Brown's Ferry, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
August 8, 2010
In 1949 when I was six years old my family moved from Bastrop, Louisiana, to Natchez, Mississippi. The only detail that I recall of the journey was crossing the Mississippi River between Vidalia and Natchez. That crossing made a deep impression upon me because there was no bridge over the river at the time. One was under construction, but it was not open yet. Instead, a barge-type ferry carried automobiles and people across the fast-moving waters. The river at there makes very large whirlpools that can sink a small boat. Thankfully, our barge was much larger than small fishing boats. However, when loaded with vehicles, the barge as I recall it rode low in the water. Our car was parked at the side of the barge, and it seemed to me that it could fall overboard quite easily. I also remember being somewhat frightened when splashes of water came aboard. Later, as I played and fished along the banks, I grew quite accustomed to the river's rapid flow. Still, I was thankful that we had a bridge over the river soon after establishing residence in Natchez. I never wanted to ride a low barge ferry again.
These memories flood me when I notice the name Brown's Ferry Road on street signs along the route to the west of Hughes Road. I wonder if the pioneers who rode Mr. Brown's ferry may not have experienced what I felt at Natchez, though they were crossing without automobiles. Their buggies and loaded wagons probably gave them fear of falling off the raft-type ferries in use then along the Tennessee River. In our time of bridges, some may not understand that Brown's Ferry Road actually did lead from Huntsville to a ferry crossing, utilizing today's Bob Wallace Avenue and Old Madison Pike for the eastern portions of the route. Few know that many ferries operated along the Tennessee River. Old maps show probably an average of one ferry every five miles along the river in Madison and Limestone Counties. Of all the ferries, it may well be that Brown's, Leeman's, and possibly one at Whitesburg–Ditto Landing were the most financially successful of the many ferries in this area. Brown's Ferry site is in western Limestone County, about 9 miles west and 6 miles south of Athens. Now Brown's Ferry Nuclear Plant is there.
One of the best sources of information that I have found about the history of Brown's Ferry is the book “Lure and Lore of Limestone County” (1978) by Mary Christine Williams Edwards and Faye Acton Axford. That account relates that a history of Limestone County written by Dr. Thomas Stith Malone (1812-1876) included a report that General Wade Hampton's troops cut a wagon road from near Huntsville to Brown's Ferry in 1810. However, no namesake for the ferry was given. The land around the site was first legally homesteaded by Joshua Cox in 1818. Joshua had a sister, Nancy, who married Uriah Allison, a riverboat captain. After Uriah died, Nancy married Colonel John Brown, for whose family the ferry may have been named, since no other Brown is known to be associated in that time period for the area.
Axford and Edwards wrote that by 1819 Brown's Ferry had become the largest cotton shipping port in Limestone County. As an indication of its success, they noted that Joshua Cox sold 307 acres of land at the site, referring to it as Brown's Ferry, for the highly unusual price of $60,000 in 1826. Many times the ferry played a significant role in moving troops across the river during the Civil War. It was known as Mason's Landing for a time, and by 1889 there was a store and post office at the site, then known as Olaville. That name derived from a daughter of William Mason. Tobacco grown at the site won a prize at the 1892-3 Chicago World's Fair, the same fair where Madison County's “Lily Flagg” (a Jersey cow) won the prize for producing the world's best butter and the most milk. Of course, today we know more of Lily Flagg the cow than the Browns of the Limestone County ferry.