While the drought conditions covering much of the nation have been disastrous for farmers and others who depend on water, there has been one unexpected benefit – lowered water levels in rivers and man-made lakes are giving people today glimpses of life in the past, as entire towns submerged when dams were built are coming into sight as the waters recede. In the Flint River in south Upson County, a different kind of glimpse into the past has become visible in the water – what is believed to be the remaining pieces of the Gray’s Ferry.
In the early days of Upson and the surrounding counties, long before there were state and federal highways and bridges, ferries played a major role in transporting people, horses and wagons, and the goods they carried across rivers that were not shallow enough to ford on foot. Gray’s Ferry played a role in the development of the south Upson area in the 1800’s, and may have also been the site of a murder in 1892.
The remains of the ferry, believe to be made of heart pine and wrought iron, are lying about 2-3 feet below the surface in the mud of the Flint River between Upson and Taylor counties. Portions of the wooden boards can be seen, including sections with holes in them where the cable used to move the ferry may have been threaded. The man who discovered the ferry in the mud notified surveyor Doug Gordon who, in turn, notified Gary Self of the Upson County Historical Society, and the Thomaston-Upson Archives.
Gordon said if the remains are of the Gray’s Ferry, it is an important historical artifact.
“It needs to be documented and photos taken of it to prove that it was here,” Gordon said last Monday, concerned that then-approaching Hurricane Isaac might bring rains that would raise the level of the river and the ferry would once again disappear into the murky depths.
In Place Names of Georgia, Essays of John Goff, written between 1954-1964 and published by the University of Georgia Press in 1975, Grays Ferry can be found in his writings concerning the route that U. S. 80 now follows.
Goff states that surveys of the area in 1821 show a dirt road called Booths Road that ran southwest from Crawford County across Auchumpkee Creek into Upson County. The surveys show the road stopping short of the Flint River. However, four years late in 1825, Samuel Calhoun was authorized to open a public ferry at or near the point where Booths Road would have crossed the Flint if it had continued. Goff goes on to write that in later years there was a successor to the Calhouns Ferry called Grays Ferry, which crossed the river downstream from where Calhouns Ferry had been. It is believed where Grays Ferry crossed was part of a path that Indians in the area used before the land was ceded to Georgia.
In 1892, a murder may have taken place at Gray’s Ferry. According to an article in the December 2, 1892 issue of The Thomaston Times, two black men, Jerry Walker, who ran the ferry, and John Rush, a gambler, were engaged in a card game at the ferry landing on November 24, 1892. According to witnesses, Walker had just laid down five dollars and dealt a hand of cards when someone asked to be taken across on the ferry. Stopping the game, Walker transported the person across and came back. But Rush told Walker he has misdealt, and Rush picked up the five dollars. An argument ensued and Walker shot Rush with a Marlin rifle, killing him instantly. Walker then picked up the winnings and fled the scene, never to be seen again.
According to The Times’ article, the incident happened at the “Respess and Swift’s Ferry on the Flint.” But while an 1897 survey map of Upson County made by W. J. Matthews shows 12 ferries, including Gray’s Ferry, there is no evidence of there having been a Respess and Swift’s Ferry. A second article on the murder appeared in the December 6, 1892 issue of The Butler Herald. In that article, the site of the shooting is referred to as “Gray’s Ferry in Upson County.”
While it is not known when Gray’s Ferry ceased operation, the 1917 Geological Survey of surface water supplies mentions records of the Flint River being taken at Gray’s Ferry from July 1, 1911 to September 30, 1916. The Survey listed the location of the ferry as 1.5 miles upstream from the mouth of Auchumpkee Creek and 14 miles southwest of Culloden. It also states that measurements were taken from the ferryboat and a rowboat held in place by “a small galvanized cable,” and that a gauge to judge the depth of the river was a “staff in four sections on left bank at ferry landing.”
“How many ferries crossed the Flint is hard to determine, but there were plenty,” states Brown’s Guide to Georgia. “The real heyday of ferries was in the 19th century, although some continued to operate well into the 20th century. In 1920, the Georgia Highway Department took over the state road system and the ferries on those roads were purchased from private individuals who had been operating them. Toll charges were abolished at state-owned ferries. One by one though, bridges replaced the ferries.”
The last ferry crossing in Georgia was on the Flint River near Marshallville. While it closed down in 1988, today there are still 25 ferries operating in various places around the United States.
Editor’s note: Information for this article was obtained with the assistance of the staff of the Thomaston-Upson Archives.