Retro Baltimore

Retro Baltimore: When ferries traveled the Chesapeake Bay

Gov. Larry Hogan's recent proposal for another Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing has kicked up the usual and predictable controversy about cost and environmental impact, but there is an alternative.

How about a return to a system of car-carrying ferries as well as high-speed passenger-only ferries on various routes linking the Western and Eastern Shore?


Another proposal calls for the restoration of rail passenger service on the Delmarva Peninsula which vanished more than 50 years ago.

Ferries which began operating on the bay during Colonial days were either rowed or powered by sail, steam and, later, diesel engines.


By the middle of the 18th century, it was possible for travelers heading north or south to take a bone-shaking passage by coach and ferry from Elkton down the breadth of the Eastern Shore to Annapolis, Williamsburg, Va., and Richmond, Va.

The journey was often made over rutted and pockmarked roads made worse by winter snows and then by spring rains and the inevitable mud.

In addition to the importance of the bay as a vital commercial artery, "rivers and creeks remained the highway of the tidewater region, and ferries continued to operate until the middle of the 20th century when road infrastructure developed over the area," wrote Clara Ann Simmons in "Chesapeake Ferries: A Waterborne Tradition 1636-2000."

The death knell for the bay's ferries came five months after the Bay Bridge opened to traffic in 1952. On New Year's Eve, the Gov. Emerson C. Harrington II steamed for the last time from Romancoke to Claiborne, and when it reached its destination and tied up at its slip, its captain rang "Finished With Engines" one last time.