Short Haul, Long History


Whitehaven Ferry has crossed the Wicomico for centuries

October 01, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

WHITEHAVEN -- As the sun rises over the Wicomico River, Capt. Bobby Bean raises the red bar on the ferry ramp and steps out of the way. A paving company truck and two pickups drive aboard. The minivan will have to wait.

A minute later, Bean is guiding the Whitehaven Ferry across the river. Passengers barely have time to skim the newspaper's front page before he lifts the bar on the other side of the river and the trucks drive off into the marshy beyond.

Rush hour has begun in Whitehaven, population 37. Total commute time across the river: six minutes. Approximate time saved versus going by land: 40 minutes. Cost to riders: free.

FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article in Monday's editions misstated the cost to Wicomico County of a telephone line offering recorded information about the Whitehaven Ferry. The correct figure is $725 a year.

Before the roads were paved, before the automobile was invented, before the United States was even a country, the Whitehaven Ferry carried people across this busy river southwest of Salisbury. In Colonial times, it carried settlers to plantations. During the truck-farming and cannery decades of the 1800s, it carried produce to the railroads. And in the last century, it carried door-to-door salesmen, known as "drummers," from the big cities to the rural Shore.

Now, the ferry -- which holds just three cars or trucks -- carries about 300 vehicles a day. So on a normal weekday, Bean makes the 900-foot crossing nearly 100 times. After 18 years, the monotony can get to him.

But the regulars keep him going -- a hairdresser, a prison librarian, a college secretary, a minister, a farmer, a local artist and at least half a dozen construction workers, most of them headed to jobs near Princess Anne. The innkeeper at the Whitehaven Hotel often brings him omelets for breakfast.

"I can't tear myself away from here," Bean said. "I live close, I'm home every night, and the people are nice -- sometimes."

Ask people why they take the ferry, and their stories are all the same. If they drove from one side to the other, the distance would be 31 miles, not to mention the hassle of Salisbury at rush hour. The ferry offers a shortcut that has the bonus of being a pleasant beginning to the workday.

"What a way to start your morning," said John Ruark, 39. He runs a trucking company on the south side of the river, in Princess Anne in Somerset County, and lives on the north side, in Bivalve in Wicomico County. "I've been taking it for three years. It's definitely a good service."

If the ferry trip is routine for commuters, it is often perplexing to tourists visiting the village of Whitehaven, which includes the hotel, artists' studios, and a couple of dozen homes.

The ferry leaves Whitehaven and drops off its passengers at the end of a rural road that twists through marsh grass and tall wildflowers, with a few barns and homes scattered about. Princess Anne might be only 7 miles away, but it's hard to tell. The only sign around says: "Danger: road ends here. Deep water."

Signs post the ferry's operating hours but not a schedule. Vacationers trying to pack in Shore sites are reluctant to get on a boat that appears to go nowhere and doesn't say when it will get there.

"I see people pull up all the time, and then they turn around," said Jefferson Boyer, a local historian and one of the hotel's innkeepers. "They just kind of look and say, `What is this?'"

Most of the year, the ferry runs 11 hours a day; from May to September, it runs 13 1/2 hours daily. Bean works six long days then takes a week off, during which he goes crabbing and runs his charter-boat business. Two co-workers handle the ferry when he's not there.

The ferry has an electric motor and a propeller, and is attached to a cable that pulls it across. Still, Bean must watch for tugboats hauling barges filled with gravel, chicken feed and oil. He listens for storm warnings, monitors the winds and tides, and makes sure drivers have put on their emergency brakes. If it's too stormy or foggy, or the tide is too high, he makes the call to stop running. And that's when people can get angry, especially if they disagree with his call.

The Whitehaven Ferry is the country's oldest publicly operated ferry, and local officials say it has never been in a serious accident. About two decades ago, it sank when a dump truck drove on, in violation of the 10,000-pound rule. But the truck came off, and the ferry popped back up.

Then, two years ago, the ferry got stuck: Someone stole a Dodge Intrepid and drove it into the water, blocking the cable.

Once, a Somerset man took the boat to Whitehaven for a night of drinking and found the ferry closed when he was heading home. So he decided to make the run across the river himself. When he got to the other side and put the car he had borrowed in drive, it went backward. The ferry and the car drifted back into the river. Police arrested him for stealing the boat.

Fortunately for the accused, the judge in the case was Lloyd "Hot Dog" Simpkins, a man known for his common sense. Simpkins found the man not guilty, reasoning that one couldn't steal something that was tied down by cable at both ends. More than 20 years later, he stands by that decision.

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