WHITEHAVEN -- With a blurp and a gurgle, the humble diesel-powered ferry lurches into gear and noses across the Wicomico River, following the same dead-ahead route taken by barges, rowboats and log canoes carrying passengers and goods from one muddy bank to the other for three centuries.
On any given day in tiny Whitehaven, a quiet waterfront village of 25 houses and 43 residents, the persistent ferryboat is easily the center of activity.
Beginning at daybreak and continuing for the next 13 1/2 hours, the steel-hulled, 60-foot boat makes 100 daily crossings, carrying commuters and sightseers some 900 feet across the river separating Wicomico and Somerset counties on the Lower Eastern Shore.
But this year, the ferry operation is the focus of even more attention as it approaches its 300th anniversary. Local residents, who normally avoid hyperbole in favor of the tidewater town's soothing solitude, are proudly declaring it the oldest working ferry service in the country.
"That is the claim," said Abdul G. Khan, who moved to Whitehaven in January and lives aboard his houseboat in a small marina at river's edge. "So far, no one has come up with a counter-claim."
Mr. Khan said he became so enamored of the ferry that when he learned it was sanctioned in 1692 by the Colonial government, he began efforts to have its anniversary commemorated on a postage stamp.
For Mr. Khan, putting the ferry on a stamp offers an opportunity to combine his two special interests -- economics and philately. Mr. Khan, who has a doctorate in economics and teaches at nearby Salisbury State University, has collected stamps for years and considers it a matter of personal and civic pride to push for the commemoration.
"My interest in the ferry is that it had important economic implications," he explained. Indeed, local historians note that the earliest ferry was essential to the commerce and traffic of the town, which was founded by George Gale in the 17th century as a shipbuilding and trading center.
Travelers used the ferry to get to and from Princess Anne, the closest county seat, before roads were built farther north and Salisbury was founded, according to Betty Augustine, who lived in Whitehaven for 15 years before she and her husband moved to Salisbury.
At its peak, Whitehaven boasted a bustling shipyard, a bank, a couple of saloons, a hotel, a livery stable and a blacksmith. And, of course, the ferry.
Nowadays, Whitehaven is residential except for a small marina. Most homeowners, who have to travel seven miles to buy a loaf of bread, use the ferry to commute to work in Princess Anne and Salisbury.
Without the ferry, motorists in Whitehaven would have to drive 20 miles to Salisbury and more than 30 to Princess Anne. The ferry cuts three miles from a Salisbury trip.
According to Mrs. Augustine, the ferry was taken out of private hands and put under local government control in 1867 when Wicomico County was created from parts of Somerset and Worcester counties.
Wicomico and Somerset share the expense, which amounts to about $56,000 a year. Use of the boat is free and drivers are only asked to 'Blow horn for ferry," as requested by signs posted on each side of the river.
Ferry operator Cliff Pippin said directing the barge-like vessel along the steel cable that guides it from shore to shore can be tedious, particularly in winter.
"Basically, you're stuck in a box going back and forth, back and forth," he said. "You don't get much of a break."
In summer, Mr. Pippin gets a chance to stand on the deck and talk with passengers and sell local tomatoes and cantaloupes TC displayed on boxes set to one side of the ferry.
Tourists are attracted to the ferry, said Mr. Pippin, and are fond of taking his photograph.
L "It's a damn good thing I'm not wanted by anybody," he said.
The current ferry, put into service in 1986, is limited to carrying three vehicles and six passengers at a time, to avoid having to meet U.S. Coast Guard licensing requirements.
While the ferry is a romantic sight for many people, those who look after it routinely find it can be troublesome at times.
"It's an attractive nuisance," said Kirk Banks, the Wicomico County roads engineer. "It's like sending mail to Easton by the pony express."
But despite the care and cost given to the ferry, there are no serious plans to replace it with a bridge, Mr. Banks said.
"It'll be there as long as people are interested in it," he said.
Efforts to recognize the ferry's long service are being put behind Mr. Khan's commemorative stamp idea, said Patricia Russell, who moved to the area 15 years ago and has worked to preserve the town's identity.
Local artist F. Wayne Taylor, whose great-great-grandfather, his father and brother once operated the ferry, has painted two pictures of the ferry for consideration by the panel that decides what designs will be put on stamps. Another artist, Becky Lowe, also has provided a rendition.