Tidewater ferries are still flourishing Boats: These utilitarian vessels take travelers and commuters across the small rivers and wide bays of the mid-Atlantic region.


Their course is repetitious but rarely dull. Uniform, but hardly boring. That is a ferry boat's grace. Before bridges and tunnels became practical or popular, homely ferry boats shuttled travelers and commerce from this shore to that and back again.

Flat and utilitarian, ferries function as floating extensions of the roadway. They are the oldest means of dry-crossing the waterways that punctuate the mid-Atlantic landscape. But more than historic relics, the eight working Tidewater ferries flourish today as cherished and useful elements of their communities.

Riding the Tidewater ferries leads vacationers on an intimate passage through a seemingly timeless landscape. From Virginia's Colonial Northern Neck, across Maryland's Eastern Shore, Delaware's farmlands and the open waters of Delaware Bay, the ferry route stitches together 18th- and 19th-century river ports, revitalized country villages, pristine tidal wild lands and breezy waterfront resorts.

Virginia's Sunnybank Ferry makes a good starting point. Driving quiet roads through rural Northern Neck establishes the proper perspective for enjoying the ferry's unhurried pace. Located on Route 644 in Northumberland County, the ferry churns the Little Wicomico River from Ophelia and Hack's Neck to Sunnybank.

"Everybody rides it," claims the Sunnybank's captain, John M. Dodson, in a drawl that still carries echoes of 17th-century

England. "They go to the day care center in Reedville, the seniors' home, or to work in the menhaden cannery. They save 14 miles of highway travel."

Dodson pilots a self-contained, all-steel, motor-driven barge, 44 feet long and 21 feet wide. The Sunnybank is simply a deck big enough for two cars, one behind the other. A pilothouse sits off to one side, backed by a single diesel engine. Off the deck's other side, two roller wheels carry a guide cable stretched from bank to bank.

The ferry carries more than 7,000 vehicles each year across the third of a mile from one Little Wicomico bank to the other along the cable.

At the far side, the engine's drive head pivots 180 degrees for the return trip.

Downstream, the river opens into a natural amphitheater formed by low, treed bluffs topped with widely spaced, new houses. "High dollah' homes," chuckles Dodson. He stares over to the Hack's Neck side as a car pulls down to the landing. A woman and two children sit idling as Dodson eases the ferry up to the concrete stage. The woman drives on, but the two kids, obviously old Sunnybank hands, wander down the ramp, laughing with the captain.

Tranquil river

To the south, across the neck in Lancaster County, the Merry Point Ferry toils its course on the western end of the Corrotoman River. There's been a ferry here, on and off, since the 1660s, first serving tobacco planters, then the riverboats and bay liners calling at the busy landing.

Linking Merry Point and Ottoman on Route 604, the ferry also rides a cable as it crosses the half-mile wide river. Almost 24,000 cars ride annually. Many people take the trip to save 14 or 15 miles; others ride for the pure beauty of the Lancaster County countryside.

Nearby Reedville, at Northern Neck's outboard end, is of a piece with the two ferries. Main Street's Victorian mansions -- a "Millionaires' Row" -- reflect the affluence of a turn-of-the-century menhaden fishing industry. Many of the elegant mansions have been revitalized, and several offer bed and breakfast accommodations.

The James River Ferry, crossing from Colonial Jamestown to Scotland, offers a jarring contrast. Where the Sunnybank and Merry Point are intimate, modest, ethereal passages, the James River Ferry is big, carrying up to 70 cars and 500 passengers three miles, shore to shore. Instead of responding immediately to a single passenger, the James River ferries run on a schedule and charge a toll. Instead of a single boat riding a cable, four boats traverse the James at up to 14 knots.

The newest boat, the Pocahontas, is typical. She sports a narrow observation deck and a bridge deck topping a narrow structure rising from the middle of the car deck. The vista from high above takes in the river's expanse, the bluffs lining the south shore and the low-lying Jamestown peninsula.

On the south side, the ferry route follows the James River southeast to busy Norfolk, one-time home of numerous ferries including one across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Today, a combination of bridges and tunnels spans the bay's mouth and speeds vehicular traffic to the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. Only a railroad barge remains to float commerce between Tidewater and the Eastern Shore.

Delmarva crossings

Ferries are hardly absent from Delmarva. Although the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel stepped up the pace for many formerly isolated lower Eastern Shore towns, a pair of small cable ferries still ply the Wicomico River southwest of Salisbury. The Whitehaven Ferry is the southernmost of the two.

The Whitehaven Ferry has been operating continuously since 1690. On the south bank, open marshes line the shore, giving refuge to water birds, muskrats and other wetlands dwellers. On the north bank, the town of Whitehaven, once a deep-water port and shipbuilding center, presents a classic Chesapeake waterfront.

You feel a quickening and a sense of renewal in Whitehaven, similar to the Northern Neck's Reedville. Waterfront houses, built in the menhaden boom years, stand well-kept or under renovation. In the center of it all, Capt. Robert Bean pilots the ferry and keeps tabs on the community's goings and comings.

"People like living in Whitehaven," Captain Bob says. 'When I shut the ferry down in the evening, they know that no through traffic is coming here."

In contrast to Captain Bob's loquacious friendliness, Edward Ewell, captain of the Upper Ferry, is all business. His ferry traverses the Wicomico about a dozen miles upriver from Whitehaven, and he handles as many as 10 trips per hour, 14 hours a day in the summer. Expanding residential developments to the north feed commuters to jobs centered on Princess Anne. The river is less open, narrower, without the stretches of wetlands found at Whitehaven.

