A tour boat that will taxi passengers from one side of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to the other may bring new life to Chesapeake City.

Ferry carries hope of a reunited canal town

June 24, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

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."

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