One of three ferries left in Montana sits on the Missouri River 16 miles north of Winifred.
Tom Philp has been one of the two employees running the Stafford-McClelland Ferry for four years.
“Greatest job in the world,” Philp said. “It’s a pretty simple operation to run.”
Philp said he has shuttled around eight cars a day across the river on average this year, which he said has been pretty slow.
“Some days, you can get up to 20 cars,” Philp said.
In June, 2013, the ferry was closed down due to the roads being washed out on the northern side of the river. The northern road is a dirt road — often a mud road — that twists and turns through coulees and the sides of the mountains of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The road on the south of the river is less tumultuous and leads to Winifred, 16 miles away from the ferry.
That 16 miles between the north bank of the Missouri where the ferry is and Winifred turns into 105 miles if the ferry isn’t running, said Philp.
Tourist season and sheep hunting season are the busiest months for the ferry, which is usually scheduled to be open from May 1 to Nov. 1.
When the crossing is closed down in November, the ferry is pulled up onto northern shore near the ferry attendants’ cabin sits. The attendants live in the cabin during their half-week-on shift.
On the other side of the road, there is a small campground, provided free of charge by the Bureau of Land Management. Mostly, people floating the river stay at the campground, Philp said.
Tom Philp operates the Stafford-McClelland Ferry Saturday. Philp lives on the banks of the Missouri River three-and-a-half days a week throughout the summer, operating the one-car ferry. The ferry, one of three still operating in Montana, is open from May 1 to Nov. 1.
The first ferry near the location of the Stafford-McClelland ferry was established in 1921 by Jack McClelland and his wife, who lived on the south bank of the river. The next ferry, built in 1927, was established by the Staffords on the north bank. Blaine County has taken the ferry over since then, but splits the costs of operating the ferry with Fergus County.
“Depending on what side of the river you’re on, the ferry is called the McClelland ferry or the Stafford ferry,” Philp said. “But the official name is the Stafford-McClelland ferry.
From the ferry, the next bridges are 48 miles down the river and 12 miles up the river. People traveling from Winifred to Havre can cut 30 miles from their trip if they take the ferry.
The ferry’s hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday, when they are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
These hours are not set in stone, though, according to Philp.
“Normally, if people are polite, I will cross them anytime,” he said.