Two minutes and eight seconds. That's all the time it takes to cross the Potomac River at Whites Ferry. But you'd be missing half the fun if you focused on your watch instead of the scenery during the brief voyage on the barge Jubal Early II: There's so much happening all around.
The diesel tug engine hmmms steadily as it propels the barge (named for a Confederate general) across the river from Virginia toward the Maryland ramp. On board, tourists and commuters stir in their cars and prepare to disembark. Ahead, at the ramp, more cars idle in line as motorists wait their chance to drive up onto the barge. Bicyclists and pedestrians take turns --ing from the line to the Whites Ferry snack shop a few yards away; a lookout races to round them up as the ferry lands. Off to the left and right, canoers pause from their paddling to wave or shout hellos at the passing spectacle. Children frolic on the river bank. Up beyond the ramp and the waiting cars, picknickers dot the ferry grounds.
"I've fished, played and hiked around the ferry since I was a kid," says Charles Myers of nearby Leesburg, Va., who waited with his family near a canoe rack loaded with paddles and life preservers. gotten bigger and more popular every year. The word is out that this is a natural amusement park for the whole family."
When Ernest Conrad launched his ferry in 1828, the fare was 6 cents per man, mule or horse and 3 cents per wheel. Mules pulled the wooden barge across the river. In 1865, Colonel E. V. White, a former Confederate officer, bought the business. He named it Whites Ferry in 1871. Several owners later, in 1919, the mules were retired and replaced with a gasoline engine.
In 1942, the old wooden barge was destroyed, halting ferry operations. The property at the river's edge grew wild until summer 1946, when Edward Brown shocked his wife by announcing that he'd bought the three weed-choked acres in Montgomery County.
"I had a hunch that I could turn this place back to a working ferry," he says today.
But why would people go out of their way to take the ferry when the trip across is longer than the drive on the Cabin John or Point of Rocks bridges?
"It gets you away from the hustle and bustle of the Beltway, and reminds you of the past," says Jean Veirs while waiting at the ramp with her husband, George.
He chimes in: "As a matter of fact, I went to high school with Ed Brown. When we heard he had bought Whites Ferry near Poolesville, everyone who knew Ed thought he was crazy! What an investment; I guess Ed has the last laugh now."
Ed Brown and his son, Malcolm, started with an eight-car barge. They soon noticed cars pulling out of line and leaving the ramp because the wait was too long.
Today, the 16-car, $600,000 Jubal Early II averages 1,200 vehicles a day, says Tim Newman, ferry manager. It makes the 1/4-mile crossing continuously from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., every day of the week, all year around. The ferry runs through the winter except when ice or flooding threatens.
"After Oct. 31, the ferry has, for the most part, commuter traffic," syas Kris Kreeger, an area resident who works in the store by the ferry. "It gets too cold for the tourists."
Fall's pleasant weather brings out tourists as well as familiar faces, says Mr. Newman. "There's a family in that Volvo, and they go to church in Virginia every Sunday," he says. "See the FAS Grass landscaping truck? He's a seven-day-a-week regular."
Jake Halder stops by to say hello. The ferry helps his business.
"I haul sludge from Virginia to Maryland, and it's used to fertilize the soil," he says. "With the ferry here I don't sit in Beltway traffic and the sludge moves over the river and through the woods to Grandpa's farm."
Jean Phillips, a farmer and Boy Scout master, approaches Mr. Newman with scouts in tow. They've just returned from an overnight canoe trip to Point of Rocks. "We've never made it to the Virginia side on the ferry, and the boys would get a big kick out of it," she says, asking Mr. Newman what he'd charge for passage for her whole group. There's a 50-cent fee for pedestrians, but this time he waves them aboard: "No charge; have fun."
Back and forth. Back and forth across the Potomac all day and into the night, when the headlights tell how many cars wait on the ramp. Says Mr. Newman, "Perpetual motion is the name of the game around here."
To get to the ferry in Maryland, take Whites Ferry Road west from Poolesville in Montgomery County to the Potomac River. "We are where the pavement ends," says Tim Newman. The ferry fee for automobiles is $2.50 one-way, $4.50 roundtrip. Pedestrians pay 50 cents for a one-way trip. The ferry runs every day from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., river conditions permitting. The snack shop closes Oct. 31 for the season and will reopen with warm spring weather. For more information, call (301) 349-5200.