Driving home from vacation in northern Wisconsin last Saturday, I decided to veer from the usual interstate highway route and take my family to two of my favorite places in the southern part of the state: Devil’s Lake State Park (photo right) and my hometown of Lodi.
As an added bonus, the drive from the former to the latter involves taking one’s car across the Wisconsin River at Merrimac – on a ferry!
Half tourist attraction, half practical mode of transportation, the Merrimac ferry gives travelers between Sauk and Columbia counties a wonderful and somewhat unexpected opportunity to slow down, get on the water (albeit for only 10 minutes), and enjoy some scenery.
Having grown up just a few miles away, I’ve been riding the ferry since infancy. It also carries a personal connection for my family. My mom’s uncle Walt (my grandfather’s brother-in-law) was one of the pilots of the ferry for many years. He ran things from a little room perched atop the very middle of the craft, controlling both the river crossing and the raising and lowering of the ramps that allow cars on and off the ferry.
Although there appears to be no steering involved – the ferry draws on three underwater cables strung across the river – the pilots do need to get hundreds of vehicles safely across a rather wide stretch of water so I don’t take their responsibilities for granted.
The ferry operators use a public address system to instruct drivers loading and unloading. With our family connection, getting on the ferry always provided a special moment for us. Every time I rode the ferry as a kid, without fail, Uncle Walt would greet my mom – his niece – on the PA system by slipping a “Hello, Bonnie” into his loading instructions to the drivers.
Many people, like me last week, go out of their way to take the ferry, even when a bridge crossing of the river would be shorter and faster. The whole experience of the ferry crossing forces you to slow down. When you arrive at the landing in your car, it’s rare that the ferry is actually there, ready for you to board. You have to stop your car and wait.
At busy times (Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons), with dozens of cars already in line, you might have to wait for one or two crossings before you even get aboard. Meanwhile you can turn off your engine, get out of your car, walk along the shore, throw rocks in the water, take photos, or just wait and do nothing.
Once onboard you have 10 minutes or so to get out of your car again and walk around the railings of the ferry. Upriver you see the railroad bridge (photo right) and Lake Wisconsin beyond. Downstream is a wonderful view of the fields and hills of the river valley.
Leaving the ferry on the Columbia County side, my hometown of Lodi is five miles away on the narrow, winding two lanes of state highway 113. At times, if the first vehicle disembarking is particularly slow and the others have no chance to pass it on the old two-lane road, an entire line of cars and trucks arrive together in town as a pack: one slow guy in front and 10 or 11 impatient drivers in a row behind.
For several years my family lived right on highway 113 just where it enters Lodi from the north. We were among the first to see cars from the ferry come into town. When 10-12 cars arrived in a row it often prompted one of us or some other local to say, “The ferry must have let out.”
That phrase seems to have burned itself into my brain through repetition. Even now, a few decades later, when I see an unusually long line of cars led by one particularly slow driver I still think (and sometimes even say aloud), “The ferry must have let out.”
Every so often the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which runs the ferry, floats the idea of building a bridge at Merrimac. It would eliminate a lot of operational costs, not to mention dramatically improve travel times from one side of the river to the other.
After a few months or years of studies and debate, somehow the bridge idea gets voted down each time and the ferry continues. And people like me continue to take trips, both nautical and nostalgic, between Merrimac and Lodi.