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.

December 21, 1997|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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