Now and then: Ferry of London Town's past gets a modern look

E.B. Furgurson III
Contact Reporterpfurgurson@capgaznews.com

In August 1839, Francis Scott Key paid his $37.37 bill at the London Town ferry with 32 bushels of wheat. He paid another with two heifers.

That's just some of the detail in the ledger of Samuel Duvall, the last known operator of the South River ferry at London Town.

By the time Duvall ran it through the Civil War, the ferry was for local traffic only, mostly folks moving goods to Annapolis for market, like Key's "melons and cider."

But in its Colonial heyday the ferry at London Town was the lynch pin of the pre-Revolutionary War transportation system, the town itself a major tobacco port.

Founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recorded payments to the ferry. Washington's Memorandum Book notes payments between 1772 and 1779. Jefferson's account book lists paying the ferryman at London Town in 1775.

There was enough traffic to support two ferries, one private and the other public, running yards apart on the London Town (or Edgewater) side to a landing at the end of today's Ferry Point Road on the north shore of the river.

Remnants are still evident in the deep rut of Scotts Street, which runs adjacent to London Town property to the river and another. A later 19th Century location two lots up the road is where recent archaeological digs uncovered evidence of the ferry operation and the foundation of the 19th Century customs house.

The shoreline must have been a muddy mess, said Stephanie Sperling, director of archaeological research for the county.

"We found evidence of the roadway leading to the ferry. It was three feet deep of oyster shell and other material they kept putting down to deal with the mud," she said.

Critical link

There is evidence of a ferry operating at the site by the mid-17th Century.

"That's one of the reasons (London Town) was founded here, the ferry already existed," said Kyle Dalton, public programs director at Historic London Town and Gardens. The county's historic destination spot is built around the brick home built by William Brown in 1760.

"The ferry here linked as many as eight roads. It was busy with three boats working on one side and two on the other," Dalton said.

Anyone traveling from Williamsburg to Philadelphia passed through London Town and its ferry, one of five in the county.

According to one historic plaque at London Town: "Travel was a constant alternation between riding a few miles- perhaps a dozen - overland and ferrying over a broad creek or river."

Other public ferries in Anne Arundel crossed the Severn, Magothy, Patapsco and Patuxent.

Historian Mechelle Kerns, in her dissertation on the history of London Town, said the ferry and tobacco port there was the busiest in the county from 1705 to 1765.

She noted that county commissioners debated the necessity of regulating the operation of ferry boats as early as 1694.

And later that year plans for a permanent ferry system were discussed to assure business, both public and private, would not be interrupted.

In 1696, Burgesses of the Assembly declared "a public ferry be kept upon South River in Ann Arundel County for the Carrying over of all persons that have business here at Provincial Courts and Assemblies … at Ann Arundell Towne" which was soon to be renamed Annapolis.

The same measure set ferries to cross the Patuxent and Severn, too.

Becoming a ferry master was potentially lucrative, especially since holding that license also allowed one to operate an ordinary or tavern without a separate license.

And London Town, being the first officially established ferry, became a prized opportunity.

In the 18th century, 25 individuals held both ferry and ordinary licenses at London Town, five of those were women who took over their husbands spot.

Ferry masters

After the official sanction in 1696, one of the early records shows Edward Rumney applying in 1712 to operate a private ferry at London Town. He had been building boats and running a tavern at London town a few years earlier. He was granted the license to run the ferry because he could run it more cheaply than others by being able to provide his own boats.

Years later, William Brown applied to run the ferry from the London Town side of the river, partnering with Jacob Lusby, running things from the Ferry Point side.

But a year earlier the Colonial government had made a decision that would prove part of London Town's undoing. Though once a lucrative tobacco port, a 1749 measure establishing official tobacco inspection stations — and export locations — did not include London Town. By the 1780s the town had faded, no longer a bustling center of the tobacco economy.

But the ferry continued operating for nearly 100 years.

Starting in 1760, Brown began building a brick home and tavern at London Town, also housing sleeping accommodations for travelers and businessmen. That house is a centerpiece of today's London Town historic site.

Both Brown's and Rumney's fortunes faded. Rumney mortgaged his property to Charles Carroll in 1711, nine years later Carroll foreclosed and sold the property to Stephen West, who also becomes a ferry master, until the tavern ceased operation in about 1730.

There were mishaps. In October 1769, the ferry was bustling customers to Annapolis for a major horse race. The boat — typically a flat-topped, low-slung, rowed vessel about 25-feet long — was overloaded.

"About 200 yards from shore the boat capsized, 'over set' as they called it," Dalton said. There were 20 people and 11 horses. "A lot to get on a boat. I can see the operator saying, 'Sure, we can do that.'"

Women ran the ferry business after their husband's deaths. In 1838, Jacob Slemeker's will noted ownership of both sides of the South River ferry. He left it to his daughters. One daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Samuel Duvall, who became the ferry master and lived on Cherry Stone Farm on the Ferry Point side of the river.

One of their relations painted a depiction of the ferry.

He kept his log from 1838 recording trips, monies collected, duck and geese shot, and a detailed daily record of the day's weather and other notes. One entry from 1838: June 4 - rainy, blackberry bushes in bloom - temp. 67 - $2.00. Not a lucrative day.

It's believed the ferry hung on past the Civil War, quickly fading after a sign of the modern age — a bridge — was built across the South River in the 1880s.

The log book of those last days is an old family heirloom found in a box of papers recently by Duvall's descendant, Suzanne Scarborough, who lives down the street from the old ferry site by Historic London Town and Gardens.

"It's good to know you are connected to the history of the place you live" she said, detailing how her grandmother, Lillian Fleet transcribed part of the ledger.

Her family also owned a painted copy of the circa 1840 oil painting by one of the Duvall women depicting the ferry site looking across the river from Ferry Point. The landing and customs house are clearly shown on the far bank at London Town, and the William Brown house, the notable landmark of Historic London Town and Gardens, is visible to the right.

"I grew up here. I remember playing in the basement of the William Brown house," she said. "Knowing you are a part of the land and history, it means something."

"And still being able to occupy that land. That is a blessing."

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