FERRY RIDES ON WAVES OF PROGRESS Commuters flock to White's landing


DICKERSON -- Ferry landings dot the Potomac River today merely as names on the map: Nolands, Edwards, McCoys, Harpers. Long after the age of the ferry passed, only White's remains, plying the same course that Ernest Conrad did when he first poled a barge across the river around 1828.

White's Ferry landing lies on a grassy bank where westernmost Montgomery County faces Loudoun County, Va.

To the north, the Point of Rocks bridge crosses the Potomac, to the south, the American Legion Bridge. Somehow, between the two, White's Ferry survives.

This anachronism lives with one foot in history, another in the workaday world of suburban commuters, who in recent years have surged onto the ferry in record numbers.

The march of progress that trampled other ferries generations ago has lately been a boon to White's.

"We're doing two, three times the business we did 15 years ago," said Malcolm Brown. He's the 44-year-old son of R. Edwin Brown, the Rockville lawyer who owns the ferry company named for Elijah White, who bought the business shortly after the Civil War.

Father and son attribute the increase of hundreds of cars a day to the steep population growth the area has seen on both sides of the Potomac since the 1970s.

Weekday mornings find most cars lined up on the Virginia side, bound for offices in Gaithersburg, Rockville and the Washington suburbs.

Powered by a 100-horsepower diesel "tug" affixed to the side, the ferry Gen. Jubal A. Early can take 15 cars, 18 if they're small.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Carol Sutfin steered her Chevrolet pickup truck onto the ferry for the three-minute, 1,160-foot crossing home to Virginia. Ms. Sutfin said she takes the ferry every workday to her job as a computer systems analyst in Gaithersburg.

The Point of Rocks bridge in Frederick County would add about 30 minutes to her commute, she said, and besides, the ferry is "a break in the action. You get to sit and read the paper in the morning. It kind of slows you down a bit from the frantic pace."

She was heading home to Leesburg, Va., where the population has about doubled to more than 16,000 since 1980.

On the Maryland side, the population of Poolesville has jumped from 349 in 1970 to nearly 4,000 two decades later.

"I cannot do without this ferry," said Bettie Powell, who was heading home to Manassas, Va., after visiting her mother in Poolesville, where she was born and raised. She takes the ferry two, three times a week.

The ferry makes 75 to 90 crossings a day, Malcolm Brown said.

Ms. Sutfin likes the place so much that she came back on a weekend this month for a motorcycle club meet. That was just after the bass fishing tournament.

On weekends between April and October, White's Ferry is transformed from commuter station to park as visitors ride the ferry for the fun of it, rent canoes, eat at the snack bar or picnic by the riverside beneath ancient oaks, elms and willows.

For years the owners counted on the weekend visitor trade to boost income, and even with that the ferry survived only as a "quasi-benevolent operation," Edwin Brown said.

In other words, it was losing money.

Of course, it seemed a quixotic pursuit from the moment he got into it.

Edwin Brown, now 72, recalls being discharged from the Air Force after World War II, coming home to Poolesville and driving his new English bride over to see this old ferry landing, this place he remembered fondly as a kid.

It was 1946, four years after the ferry service ceased when a flood destroyed the old wooden barge.

The landing was nothing but a field alongside the defunct Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the grass "so grown up on both sides that you couldn't see the river," he recalled. "I said we are going to re-establish a ferry service here. She knew at that moment she had absolutely married a crazy man."

He formed a partnership with five Virginia men. With a wooden Army surplus barge as their chief asset, they went into business. In 1986, Edwin Brown bought out his three remaining partners and remains the sole owner.

It was Edwin Brown who decided in 1953 to name a new, steel ferry after Civil War Gen. Jubal A. Early, who advanced with his troops closer to Washington than any other Confederate officer.

That ferry lasted until 1988, when it was replaced with the steel barge in use now.

Although the service has only lately been running in the black, Edwin Brown said he's enjoyed the idea of running a "transportation link" with so long a tradition.

How long White's continues to serve as a commuter route as well as a recreation area may depend on the decisions of highway planners in Maryland and Virginia.

Since 1988, the two states have spent $2 million studying the prospect of two highway systems to bypass the Washington Beltway: one on the east and one on the west.

The western bypass would branch off Interstate 95 in Virginia, cross the Potomac into Maryland and tie into Interstate 270. That means another bridge across the river, right near White's Ferry.

Maryland has put additional bypass studies "on hold," said Harriet Levine, project manager at the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Frank Hancock, her counterpart in Virginia, said his department awaits a decision from either Gov. L. Douglas Wilder or the transportation secretary as to whether to proceed to a final environmental impact study.

Malcolm Brown isn't worried. He's been hearing the talk of another bridge for years. He doesn't foresee the two states getting together on such a project any time soon. Progress, lately, has not been unkind to White's Ferry.

"That's why we're the western bypass," he said.

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