Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches

The Maurice River Reaches Project
Ferry Crossings Clue to Reach Names - Part I

"Getting across the Maurice River presented no problem to the traveler for the first one hundred years of civilization in southern New Jersey," wrote historian Herbert W. Vanaman. The Maurice River was one of the region's important water highways, linking the pockets of inhabitants with the traveling preachers, enterprising businessmen, and others who were just passing through.

In his article, Some Historical Notes Concerning the Maurice River, published in the Vineland Historical Magazine (January-April 1965), Vanaman described the river as a highway of opportunity. "The first people who came up the Maurice River were mainly interested in the cedar which grew along the streams," he wrote. Then the search was on for sites to set up lumber mills. "It should be noted that in these early days, every possible site for a mill along the Maurice River and its branches was developed at one time or another," Vanaman pointed out. He described "a perfect and complete economy; cedar for lumber, water for power to operate the saw mill, and transportation by water of the finished product to the cities and markets for exports."

By the early 1700's, saw mills were thriving, and people started meandering away from the river, most likely following Indian trails that crisscrossed the area. Vanaman wrote that streams had to be forged along the way. Fortunately, the Indian trails generally crossed at the streams' narrowest points, which turned out to be a smart place to set up a dam for a mill. The highest and narrowest point of the stream yielded more power and less expense to the mill operators. Vanaman explained, "Some of the very earliest roads in South Jersey used mill dams for crossing a stream."

One well-traveled road was the old Cape Road which crossed the main stream of the Maurice River at the Union dam, Vanaman wrote. It wasn't until the early 1900's that a catwalk was built over the dam, so it is probable that travelers on the Maurice River in the 1700's were left to navigate this upriver crossing on foot or horseback.

Miles downstream, the river wasn't so narrow, and while wagons and carts weren't in much use at the time, there was still a need to get to the opposite shore. Vanaman's research led him to believe that the earliest ferry on the Maurice River was established in the 1700's, at Dorchester. He discovered a map that was published in London in 1777. The map, based on a 1769 survey, showed a road that ran from the ferry on the Cohansey River at Greenwich, and continued from Fairfield to Dorchester and on to Cape May. "The crossing (over the Maurice River) had to be made by ferry," Vanaman wrote. Vanaman wasn't able to find records of this ferry operation, but he surmised that "the ferry itself was a skiff, bateau, or small scow." He described a scenario where a traveler on horseback may have had to sit in the ferry, while guiding his horse by the reins as the animal swam across the river alongside the ferry.

Once over on the eastern banks of the Maurice River, travelers of this era weren't likely to find many travel services. There is some evidence to indicate that at least there was a landing of sorts at the spot that became Dorchester. Listed among the entries in a 1915 pamphlet titled, Cumberland County Old Names & Places, an unnamed researcher cited an old deed that names a section of that bank as "Couder's Landing." The researcher cross-referenced Couder's Landing with Cowder Gut and Crowder Run, offering that these were indeed the same place. Documents show that Dorchester was established and divided into plots in the 1600's, but none of these lots were sold until the 1800's. Therefore, it's possible that the name Couder's Landing was used before the village of Dorchester grew up. And because the old deed does record a river landing at the spot, it's also possible that this was the dock of the ancient Dorchester ferry that Vanaman wrote about.

The Maurice River was a formidable stream to cross. From the marshes to the stretches of fast lands, from the bluffs to the sandy southern reaches, the early settlers established reliable modes to transport themselves across the winding river. The histories of the early ferries have almost faded into oblivion, but what evidence there is offers a bit more information and a lot more color to the story of the Maurice River.

Watch for future articles that take a look back at other Maurice River crossings, including the Dallas and Spring Garden Ferries - and the bridges that replaced them, making the way easier for today's travelers.

Ferry Crossings
Clue to Reach Names
Part I
Part II
Part III