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Historic US Ferry Keeps Giving Passengers Enjoyable Rides

  • June Soh

Ferries once were a vital means of transportation across rivers. On the Potomac River, which runs through the Washington region into the Chesapeake Bay on the U.S. East Coast, there once were more than 100 ferries in operation. They are all long gone... except one. Historic White's Ferry, in service since the late 1700s, is still doing very well.

On a sunny Saturday, cars are pulling onto the boat at White’s Ferry under the watchful eyes of the captain.

Next are the bikes. Scott Lake and his friends use the ferry on their way to their triathlon training.

“I love the ferry. It feels like it is a step back in time. You get to enjoy being close to the river while also cutting your ride back down to a manageable distance,” he said.

“The best thing is that it is nostalgic. It is not updated. It is a throwback ferry. It does its job,” said Kristen Wedemeyer, another bicyclist.

Since it began running in 1786, White's Ferry has been a widely used means of crossing the river that separates Maryland and Virginia. It was a popular transit point for troops during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

The boat, the General Jubal A. Early, is named for a Confederate commander in the Civil War.

Over time, the ferry changed hands. Malcolm Brown’s family has owned it since 1946.

“My father came home from the war, World War II, and he and some other fellows got together and bought the rights. And in 1972 when I came home from the service [in the Army], they asked me to get involved with it and run it. I really didn’t want to, but I agreed to do it for a year. And it got busier and busier,” said Brown.

As the business grew, so did the boat. The Browns' first ferry carried three cars. That was replaced by a steel boat for 15 cars, and later came the current 24-car vessel pulled by a cable.

The only ferry operating on the Potomac River is popular among the region's commuters.

“It is a lot less traffic, it is a lot less headache. I use it every day. I take it on the way to work. I have been doing it for about eight years now,” says commuter Bob Batcher.

Another commuter, Kimberly Kempa, says, “It is certainly much quicker to get where I need to go. And also it is a lovely ride.”

They say the short ride - $5 one way or $8 round trip - is worth it.

David Pierce Jr. and three other licensed captains shuttle the passengers in shifts from 5 o’clock in the morning to 11 at night, year round.

“Wish it was a longer ride, not three and a-half minutes. It takes really a multi-task. we have to look at the river, land, the boat and collect [money] all at the same time before we get to the other side,” said Pierce.

Unless a big bridge is built nearby, White's ferry will keep connecting both sides of the Potomac River.

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