Captain Ewell's vessel serves as the re-entry into urbanized Salisbury and the continuous strip malls squatting along U.S. Route 13 north into Delaware. The ferry route follows the trail of fast food and outlets until turning west into Laurel, Del., a pretty town dating back nearly 300 years. Laurel's Victorian accents and numerous parks and ponds invite travelers to stroll the tidy streets or dine in one of the many restaurants before continuing westward to the Nanticoke River and the Woodland Ferry.

Delaware's last operating river ferry made its first transit in 1792. One of the nation's oldest operating ferries, the Woodland is on the National Register of Historic Places, and some of the waterside buildings were built in the early 1700s. But, despite this long history of service, the Woodland Ferry has twice faced closure in recent years. It was threatened by funding and maintenance problems, and only an outpouring of local love and sympathetic state officials were able to prevent the loss.

One passage over the scenic Nanticoke is enough to explain the fierce local devotion. The low, forested banks frame a picturesque backwater, and Woodland village appears to have slid off of a picture postcard. Capt. Charles Patterson, a 17-year veteran of the ferry, is a friendly, welcoming, robust man; an ex-waterman.

With his one-man crew, he transports more than 200 cars a day and up to 400 in the summer months. Patterson estimates that 75 percent of his traffic is local.

On the Tred Avon River

West of the Woodland Ferry, in Maryland's Talbot County, the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry on the Tred Avon River is possibly the oldest (1683) free-running (not cable), privately owned ferry in the United States. Before Baltimore, Washington or Richmond were of any consequence, Oxford was a major seaport. Splendid homes along the town's main street and the riverfront promenade display the wealth that first sailed up the Chesapeake. Skipjacks and flighty log canoes still sail the Tred Avon. Across the river, Bellevue typifies a 19th-century cannery town.

Bellevue also claims one of the ferry route's most extraordinary shops. The Bellevue Store can actually shock travelers jaded by production-line antiques, carved crab napkin rings and T-shirt boutiques. Specializing in the creative and the whimsical, the Bellevue Store offers a melange of high-quality craft items, Eastern Shore photography, fine papers and eccentric gifts. After the Bellevue Store, the renowned Talbot Street shops in nearby St. Michaels seem almost pedestrian.

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry extends a suitably grand finale to the mid-Atlantic ferry route. Where most of the cable ferries barely accommodate two pickup trucks, the Cape Henlopen, one of five ships crossing the mouth of Delaware Bay, swallows entire tractor trailers. You could even stack the cable ferries crosswise on the Henlopen's forward car deck. The 17-mile, open water voyage takes more than an hour, and, unlike the simple logistics found on most river ferries, the Cape May-Lewes ferries require reservations and sport modern terminals, full crews and even passenger boarding stages similar to the jetways found in airports.

Longer than a football field, the Cape Henlopen carries up to 100 cars on its lowest deck, and 800 passengers on its enclosed upper deck and open boat deck. The upper deck offers a passenger lounge with a snack bar, gift shop, arcade machines and television. In some respects, the lounge resembles a dowdy, functional waiting room in any big city bus terminal.

The resemblance ends up on the boat deck. There is a feeling of expansiveness facing out to the open bay. The other side does not come into sight until well after clearing the outer breakwaters. Churning along at 15 knots, the boat picks up a pronounced roll as waves wash in unimpeded from the nearby Atlantic. Ocean-going tankers and cargo freighters cruise past on their way to and from berths in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Sunsets over the Bay and Delaware's level coastal plain fill the sky with colors beyond any artist's palate.

PTC In the lounge, interstate truckers sip paper-cup coffee and joke with one another in front of the television that's always on. Day-tripping gamblers laugh and recount their adventures in Atlantic City's casinos, and road-weary travelers sit quietly, staring out the windows, content to let someone else drive for a while. In that respect the massive Cape Henlopen is direct kin to the diminutive Whitehaven Ferry. Despite their striking differences, both ferries extend an opportunity for tourists, commuters and other travelers to pause for breath, almost like a comma in a sentence.

Each of the eight mid-Atlantic tidewater ferries is well integrated into the local infrastructure and has a role in its community's progress. Each one fills a gap in the road while sparking a workingman's romanticism: These boats do a sweaty job -- neatly and efficiently -- and the people who ride them love them with a loyalty that can exceed all practicality.

When you go

* Sunnybank Ferry: Goes from Ophelia to Sunnybank, Va.; crosses the Little Wicomico River; located on Route 644 in

Northumberland County; call 800-VA-FERRY.

* Merry Point Ferry: Goes from Merry Point to Ottoman, Va.; crosses the Corrotoman River; located on Route 604 in Lancaster County; call 800-VA-FERRY.

* James River Ferry: Goes from Colonial Jamestown to Scotland, Va.; crosses the James River; located on Route 31 between Jamestown and Surry, Va.; call 800-VA-FERRY.

* Whitehaven Ferry: Goes from Widgeon to Whitehaven, Md.; crosses the Wicomico River; located on Route 352 at Whitehaven; call 410-548-4873.

* Upper Ferry: Goes from Route 349 to Allen, Md.; crosses the Wicomico River; located on Route 349 west of Salisbury; call 410-548-4873.

* Woodland Ferry: Goes from Laurel, Del., to Woodland, Del.; crosses the Nanticoke River; located on Route 78 northwest of Laurel, Del.; call 302-629-7742.

* Oxford-Bellevue Ferry: Goes from Oxford to Bellevue, Md.; crosses the Tred Avon River; located on Route 333 at Oxford; call 410-745-9023.

* Cape May-Lewes Ferry: Goes from Cape May, N.J., to Lewes, Del.; crosses the Delaware Bay; located on Route 9 east of Lewes; call 800-64-FERRY.

-- Reed Hellman

Pub Date: 12/21/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad