When ferries plied the bay

Way Back When

Before bridges: For two centuries, Marylanders crossed shores by ship.

May 06, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Earlier this week, state transportation officials said they were considering activating a high-speed ferry route that would carry both passengers and vehicles from Southern Maryland across the Chesapeake Bay to the Lower Eastern Shore.

With the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in the 1960s, passenger and vehicular car ferries vanished from the bay.

Currently, the only passenger ferries plying the bay are those that call at Smith Island and Tangier Island, Va.

There were ferry boats on the bay as long ago as the 17th century, with one of the oldest and most heavily traveled routes being that from Rock Hall to Annapolis, 25 miles that in good weather could take two hours.

If the bay was kicking up, not an unknown condition, it could delay sailings for days.

It is also one of the most famous ferry routes in the nation.

Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman sailed on one of its boats in his mad dash from Yorktown to Philadelphia in 1781 to inform the Continental Congress of the defeat of Lord Cornwallis' forces at Yorktown.

George Washington was also a frequent patron of the bay ferries, having made his first crossing in 1757, and his last in 1791. Apart from a Rock Hall route run briefly in the early 1990s, the last ferry trips across the bay took place in 1952. Despite competition from the newly opened Bay Bridge, the boats of a half-century ago still managed to transport more than a million passengers a year.

It was a familiar ritual at either end of the 40-minute run as passengers and cars lined up and waited for such old and reliable boats as the Gov. Harry W. Nice, Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor or the John M. Dennis.

With a blast on their steam whistles and the churning up of bay water, the boats shoved off from their terminals, giving motorists a brief respite from hot highways, screaming children and traffic bound for Ocean City or Baltimore.

The boats ran 46 round trips between 5 a.m. and 2 a.m., and were only out of operation for refueling, cleaning and watering, which took two hours.

"But the ferryboat personnel knew their job -- over 90 percent of them were Eastern Shore watermen -- and in fog, snow, sleet and rain so hard a man could hardly see his hand in front of his face, they `smelled' their way across the Bay and into their slips," said The Sunday Sun Magazine.

"Marylanders who used the ferries remember them fondly. Motorists enjoyed parking their cars on the main deck, then moving to the upper deck for coffee or a soft drink," observed the newspaper.

The final ferry run, which brought a colorful era in Maryland to an end, took place on New Year's Eve in 1952, when the Gov. Emerson C. Harrington II shuttled the four miles between Romancoke and Claiborne through a mixture of wind, rain and snow.

Frank Sherman, a 34-year veteran and purser on the boat, told a newspaper reporter that the "water ladies" had to give way to progress but a bridge isn't like a ferry.

"You can't come aboard, sit down and talk to your friends," Sherman told The Evening Sun.

The Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor, rechristened the Rhododendron, and the Gov. Harry W. Nice, renamed the Olympic, were sold by the State Roads Commission to Washington state where they were put on runs in the Puget Sound.

Almost half a century after leaving the waters of the Chesapeake, the Rhododendron, known affectionately as the "Rhody," still soldiers on. For ferryboat fans, she can be found daily steaming on the Fort Defiance to Tahlequah, Wash., route.

The Olympic has been withdrawn from service and sold to a new owner. She is now laid up at Eagle Harbor, Wash.

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