CHESAPEAKE CITY - The canal that allows giant ships to float their wares from Baltimore to Philadelphia and back again has split this town in two since its beginning.
For more than 100 years, people could walk over a low-slung bridge to get across the canal. The distance from bank to bank was so short that they could throw stones from one side to the other.
But as years passed, the canal was widened for bigger and bigger ships, such as cruise liners carrying vacationing passengers and freighters carrying new Toyotas.
Necessity and tragedy, meanwhile, brought taller and taller bridges. And the watery gap between the north shore and the south became a gulf that divided the tiny town.
In the next few weeks, though, a tour boat calling itself the Chesapeake City Ferry will take the first step toward linking this town bisected by the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. By giving residents and tourists a chance to leave their cars behind and cross from side to side, Chesapeake City could be convenient for pedestrians again.
"We're joining our town back together, the way it was," said Capt. Ralph Hazel Jr., 62, who will run the free ferry five days a week on the Miss Clare, which he has used for charter trips for a dozen years.
This is not the first time this Cecil County town of fewer than 800 residents has had a ferry. Born of necessity, the first one, the Victory, arrived in 1942, soon after a freighter crashed into the south tower of the town's lift bridge. That span, which rose above the road level to allow ships to pass underneath, had replaced a wooden swing bridge that operated for much of the 19th century.
With the bridge destroyed, emergency plans went into effect. The Victory, essentially a tugboat that shuttled schoolchildren and others who needed to get across, was replaced the next year by the Gotham, which could bring 23 cars along with passengers from one shore to the other.
Wartime meant the Gotham operated longer than expected. The new bridge - a 140-foot-high highway span that forces cars to bypass the town entirely - opened in 1949, after which the ferry was no longer needed.
Robert Hazel, the captain's brother, is a retired high school English teacher and fifth-generation resident of Chesapeake City who has written books on the history of the canal and its bridges. He remembers the ferry well, as does his wife, who lived on the north side of town and took it every morning to get to school. "I'd come in and ride it for fun," he said, "just for the heck of it."
Chesapeake City has lived and died by the canal, which links the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, allowing ships to save 300 miles on the journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
When the hand-dug canal opened in 1829, the town grew up around it. Businesses eventually flourished on both sides. Homes went up north and south. A steamer line that linked Baltimore and Philadelphia built its boats long and narrow to navigate the passage, local history buffs say.
The old lift bridge, which ran with electric motors and counterweights, brought travelers downtown.
"This was a thriving town at one time," Robert Hazel, 69, recalled recently, sitting on a bench in a park overlooking the water. "We had three doctors, a pharmacy, a movie theater, an A&P;, a cobbler - everything."
When the new bridge opened, everything changed. No longer were cars routed through Chesapeake City. They drove past it. To get there now, drivers have to pay attention and catch a steep curve or they'll miss it.
The walk that used to take five minutes or so - maybe a quick jaunt from a home on the south side to the firehouse carnival on the north - now requires scaling a staircase to get to road level, walking a longer distance alongside speeding cars on Route 213 and then descending again. It's a trip much simpler by car.
The gap widened
The economic damage done by the bridge was exacerbated in the 1960s, when the canal was widened and deepened by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The government knocked down dozens of houses on the north side to make way for the project, and the town had to build water and sewer plants, one on each bank because the technology of the time made it more difficult to submerge the pipes.
Water bills in the town average $720 a year because 360 homes share the cost of two plants.
Supporters are calling the ferry a way to get connected again. It should be up and running as soon as dock improvements are completed.
"We don't need it for commerce or day-to-day living, but as an amenity and for residents, it's a draw," said Robert Bernstine, the third-term mayor of Chesapeake City who runs a small consulting business in town. "Nowadays, everyone's used to jumping in their cars to go somewhere."
The community - primarily the south side where the majority of businesses are located - is mostly for tourists now, with quaint antique and gift shops lining its narrow streets, charming bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants with outdoor seating and views of the best show in town: the sight of enormous ships squeezing through what seems like the too-tight fit of the channel.
Service for residents
And while the ferry would be for the tourists, several residents see it more for their neighbors. Bernstine envisions residents on the south side taking the ferry to play basketball at the town's only court, which is on the north side. He sees north-side kids riding over to the south side to play Little League games. Tourists can eat at the north side's big restaurant and take the ferry across to the ice cream shop on the south side.
Allaire DuPont moved to Chesapeake City during World War II and remembers riding the ferry with regularity. She is looking forward to seeing one in operation again after all this time. "We'll all have to clap when the first one comes over," she said.
Not everyone is as thrilled as she is. Residents and property owners on the north side, Bernstine said, are worried that the ferry could become so popular that an existing parking crunch could become a serious issue. A woman who works at Schaefer's on the Canal restaurant in north Chesapeake City said she worries that too many extra cars could cause problems for the business, but referred questions to the restaurant's owner, who did not return messages.
Mayor is positive
Still, Bernstine said if the ferry is that well received, he will try to work out some sort of parking compromise to ease tensions.
He wants this to work. The 44-year-old mayor wants a glimpse of what it must have been like to cross the canal with ease.
"I kind of only know it as a split town," he said.