The northern portion of the Colville Indian Reservation, a half degree of latitude adjacent to the Canadian border bounded by the Columbia and Okanogan rivers, was opened to prospectors in 1896. That same year Henry Covington, a local Indian, began operating a canoe ferry across the Columbia at the mouth of the San Poil to serve the prospectors heading up the trail to the diggings on foot. The canoe was later replaced by a pole barge that Covington ran until 1916.
Covington’s monopoly was short lived. The Spokane Spokesman Review reported the establishment of a cable ferry capable of handling heavier traffic on February 25, 1897…
“WAGON ROAD UP THE SANS POIL - Will be Extended to the International Boundary.
C.P. Chamberlin, receiver of the Central Washington, and Captain Hanford, representing the Sans Poil & Columbia Ferry and Transportation Company, left yesterday for Wilbur, where they will look after the construction of a wagon road up the Sans Poil to tap the mining districts of the Colville reservation. The ferry is now in operation near Wilbur and a wagon road has been built for a considerable distance up the Sans Poil. It is the intention of the company to extend this road to the international boundary, and probably to build a branch into the Okanogan country. The right of way has been secured.”
The steamer Victory, piloted by Henry’s father “Virginia” Bill Covington, began operating in competition with the cable ferry in 1900 but the service lasted only a year because of problems with the craft’s mechanical systems.
J.C. Keller for whom the crossing is named, ran the cable ferry company until 1925 when the property was taken over by Ferry County in a condemnation proceeding. Keller had incurred the wrath of the public by charging a toll of seventy five cents at a time when other operators on the Columbia were charging fifty.
The thirties were a decade of change for the river and the ferries. Washington State Ferries took over operation of the Keller crossing on September 1, 1930 and removed the tolls. Construction of Grand Coulee Dam stilled the current that propelled the cable ferry across the river. A sidewheel paddle boat, the L.A. McLoed, was installed to make the run across what is now Lake Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 1, 1939.
The Martha S., a 20 ton V bottom steel barge powered by diesel engines, was placed in operation at the Keller crossing on September 8, 1948. It can carry 12 cars and is still in operation.
Ferry County was named in honor of Elisha P. Ferry, Washington’s first state governor and not for its many ferry crossings. How the San(s) Poil lost its second “S” is a bit of a mystery.