Waterborne Tradition Of Bay's Early Ferries

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July 05, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Travelers confronted today with crossing the Chesapeake Bay and major rivers like the Potomac and Susquehanna or lesser obstacles such as the Patapsco, Bush or Gunpowder usually travel over bridges or through tunnels.

But for a long time, crossing Maryland's waterways meant taking a ferry.

In Chesapeake Ferries: A Waterborne Tradition 1636-2000, a new book posthumously published by the Maryland Historical Society, Chestertown author Clara Ann Simmons recalls that colorful era in tidewater maritime transportation.

The book has contemporary relevance as state governments in the region contemplate reviving Chesapeake Bay ferry service as an alternative to building more bridges to move travelers across the water.

The bay's ferryboat era concluded on New Year's Eve in 1952, when the Gov. Emerson C. Harrington II tied up at its slip.

It certainly hadn't been an easy final passage as the Harrington steamed between Romancoke and Claiborne into that good night. It was almost as if fate was determined to make it as difficult a final run as possible, buffeting the ferry with stiff winds as an inhospitable mixture of snow and rain pelted its decks.

As the ferry's boilers went cold, it joined three other ferries on the maritime unemployment line, the Herbert R. O'Conor, John M. Dennis and Harry W. Nice, veterans of the Sandy Point-Matapeake route, which earlier that year had ingloriously lost their raison d'etre with the opening of the Bay Bridge.

Talk of constructing a bridge spanning the Chesapeake went back to 1907, when Peter J. Campbell, a Baltimore businessman, suggested it.

H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore newspaperman, scoffed at the idea, suggesting there would never be enough traffic to warrant the public expense in constructing such a bridge.

The Bay Bridge finally opened to traffic in 1952.

Many of the same forces that conspired to end rail passenger service also became the bane of ferry operators. Fast automobiles fueled by cheap gas drove over broad new highways and bridges, eliminating interminable waits for ferries and time-consuming crossings.

Today, the only ferries to regularly operate on the bay are the passenger-only vessels or mail boats that connect Smith Island and Tangier Island to the outside world.

But the ferries' role must never be overlooked in American transportation and commercial development since Colonial days. Through the years, ferries were rowed by hand, pulled by cables, or powered by sail, steam and diesel engines.

By the middle of the 18th century, it was possible for travelers heading south to ride by coach and ferry from Elkton, down the spine of the Eastern Shore, to Annapolis or Williamsburg and Richmond, Va., bouncing over pockmarked roads.

A frequent traveler on the Annapolis-Rock Hall route between 1757 and 1791 was George Washington, who used this combination of ferries and roads to reach cities in the North or return to Mount Vernon.

In addition to the bay, "river and creeks remained the highways of the tidewater region, and ferries continued to operate until the middle of the 20th century when road infrastructure developed over the area," wrote Simmons.

However, three ferry routes that date to the Revolutionary War still operate in Maryland. The Whitehaven Ferry and the Upper Ferry haul passengers and cars across the Wicomico River. The colorful Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in Talbot County has been chugging across the Tred Avon River since 1683.

And White's Ferry, opened for service in 1828 as Conrad's Ferry, is still shuttling passengers and their cars across the Potomac River between Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Va.

Pete Lesher, a noted Chesapeake Bay maritime and boat-building historian who is curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, cites the author's appendix and thumbnail descriptions of more than 300 ferry routes that operated throughout the tidewater region between 1636 and 2000 as "invaluable."

Simmons' book by no means attempts to be a comprehensive, in-depth history of the ferryboat era in Maryland and Virginia.

"It's an informal illustrated history and is clearly reminiscent of routes that the author was familiar with," Lesher said. "It has a charm to it and a scholarly value but never pretends to be a scholarly history."

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