A franchise to operate a ferry across the Snake River at the Palouse crossing was granted to Edward Massey by the territorial legislature in 1859. The Army had a hard time suppressing the uprising of the Spokane, Couer d’Alene and Palouse tribes in the summer of 1858. The lack of roads and bridges hampered its ability to move troops to the battlefield and the campaign was an unduly lengthy one. The government, fearful that the influx of miners heading for the new diggings on the Clearwater and British Columbia’s Wild Horse Creek would touch off another Indian war, was now most eager to encourage any improvement to eastern Washington’s meager transportation system.
Massey took over a year to construct a barge and string a guide cable and finally began operation on June 5, 1860. That same year the Palouse Ferry became a key link in the 624 mile military road constructed by Captain John Mullan from Walla Walla to Fort Benton, near present day Great Falls, Montana.
The Snake’s seasonally variable character presented a variety of challenges to the ferrymen in the days before dams turned the free flowing river into a series of stagnant pools. High water in the spring was filled with hazardous debris carried off from the annual Clearwater log drives. Low water in the summer slowed operations and winter ice sometimes stopped them all together, as recently as 1950 fierce winter conditions halted service for six weeks.
The ferry suffered its worst accident in May of 1880 when the cable snapped while the vessel was in midstream. Two passengers and a seven horse team drowned and the heavily loaded wagon they were pulling was never recovered. Four people managed to cling to the capsized boat. Two of them were rescued by local Indians passing upon the scene in canoes. The other two, the operators, rode downstream with the overturned ferry until it beached itself several miles away.
Several ownership changes occurred during the ferry’s eleven decade run. Daniel Lyons and John Markley took over from Massey and ran things until Lyons died in 1893. Lyons’ widow Olive bought Markley’s interest and continued as operator until 1916. W.J. Cummings assumed the helm in 1926 and changed the crossing’s name to Lyons Ferry in honor of that family’s long service. The business was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. N.G. Turner in May, 1945. They ran things until service was discontinued in 1968.
The Turners constructed the last vessel to operate at Lyons Ferry in 1949. The new barge has a modern steel hull and a capacity of six cars or 23 tons. A steel carriage replaced the wooden one and guided the craft along 1800 feet of cable, anchored in a rock bluff 75 feet above the river. A few things remained unchanged, the new boat’s deck was built of wooden planks and a wheel mounted amid ship was used to place the barge at the correct angle to catch the current which provided its only power.
June 5, 1960 may have been the ferry’s busiest day. A crowd of over 500 including Daniel Lyons’ granddaughter gathered to celebrate the crossing’s centennial. The assembly listened with some ambivalence as speakers described the changes to come when the Corps of Engineers completed Lower Monumental Dam and the state built a bridge across the Snake.
The old ferry was doomed but it prospered as never before carrying the dam and bridge builders back and forth across the Snake for the next eight years. The highway bridge opened without the usual festivities on a frigid winter day, Friday, December 20, 1968. Lyons Ferry ended its 108 year run quietly. Many things changed over eleven decades but the last car and driver to cross on the ferry in 1968 paid a toll of one dollar, the same fee charged for a horse and rider in 1860.