The Ferry Hotline:
The ferry operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but only between April and November.
The ferryboat is named the Colsac III. “Colsac” is a portmanteau of Columbia and Sauk, the two counties connected by the ferry.
The ferry winches itself across the river on three submerged cables. A round trip usually takes 14 minutes. The present ferry can hold up to fifteen normal-size cars or trucks, as well as bicycles and pedestrians, and is capable of transporting semi-trailer trucks.
The state operates warning signs several miles from the ferry to alert motorists when it is not operating in season, as detours are considerable. A traffic information system provides drivers with the expected wait time, which can be up to 50 minutes. Traffic volume can exceed 1,200 vehicles daily.
In 1844, Chester Mattson obtained charters to provide ferry service at the present-day location. The ferry was in operation long before there was a marked road leading to or away from it.
According to conflicting sources, Mattson charged either 35 cents or one dollar to ferry a team and wagon across the river. The ferry was human-powered until around the turn of the century, when the first gasoline engine was added.
The State of Wisconsin took over the ferry as part of the stat highway system in 1933 with operation and maintenance performed by the Columbia County Department of Transportation. The ferry toll was eliminated. The wooden ferry then in service, the first Colsac, had a capacity of eight cars. It was replaced by the Colsac II in 1963, with a capacity of 12 cars.
The state has periodically considered a bridge to increase the capacity of the state highway and ease community for local residents. (The ferry is just west of a 19th-century Wisconsin and Southern Railroad bridge.) As the Colsac II aged, periodic maintenance both grew expensive and took the ferry out of commission for weeks at a time. The older boat’s capacity was also frequently strained during the peak travel season. Weight limits also restricted truck traffic.
The ferry remained popular with tourists. Supporters of the ferry won out. The bridge proposal was shelved and the ferry was upgraded.