Ferries in America

Featured Article, History, On the Road, Seasonal, This Week in History, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on March 20, 2012
Doug Miller The 1870 Hatton Ferry on the James River near Scottsville, Va. is the nation’s last pole-operated ferry.

The serene sound of rippling current on the Connecticut River gives way to gurgling water behind the tugboat Cumberland as its diesel engine roars to life. Inside the wheelhouse, Capt. Larry Stokes throttles the tug, nudging its barge closer to shore. Meanwhile, a deckhand readies the metal barge for morning motorists traveling from Rocky Hill, Conn. (pop. 19,709), to Glastonbury (pop. 34,427).

“I’m lucky,” says Stokes, 61, who’s operated the ferry since 1992. “I look forward to coming to work every day.”

Ferries have transported passengers across the river at the same location since 1655, making the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry the nation’s oldest continuously operating ferry.

The three-vehicle barge and 28-foot tugboat, built in 1955, are a far cry from the original ferry, which carried passengers across the river on a small pole-propelled raft. Over the years, a steam engine and a horse on a treadmill also have powered the ferry.

While a nearby bridge accommodates most motorized traffic, some local residents and tourists favor the ferry. “People from all around the world have been on this ferry,” says Stokes, of Waterford, Conn. (pop. 19,517). “I ask them why they’re here, and they say they don’t want to be on the interstates; they want to see what our country is really like.”

Service halts when the river freezes, but from May through October, the ferry serves as a floating testament to simpler times for people seeking a respite from the stresses of modern life.

“This is six minutes of decompression,” says Glastonbury resident Dave Scampoli, 42, who’s used the ferry to commute to work for nearly 15 years. “It’s a way to reconnect with the river that you can’t get from being on the highway.”

Deckhand Robert Nogas, 43, of Newington, Conn. (pop. 30,562), agrees. “I’ve never run across a passenger who was in a hurry or a bad mood,” he says. “We get them across fast, but they actually want us to slow down to keep the experience going.”

The tranquil trip takes four to six minutes, depending on the strength of the current, and costs $1 for pedestrians and $3 per vehicle. On an average day, the ferry makes about 40 roundtrips.

“It’s amazing to think this ferry has been through so much history,” Scampoli says. “The American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and it’s still running.”

Last poled ferry
Before railroads, steamboats and paved highways, ferries carried the weight of the nation’s transportation and trade, moving passengers, farm produce and manufactured goods across rivers, lakes and coastal waterways.

Ironically, ferries contributed to their own demise by transporting materials to build the nation’s roads, bridges and railroads.

“The ferries used to carry everything from cotton bales to railroad ties to all your commodities,” says Craig McPherson, 65, a ferryman at Virginia’s Hatton Ferry, America’s last pole-operated ferry.

These days, the 1870 Hatton Ferry, which crosses the James River near Scottsville, Va. (pop. 566), operates on weekends from mid-April through October and has become a retreat for passengers looking to relive a piece of America’s vanishing history.

“It’s so calm out there, you can almost go to sleep,” McPherson says. “But it is fun. You can just imagine Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer going down the river.”

The peaceful passage is made possible by cables attached to each side of the boat, which is guided by an overhead wire strung 700 feet between the riverbanks. A 14-foot pole is used to steer and propel the ferry.

“We use the flow of the river to help move across,” McPherson says. “Typically, you have to break out the pole in the middle of the river to give you a good push.”

Sometimes he even lets younger passengers get a feel for the centuries-old tradition. “I’ll let the kids try it out,” he says. “They love that. It’s important for them to know their history.”

A ferry tale
In 2002, Tom and Judy Bixler became a part of Maryland’s ferry history by purchasing the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, the nation’s oldest privately owned ferry.

“We call it our ferry tale,” says Judy who, along with her husband, is a licensed ferry captain.

Operating between Oxford (pop. 651) and Bellevue, the ferry was established by Talbot County in 1683 to carry horses and men across the Tred Avon River. An Oxford innkeeper took over the service in 1699.

Over the centuries, ownership has changed many times, as have the ferrying vessels, ranging from a flat-bottomed boat propelled by oars to a coal-fired steam tug to today’s modern double-ended ferry, which holds up to nine vehicles.

“People don’t take the ferry because they have to,” Judy says, “they take it because they love it.”

The three-quarter-mile journey takes about eight minutes one way, and visitors are treated to scenic views of sailboats and wildlife on the water.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Judy says of the ferry, which operates from April through November. “The community really considers it their ferry. We’re just the keepers of the ferry for now.”

Essential transportation
Although their overall use has declined, ferries remain essential transportation on the Great Lakes and some coastal waterways. Services provided by The Staten Island Ferry in New York City, the Galveston Island Ferry in Texas and Washington State Ferries (WSF) around Puget Sound transport millions of passengers each year.

“The ferries are vital to this area,” says Capt. Ty Anderson, 63, who works for WSF, America’s largest ferry system with nearly 23 million riders annually. “Somebody would have to drive an hour and a half to do what I can do in 30 minutes on this vessel.”

Anderson’s vessel is the 460-foot Tacoma, the largest ferry in the WSF fleet, and operates year-round between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, Wash. (pop. 23,025). “The average person is traveling back and forth from work,” he says. “We have a 2,500-passenger and a 218-car capacity. It’s powered by four engines that total 14,000 horsepower.”

Formed in 1951, WSF has grown to serve eight counties in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada, using 19 ferries.

Despite the size of the operation, Anderson says there’s a strong sense of community. “I see the same people every day,” he says. “I see people that my kids went to school with and friends that I ride my bike with. They pick up their paper, come on board, have a cup of coffee and sit down for a wonderful half-hour trip.”

The fourth-generation merchant mariner is equally content in his wheelhouse. “They handed me a 460-foot vessel, they gave me 72,000 gallons of fuel to burn every two weeks, and they tell me to go out and run around Puget Sound,” he says. “This is a dream for me.”