There and Back Again

Four centuries of ferry service in the Old Dominion.

     There were more than 100 ferries in operation on the numerous rivers throughout Virginia by the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, there are just a handful left, the rest slowly supplanted through the years by the development of modern bridges and tunnels. But this less frenetic era of slower, though steady, travel is not lost.

     The tiny Hatton Ferry, which carries passengers across the James River near Scottsville in Albemarle County, is the last remaining poled ferry in the U.S. Able to carry 12 people and two cars, it has a flat bottom with a deck just a few inches above the waterline. An overhead wire that strands the 700 yards across the river from bank to bank guides a cable attached to one end of the craft, which helps control the boat while relying on the natural current of the river to convey it across. Once near the landing, the operator rolls up the cable on the stern and uses his pole to ease the ferry into its slip.

     At one time along this stretch of the James and the nearby Rivanna River, there were 18 ferries, the earliest dating back to 1729. The Hatton Ferry was established in 1870, and is now owned and operated by “Hatton Ferry,” a nonprofit corporation setup by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. It runs on a weekend schedule from April to October and, though there is no fare, requested donations of $2 per passenger and $5 per vehicle help keep this piece of Virginia history afloat.

      However, not all the remaining ferries in Virginia are relics of the past. Some, like the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, are still vital parts of the Commonwealth’s modern transport infrastructure.

     With no bridge or tunnel, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry is the only thing connecting U.S. Route 31 on either side of the James River. It is operated toll-free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

     “We have a morning and evening rush hour, with many of our patrons living in Surry and working in Williamsburg,” says Wes Ripley, facility manager for the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry service. Ripley says 951,212 vehicles were transported across the water in 2012. “We don’t count passengers, but, for estimation purposes, we figure 2.5 per vehicle.”

     Ripley, a former ferry captain himself, says the crossing takes about 15 or 20 minutes and that captain and crew make either 10 or 11 round trips per day, depending on the shift. In addition to a captain, each crew complement is made up of a licensed chief engineer and four deck hands. Crossings are usually smooth, but that does not mean they are without incident.

     “The most legendary story here was when our crew picked up a naked woman from Buoy 55,” says Ripley. “Apparently, she had found her way aboard a tug upriver and when operations were concluded, they decided to put her on the buoy as they passed, figuring our crews would pick her up, which they did. Our crew gave her a coat as cover. This was sometime in the late 1970s.”

     The early settlers at Jamestown, no doubt, had a ferry service across the James River, but the first automobiles to cross from Jamestown to Scotland Landing did so on February 26, 1925. The ferry in service at the time, named the Captain John Smith, was 60 feet long and could carry 16 Model T Fords. By 1928, serious discussions were afoot about replacing the ferry with a bridge at this location.

     Given the costs of such a construction, coupled with concerns of an increase in population on the southern shore of the James River and the negative effect of a bridge on views from Jamestown Island, the ferry system remains a viable solution, as evidenced by the Virginia Division of Transportation’s recent authorization of a new $27 million, 70-vehicle ferry. Work will begin later this year, with a projected completion date of 2016, at which point it will replace the oldest ferry in the current fleet—the Virginia, built in 1936.

     Ferry service in Hampton Roads has also remained in operation since Colonial times. Today, Hampton Roads Transit runs a fleet of three 150-passenger paddle-wheel ferries between Norfolk and Portsmouth from morning until night, for an adult fare of $1.50 per ride. The first ferry service across the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth dates from 1636, when a skiff was rowed across. Although by 1720 the service was capable of transporting horse-drawn wagons and other wheeled vehicles, the power was still delivered by oarsmen. From 1794 until 1821, paddle-wheel vessels were making the crossing. A decade later, steam-powered ferries were in service.

     Ferry service on the Potomac River, crossing between Virginia and Maryland, has been in place since 1786. Though once numerous, White’s Ferry, near Leesburg, is the last remaining. Today, the General Jubal A. Early operates daily from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. and can carry up to 24 cars. Fares go from $1 for a passenger up to $12 for a large truck.

     There are also two ferries still in service in the Northern Neck, both of them cable-ferries. The Sunnybank Ferry, in operation since 1903, crosses the Little Wicomico River from U.S. Route 644 in Northumberland County. The Merry Point Ferry, started in 1847, crosses the Western Branch of the Corrotoman River from U.S. Route 604 in Lancaster County. Both services were privately owned until the 1930s, when the Virginia Department of Transportation began to operate them fare-free.

     After nearly 400 years of service in the Commonwealth, it seems appropriate to say that travel by ferry has earned its sea legs.

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