Is it Egner, Eggner or Eggner's: History of the Ferry Across KY Lake

Mar 1, 2012

The Eggners Ferry bridge has spanned the Tennessee River since 1932, but the ferry from which it acquired its name opened in the 1800s under the ownership of a calloused man named Milton. Phillip Egner, more commonly known as Dean, traced his ancestry to the ferry owner. Dean said Milton ran the ferry from the 1840s until 1878, when he sold the business to one or two of his children. Dean said he knew little about the man other than Milton’s business endeavors and his reputation.

“Milton, they say, was a very rough and tough individual, which probably most people in that area and that day were—coming west into a new territory, so you had to be kind of rough and tough, you might say.”

This rough man operated one of the main modes of transportation across the Tennessee River, and over the years, his business grew. Egner said Milton operated his first ferry with oars, but later upgraded and powered the boat with a blind mule. He hitched the mule to a type of propeller called a sweep pole. The mule would walk in circles around the pole, moving the ferry.

Eventually, Milton replaced the mule with a steam engine, steadily improving his equipment. Yet, Egner says Milton dabbled in more than just ferry work.

“Milton also was, I guess, you might call, an entrepreneur. He had a grist mill that ground corn on the steamboat. He operated a stagecoach and a freight line between Hopkinsville, Ky, through Murray and Columbus, Ky. He also operated a general merchandise store at the ferry site.”

When the Civil War invaded the region, the established businessman sympathized with the Confederates. According to Egner, soldiers’ bodies sometimes floated down the river, bumping up against Milton’s ferry. If the corpses wore Yankee uniforms, he would simply push them away from his boat and let the current dispose of them. However, if the body belonged to the Confederate Army, Milton treated it differently.

“If it was a rebel soldier, then he would actually get the body out of the river, and if there was some kind of ID, he would try to find the relatives if they were local. If not, then he would bury them off the shore there. And somebody related to me said there might be a cemetery up the hill by Eggners Ferry that that’s where they buried some of the soldiers.”

During that same time period, chance began to play with the spelling of Egners Ferry. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Keith Todd recently researched the ferry’s history and discovered that Confederate General Lloyd Tillghman issued some sort of cable indicating that Union officers were crossing Egner’s Ferry and traveling into the Murray area.  Tillghman got creative with the spelling of Milton’s name.

“When he sent out that communication, he put two ‘g’s’ in it, and from that time forward, it was Eggner’s with two ‘g’s’ because that was one of the first really, written references to that location.”

Time passed, and Milton sold the business to his children, who then closed the ferry and the family name passed to the new bridge. But during that time, the spelling continued to evolve. Dean Egner said to his knowledge, 31 different spellings of “Egner” exist in association with Eggners Ferry Bridge. Keith Todd said the Transportation Cabinet and the Coast Guard both possess different official spellings for the structure, the former with an “s” and the later without. He also said he circulated a new spelling when he accidentally put an apostrophe before the “s” in Eggners in press releases he issued regarding the January 26 incident with the Delta Mariner.

“That is the way it was printed literally all over the world. It was on news media outlets in Australia. Loyd’s of London had a report on it up on their Web site, and of course, it had the apostrophe in it. Fox News, CNN, all of those outlets had the apostrophe in it because that was the first thing I sent out and it kind of stuck.”

But spelled with an “s”, an apostrophe or two “g’s”, Eggners Ferry is a name that will stick around for a while. The original ferry was a major mode of transportation in the 1800s, and now that the bridge lies out of order, Keith Todd said the Transportation Cabinet might reinstate another ferry while construction crews repair the bridge. Therefore, name “Eggners Ferry” could once again refer to an actual ferry.