders, military men, sightseers, and gold seekers, many other emigrants. Often heralded as a great place to build a bridge, it took more than a century for the Mormon Bridge to open.

Mormon settlers established Winter Quarters at the Florence Bend in 1846, and immediately bought the ferry crossing to secure a constant and unfettered ferry to cross the river. In the next decade four other ferry companies operated the river crossing. For a few years, Winter Quarters grew and then was largely deserted after 1848, except for the ferry and a few businesses serving the wagons coming through.

The Gathering of Zion: The story of the Mormon Trail by Wallace Stegner
“Mormon Ferry (Piercy). The Mormon ferry linking Kanseville and the Indian Lands, later Nebraska, was for a full generation of Saints their gateway into the wilderness, the true beginning of the road to Zion.” Caption from The Gathering of Zion: The story of the Mormon Trail by Wallace Stegner.

During the Winter Quarters era, the ferry was operated according to the Mormon policy of segregating themselves from non-Mormons. That led most Mormons to cross at Florence and stay away from the Omaha ferry and most non-Mormons to stay away from the Florence Ferry. During this era, it was called the “North Mormon ferry” because of the Sarpy ferry, also called the South Mormon ferry.

Pottawattamie County supervisors gave the first ferry license to George A. Smith in May 1849, and it was valid for 12 years. Known as the Winter Quarters ferry, Smith ran it for just a few years. That year, the ferry ran eight months from April to December; the next year, it ran from April to October. The costs were:

  • Carriage Cost, 50¢
  • For all four-wheeled carriages or conveyances, 50¢
  • For all two-wheeled carriages or conveyances, 35¢
  • Every yoke of oxen, 12¢
  • All loose cattle, 1¢ each
  • Sheep, 2¢ each
  • Hogs, 3¢ each
  • All horses, mules, or jacks, 10¢ each
  • Man and horse, 25¢
  • Footman, 10¢

By 1852, the ferry was also called the Golden Gate because of the access it provided emigrants to the West. At the beginning of the town of Florence in 1854, the ferry was referred to still as the Winter Quarters Ferry or the Old Mormon Ferry.

When Florence Started

Florence Ferry, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1908 image of the Florence ferry from the Omaha World-Herald.

“…a good and sufficient Ferry Boat at said point for the accommodation of the inhabitants of the adjacent country and the Public generally.”

— 1855 Nebraska Legislature incorporation

In 1855, the Florence Ferry Corporation was established by the first Nebraska Territorial Legislature and given a monopoly over the ferry crossing at the new town of Florence. The next year, town founder James C. Mitchell (1810-1860), noted that he owned,

“One half of the Ferry Privilege, with steam Ferry Boat and about 25 acres of Land at the Ferry Landing.”

In addition to his ferry company, Mitchell owned majority shares of the Florence Mill, the Florence Land Company, the Daily Florence Courier newspaper, a saloon and other businesses. That year, ads for the town said the town had the best ferry landing on the Missouri, and had “good, permanent steamboat landings on both shores, and perhaps, on the Missouri River.” His land company was heavily invested in the area, and he was a constant promoter of the town of Florence.

In 1857 and 1872 the Florence ferry landing was seriously considered as the site for a bridge to be built, but wasn’t selected either time. However, the location of the ferry was barely improved over the years. An interview with a Florence old-timer in the 1960s described the flatboat ferry in the 1890s, saying that,

“…there was an unpaved street from 30th to the river north of the water works and someone had put a steel cable across the river from the end of this street. The ferry was nothing but a wooden barge, large enough for one car or one wagon. There was no motor. It was hung onto the cable and the river current pushed it back and forth.”

By the 1920s, the Florence Ferry landing was owned by the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD). In 1931, the City of Omaha gave a subsidy to the private ferry operator, and MUD gave permission for the ferry to use the landing.

Finally, in 1952 the highway ferry stopped operating when the original single span of the Mormon Bridge opened on December 14th. In 1953, a historical marker was placed at the site of the Florence Ferry to commemorate the opening of the bridge and the site’s historic role in Omaha. It is still there today.

There is also a small parcel of land at the end of Ferry Street just north of the Mormon Bridge called the Ferry Reserve. Though unmarked and unnoticeable today, this parcel has existed since Winter Quarters was started in 1846, and stands as a lasting remnant of the original Missouri River crossing at Florence.

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BONUS PIC!

Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge historical marker, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the official dedication of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge historical marker on June 1, 1953.
Florence Ferry "Nebraska" in 1859.
This is the steam ferry called “Nebraska” that used to land at the Florence Ferry dock. The Ponca Hills are pictured at left.

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