There was a big event at Independence on Saturday, Oct. 13, 1945. Not as big as the end of World War II celebrated only a few weeks before. But big enough.
It was the christening of Polk County’s new Willamette River ferry, Claggett the Third.
A ferry had carried passengers and vehicles across the river at C Street landing since 1880.
But the old ferry was inadequate. During the hop-picking season especially, travelers complained of the long lines of vehicles waiting to use the ferry to cross the river.
The ferry was owned and operated by Polk County. So the county road department crews built a new one. It was designed to hold as many as eight vehicles at one time.
The new ferry was launched after ceremonies presided over by Ralph Kletzing, president of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Maurice J. Butler, Independence’s mayor.
Independence knew all about the ritual of launching a new vessel. Some had watched as World War II-era freighters were launched at the shipyards at Portland. But the tradition of breaking a bottle of wine over the bow seemed a terrible waste of good drinking material. So at the suggestion of Ben Maxwell, Polk County historian and author, Mayor Butler did the honors with a gallon jug of buttermilk. The buttermilk came from Joe Rogers’ Independence dairy. And it was a celebration of a second kind as well. The war-era gasoline rationing had ended and Joe Rodgers, who later was a leader in the Oregon House of Representatives, had resumed home delivery of milk and other dairy products.
The christening ceremonies were delayed briefly while spectators debated which end of the ferry boat was really the bow. After all, it was to be broken over the bow, not the stern.
Butler broke the jug of buttermilk. The county road crew pushed the ferry boat into the river. And the crowd went home.
It was actually about two weeks before the new ferry was in service. The crew frugally transferred from the old ferry the two electric motors that powered the ferry’s two 8-foot side wheel paddles.
While the ferry was out of service, William and Willard Lawrence, brothers who had crewed the ferry since 1927, carried pedestrians across the river in a row boat.
Claggett the Third carried passengers and vehicles until December 1950, when the state of Oregon opened the Willamette River Bridge at the south end of Independence. The bridge was 1,267 feet long and cost $908,000. Half of the cost was borne by the state of Oregon. The rest was shared between Polk and Marion counties.
Construction of the bridge came after a 15-year crusade by elements of the business community, started in 1935, when Tom Smith, president of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, appointed J.H. Hart, Dr. George C. Knott, and R.M. Walker a committee to press the State Highway Commission to construct the bridge.
South Main Street in Independence was reclassified as a state highway so the bridge across the river would be legitimately a part of the Oregon State Highway system.
The ferry boat itself was moved to Buena Vista, where it continued in service across the river.
Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society at the Polk County Museum, located at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, Sundays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults; $4 for seniors; $1 for children aged 6 to 17. Those younger than 6 or older than 100 are free. Society members also are free.