A Look Back: The Toad Suck Ferry

by Cindy Beckman

Fifty years ago, the Toad Suck Lock and Dam, and the bridge that spans its top, opened to the public.

Part of the larger McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, the dam and bridge were constructed between 1965 and 1970. Before this time, travelers had to use the Toad Suck Ferry to cross the Arkansas River at this point.

A ferry of some variety operated at Toad Suck throughout most of its history. The first regular river crossing there was said to have been in 1823 when a postal route to Hot Springs was established. A skiff, large enough for just an operator and a horse and rider, was propelled back and forth with a pole.

Near the skiff crossing on the Perry County side was the tavern, the site of the well-told story about patrons who “sucked on jugs of mountain dew until they swole up like toads.” The tavern was in operation from 1830 to 1850. Although the ferry had several names over the years, it was the “Toad Suck” name that stuck.

Crossing the River

Over the years, several methods were used to assist the ferry in crossing the river.

At one early juncture, two low-powered motors were used to pull the boat along. While one was in service, someone was usually tinkering with the other, so another crossing could be made. A cable, stretched across the water, was said to pull the ferry across around the turn of the 20th century. A slotted stick was used to grab the overhead cable and pull it along.

In later years, after all were board, the operator would head the ferry upstream about a quarter-mile above where the landing was to be made. The craft would drift diagonally across with the current, then be guided to the desired landing place. Wind, high water and sand bars often created challenges.

Those who remember riding the ferry will no doubt have memories of waiting beneath the big trees on each side. On the Faulkner County side, two large trees, an oak and pecan, grew together, providing shade. Many travelers passed the time — sometimes a 30-minute wait — hunting arrowheads in the nearby fields.

Privately Owned/Operated

Through most of its history, the ferry was privately owned and operated. Senator Guy “Mutt” Jones of Conway; Rep. Paul Van Dalsem (D-Perry); Conway businessman Dave Ward; and the Conway Y.B.M.A. were among the various owners.

Rep. Van Dalsem recalled that when he owned the ferry in the mid-1930s, it was a wooden barge. When it became unsafe, he hired a young Conway mechanic named Dave Ward to build a steel barge and jon boat. The jon boat, built by Ward in 1939, towed the ferry until the late 1940s and is on display at Toad Suck Ferry Damsite Park.

Ward later recalled, “One day a man who lived at Cedar Park [Cadron Park] caught a large pontoon that was floating down the river and sold it to me. I split it open and used it to make round shoulders, which I welded on each side of the barge. I welded a circle underneath, put a board floor on top of them. A Ford motor, Model A, replaced the old one.”

In 1953, Sen. Jones got a $20,000 legislative appropriation for state operation of a toll ferry at Toad Suck. Clay Rice Cross of Dumas was awarded the contract from 1955 to 1960. The toll charged was 10 cents a head for livestock; 25 or 50 cents for pedestrians; $1.00 for passenger cars; $1.50 for trucks and school buses; and $2.50 for heavy trucks. In 1957, Sen. Jones and Rep. Van Dalsem initiated legislation to make the ferry toll-free.

New Ferry in 1956

A new ferry was constructed by H.B. Smith Welding Company of Dumas in 1956. It was 20 feet wide, four feet deep and 60 feet long and was made of steel. There were big paddle wheels on each side and the cab housed a D-2 Caterpillar motor. To maneuver the paddlewheels, operators used clutches like those on a bulldozer.

Ty Marshall, who lived near Stoney Point for most of his life, ran the ferry as did his father before him. Marshall’s son, Don, also ran it for a time. Cordell Chapman had the contract for the ferry’s operation from December 1958 until the bridge opened in 1970.

Last Trip in 1970

When Lock and Dam #8 and the Highway 60 bridge were formally dedicated on September 27, 1970, the ferry made its last trip across the Arkansas River. Efforts were made to preserve it as a museum, but the Highway Commission moved it to Peel, Arkansas to transport passengers across Bull Shoals Lake where it operated until it was decommissioned a couple of years ago.

A historical marker was placed at the site of the traditional landing on the Faulkner County side in 1970. The names of the lock and dam and bridge were changed to Toad Suck Lock and Dam and Toad Suck Bridge in 1971. The ferry’s motor and a replica of the ferry can be seen at the Faulkner County Museum.