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Merrimac Ferry Bell

For Whom The Bell Tolls

by Bill Schuette


This large, brass-colored bell was used for many years as a signal to call the ferryman at Merrimac and indicate that someone wanted to cross the Wisconsin River.

A similar bell was located on the other side of the river. When a patron wished to make a crossing and the ferry was on the opposite shore, the bell would be sounded to alert the pilot.

Ferry service across the Wisconsin River has existed near the same spot since 1844, when Chester Mattson, the second settler in Merrimac, charged between 35 cents and a dollar to ferry across a team and wagon. At the time, the motive power was human muscle. A team of horses was later harnessed to a scow with a long cable. Subsequent owners attached the ferry to a cable, which ran from shore to shore and allowed the river power to carry them across. W.R Flanders took over the operation in 1849 and paid $700 for the privilege. Around 1900 a gasoline engine was added to the boat and crossings became more reliable.

In 1924, Columbia and Sauk counties purchased the route and supplied the ferry, naming it Colsac (a combination of the two names). It operated as a toll ferry until 1933 when the State Highway Commission purchased it and began operating the service free to the traveling public. The Colsac ferry was replaced twice and still operates seasonally.

Over 1,200 vehicles a day make the crossing during the peak season in August. It is estimated that over 150,000 tourists and sightseers take this scenic route in an average year.

Many times during the past century, government officials have attempted to convince the residents of Merrimac that a bridge should replace this antiquated system of transportation, however, each time the project has been soundly defeated.

The Merrimac Ferry remains the only free ferry left in Wisconsin.

When the bells were taken from service, they were given to two brothers who operated the ferry for many years. One was destroyed when it was being used to drive fence posts. The Sauk County Historical Society has the other one in its museum at Baraboo.