Site of the Oldest Ferry in the US

Bissell’s Really Cleans Up My Ferry List
Bissell’s Ferry Site, Windsor/South Windsor

Most Nutmeggers know about the Oldest continuously operating ferry in the US that connects Rocky Hill and Glastonbury (officially Route 160). About half of them probably know about the other old ferry – the second oldest in Connecticut – that connects Hadlyme and Chester. I’ve ridden and reported on both; here and here. Both cross the Connecticut River and both are rather historic and steeped in lore.

bissell-big
The sign on the Windsor side (South Windsor side sign below)

But I’d wager not many know about an even older ferry crossing with an even larger cache: The oldest ferry in the United States; a service that began in 1648, well over a century before there even was a United States. That ferry was Bissell’s Ferry, and it connected Windsor and what is now South Windsor, north of Hartford. Of course, the ferry service is no longer operational and only the one lane roads leading down to the river still exist. Well, the overgrown roads and some important signage.

From Historic Towns of the Connecticut River Valley by George Simon Roberts:

bissellFor thirty years there was no settlement on the east side of the river, the reason no doubt being, that the passage of the Connecticut was laborious in summer and difficult, or impossible, in winter; that the meadows on that side of the river being lower, were subject to floods and, too, there were the Podunk Indians to be considered, who occupied the land on the east side of the river.

The Bissell family is regarded by historians as the pioneer family of the east side. In 1648, it was granted a monopoly of the ferry, still called Bissell’s Ferry, between Windsor and the hamlet of East Windsor, in the Town of South Windsor. There is a tradition in regard to this grant, that is interesting, if not founded upon fact, as Stiles claims. This tradition is, that John Bissell was sent by the Colony to England, in 1636, to purchase and bring back a supply of cattle as the previous winter had been so severe that many of their cattle had died. Mr. Bissell returned with seventeen cows and a bull and as an equivalent for his services he was granted the monopoly of the ferry across the Connecticut.

bissell_ferryIt stands to reason that the oldest ferry in the country began in what Windsorites regard as the first town in Connecticut: Their own. (Wethersfieldians get a bit bent out of shape when confronted with this factopinion.)

Although John Bissell originally operated the ferry so that he could graze his cattle on the East side of the river, it very quickly became a very important economic and transportation link between Boston on the East side of the river and Hartford, New Haven and New York on the West side of the river. The Bissell family had a monopoly on the ferry for 150 years. For me, I’m just happy that both towns on each side have erected signs explaining the important historic site. Otherwise, I really wouldn’t have much of anything by way of pictures to show on my blog.

The western landing was just off of Palisado Avenue at the end of the very short Bissell’s Ferry Road. In South Windsor, from Route 194 still exists the very short Ferry Lane. The ferry ceased operation after 269 years of service, in 1927. Knowing how much the Connecticut floods, I imagine this was a rather difficult and spotty service for those first 200 years.

Regardless, I think this is the final ferry report for the state. I’ll let you know. At the least, you now know the origin of the name of Bissell Bridge (I-291) north of Hartford.

For the heck of it, here’s a cool story about a covered bridge that used to span the Connecticut a few miles north up in Enfield. I can’t really think of a better place to link this, so here you are.

10 responses to “Site of the Oldest Ferry in the US”

  1. Jeff Feldmann says:

    Myself and 3 others and a dog, have finished a five year dream of paddling the entire length of the Ct River, from Pittsburg, NH to Connecticut. In doing some research for the trip, I found many towns that used ferry’s for crossing the river. Just recently, I found information on Bissell’s Ferry, in Windsor. Great reading. Thanks

  2. Earl D. Wilson, Jr. says:

    Thanks for the info and pictures on this ferry started by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Look forward to seeing the site on my next visit to CT.

  3. S K Moore says:

    I also appreciate the info. I too am supposedly related to John Bissell but have been unable to make the connection from him to Philemon Bissell who is my great, great, great grandfather… I believe.

  4. Bob Berthelson says:

    I am preparing an illustrated talk on colonial Connecticut and would like to find a picture of the Bell that was once used to call the ferryman from the opposite side of the river. I am a Bissell descendent from Zebulon Bissell and have long been interested in the family.

    Thanks for your help.

    Bob Berthelson
    Trumbull, CT

  5. Sharon Kay Butler Kennedy says:

    Captain John Bissell was my 8th Great grandfather:
    John Bissell (1591 – 1677)
    is your 8th great grandfather
    Thomas Bissell (1628 – 1689)
    Son of John
    Thomas Bissell (1656 – 1738)
    Son of Thomas
    Thomas Bissell (1683 – 1771)
    Son of Thomas
    Jerijah Bissell (1714 – 1806)
    Son of Thomas
    Jerijah Bissell (1751 – 1825)
    Son of Jerijah
    Alfred Bissell (1793 – 1870)
    Son of Jerijah
    Henry Bissell (1838 – 1902)
    Son of Alfred
    Sarah Elizabeth Bissell (1875 – 1963)
    Daughter of Henry
    Flossie Francis Nowell (1911 – 2002)
    Daughter of Sarah Elizabeth
    Sharon Kay Butler
    You are the daughter of Flossie Francis

    My 6th gg (Grandson of Captain John)Thomas Bissell, b.1656 CT married Hester Ester Strong b. 1661 CT. I found Strong’s website & ordered their Family History books, all 6 volumes. My Bissell family that came 1st to America in the 1600′s are in these books…others in my family are in there as well.

  6. Mike Salvatore says:

    Great overview of Bissell’s Ferry. The original (1641) landing on the east side of the Connecticut River was in present day East Windsor; there’s an impassible Ferry Road opposite Southern Auto on Route 5, a little south of the Town Street Cemetery.

    Bissell moved his ferry to what is now South Windsor in 1662, the site that you describe. East Windsor split away from Windsor in 1768 and included what is now East Windsor,South Windsor, Ellington, and parts of Vernon, Manchester, and Bolton. South Windsor separated from East Windsor in 1845; it still has the village and post office called “East Windsor Hill,” causing no end of confusion.

  7. Matt Pool says:

    Capt. John Bissell is at the beginning of my mothers family tree. All the people on Sharons list are on my tree!

  8. Jeffrey Bissell says:

    We traveled to and saw the old farmhouse-I am of the 12 generation of Capt.John Bissell-We were allowed to see the inside of the home and the mainfloor pub. My father was John Bissell also, and we have several books of Stiles Geniology -also enjoyed the visit to the Green on the other side of the river, and found Capt. John’s gravesite-have a picture of it.Quite the historical past. There are now about 8,000 of us from his parentage.

  9. Barbara Bissell Brock says:

    I am a direct descendent of David Bissell from Sharon, who went to Canada after the War of Independence. Really enjoyed this info.

  10. Mary says:

    In the mid 1970s it was my privilege to live in the newer part of the Bissell Ferry house on Ferry Lane, exactly one mile from the nearest house. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place.

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