Bay ferry tale: Crumbling vessel beached indefinitely

The `Hampton Roads,' which sits just off U.S. 50, has become a landmark for residents and tourists in its 40 years aground

April 22, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun Reporter

TRAPPE -- For nearly 40 years, beach-bound Marylanders have sped past the old ferry that sits, squat and square, ever-changing yet seemingly indestructible, at the western end of the Choptank River bridge.

The Hampton Roads' nine-lives kind of history has been limited only by the whimsy, vision and money of a procession of entrepreneurs. Among its incarnations: an upscale restaurant with white tablecloths, some lesser eateries, two or three different bars. There were a couple of antiques businesses -- including one set off by a red-white-and-blue paint job to mark the 1976 Bicentennial -- and an indoor flea market.

Throughout the changes, the ferry remained a part of U.S. 50 lore, a fixture in stark contrast to flat farm fields, a halfway-to-the-beach milestone more distinctive than anything between the Bay Bridge and the Ocean City skyline. It even achieved a bit of pop culture status in 2002, when the Maryland Transportation Authority made it Site No. 7 in the Bay Game, the coloring books that bridge toll collectors hand out to keep kids occupied on the way to the beach.

But as Baltimore-area residents prepare to head east for another beach season, the cavernous, 185-foot ferry has been partly dismantled and its owner is puzzling about its future.

"I had a guy offer me $10,000, just for the steel, and he would demolish it," said owner Jack Morrison, who operates the Gateway Marina next door. "But I love that old boat. I really am not sure what we'll do."

Morrison, 48, said he demolished the upper deck's crumbling mess of rotting wood a couple of months ago on the orders of a Talbot County zoning inspector. That set off rumors the boat was being dismantled for salvage steel.

"That upper part was what was most visible from U.S. 50, but it was in bad shape," said Morrison, who bought the ferry and its 1.5-acre setting for $425,000 four years ago. He acknowledges that he bought it mostly for the land.

So far, the huge interior that once carried cars suits Morrison as a sheltered space for off-season boat repairs at his marina. But he is not sure about the long-term prospects for the aging ferry that once had a 1,400-horsepower steam engine and was supported by a crew of 18.

The ferry was named for the Virginia waters where it hauled cars and passengers from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

"It's a shambles now, but I remember using it during [World War II] when I was stationed in Hampton Roads," said Earl Brannock, 83, who runs the nonprofit Brannock Maritime Museum in Cambridge.

It was towed to Maryland after 1957, when the Hampton Tunnel opened in Virginia and surplus ferries were sold. The plan was to outfit the ferry as a hunting lodge -- a scheme that left it aground for several years in a shallow creek near Cambridge.

Lots of folks remember the day the ferry was towed to the Talbot County side of the Choptank.

It was Feb. 10, 1968 -- Harvey Davis' wedding day. Davis, who is executive director of the Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, doesn't recall seeing the ferry. But guests remember rushing to the windows during the reception at the Cambridge Country Club to get a glimpse of it.

That was the last time the vessel was afloat. Ever since, it has been packed in by eight feet of sand and a bulkhead.

According to Brannock, a retired Navy veteran named Broadus Hay bought the vessel, hoping at first to convert it to a hunting lodge. Later, he figured to capitalize on the proximity to U.S. 50 and the traffic jams that sometimes backed up nearly five miles to the town of Trappe.

"Broadus had 100 ideas on just about everything," Brannock said. "It was worth more when he first bought it, but it was cannibalized for all its brass fittings, gauges, anything of value, years ago."

Peter Lesher, curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, said such changes are not unheard-of for old ferries.

"There was one old ferry, the Gov. Harry W. Nice, that was sold after the Bay Bridge opened to a company in Washington state. Somebody tried to make it into a restaurant," Lesher said.

Christine Wright-Gadow, 41, who owns a hair salon in Cambridge, recalls playing in and around the ferry as a child, then becoming a regular visitor as a teenager when disc jockeys kept the dance floor busy.

The nightlife was not always so savory. One bar in the ferry was known as a beer joint where trouble usually found those who were looking for it. It was always a good spot for dancing or a "take it outside" fistfight in the parking lot, according to residents, who all swear they were of legal age when they frequented the place.

Still, many have a fondness for the once-proud Hampton Roads.

"I've always been fascinated with that ferry," said Cambridge native Connie Tubman, 59, whose family ran a gift shop near the boat from 1970 until they moved the business into town in 1987. "It's such a part of the place. I wish I could have bought it years ago."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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