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TideWriters Tales
Riding on the Ferry
By Catherine C. Brooks
     My first recollection of riding on a ferry takes me back to my early childhood in Granddaddy Richardson’s Model T Ford. His automobile was the latest model with curtains that snapped on and off, and both Granddaddy and Daddy declared it much easier and quicker starting than previous models when they turned the crank. (Those early automobiles came with a crank to turn the engine over to start. them.) In those days no one needed to buy exercise equipment or take aerobics because daily life required the use of all muscles. Momma, my younger sister, Lou, and I traveled with my grandparents to their apartment on Huntington Ave. in Newport News to spend a week. Thus, the trip required us to cross the York River on the ferry. If the ferry had rest rooms, I always wanted to go up stairs where they were. The steps were designed for adults instead of my short legs so I struggled to the top. Momma carried Lou as she pulled up the steps with one hand on the rail. I didn’t need the rest room often, but wanted to get out of the closed car where you saw little. There were things that I wanted to see out beyond the ferry. After all, we didn’t have the opportunity to leave our county but a few times during the year. Why not make use of every minute? In winter months, upstairs on the boat was off base for me unless it was a necessity. It was too cold.

     Another vivid memory of a ferry ride over the York River happened in 1931 when I was five years old. Yorktown celebrated the Sesquicentennial with the statue dedicated on the hill where Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington. Grandpa Callis didn’t leave the county for many occasions, but this one he couldn’t miss. Besides the dedication, President Herbert Hoover would be there and speak. Grandpa invited our family to accompany him. The plans revealed that we’d park at a designated field above the ferry dock at Gloucester Point and walk to the ferry, carrying our picnic lunch. I had to have hold of one of my parents’ hand at all times. Momma hung on to Lou, and Daddy had me at his side. We walked to the ferry, boarding as soon as it docked and unloaded, which only took minutes with everyone going to and not coming from Yorktown. We waited with the others on foot while only two or three cars drove over the ramp and parked to the front of the ferry. I don’t recall the fee for each adult but they didn’t charge for children under age 12. No one thought of the Great Depression on that day. I’d never seen so many people. However, I could only see those to whom we were close and then I was looking at dresses and trouser legs. Sort of a smothery feeling. When Hoover began to speak, I pled with Daddy to hold me higher so I could see. I remember how he raised me up on his shoulders, where I stayed until the speech ended. I heard little for it was a buzz of voices all about us. I was a child, but couldn’t understand why others came if they were going to be so impolite. We didn’t have a radio to hear him speak--maybe they did.

     After Momma’s younger sister, Jane, married Roger Lilly, she had a two-bedroom apartment in Newport News. Momma, Lou and I would travel back with Granddaddy Richardson after he and Granny spent the weekend at Aunt Rite’s or our house, and he’d take us to Aunt Jane’s and Uncle Roger’s for a short visit. Arrangements had been made ahead that she would take us to the ferry with Daddy picking us up on the Gloucester Point side about Wednesday afternoon. Uncle Roger had a Nash Coupe with a rumble seat. I always rode in the rumble seat—sunshine or rain. Lou joined me on nice days and would even sometimes take a nap before we reached Yorktown. When it rained, I used a waterproof coat that protected me head to foot for those rides on rainy days. One of those trips stands out in my mind. I was excited to see Daddy so as soon as the cars unloaded, I took out running off the ferry toward him. I felt a hand grab my arm, tugging me toward the big man to whom the hand belonged. Was he trying to kidnap me? No, I was the bad one. I had almost run into the York River where the ferry was wider than the wharf. Such a small space, but a little thin girl could easily fall into it. After the man explained what could and would have happened if he hadn’t been on the scene, I realized he had saved my life. After that, I always waited for Momma, shunning the outside of the walkways.
Another ferry that I traveled left the dock at Boa’ Harbor in Newport News, landing at Willowby Spit on the Norfolk side. Unless Granddaddy was taking us for a day’s visit, we rode the ferry as pedestrians, having to go upstairs where we found plenty of seats. Daddy’s brother’s wife, Aunt Mae, usually picked us up on the Norfolk side. She’d take us to her apartment or another destination that had made arrangements to visit in advance. As I remember, that trip took an hour. People did lots of visiting during the summer back then. The winters were colder with children in school so except on holidays or a special weekend, my family stayed in Mathews County.

     I took the ferry for granted in my childhood--like it had always been available. Now I know it wasn’t. The first ferries used for transportation date back to the 1820s in Europe and later on the wider rivers in the United States. Side Wheelers and other larger boats crossed these rivers and bays. However in Mathews County, it was in the 1880s before smaller conveyances took one from Cricket Hill to Gwynn’s Island and two decades later across the Piankitank at Green Point to Middlesex County. If you live in another small county on a river or a bay, you would need to check local history for your area.

     The first ferries to Gwynns Island only carried two or three horse-drawn carriages with steel cables stretched on poles for pulling the flat-barge-like conveyance by hand. Pedestrians usually rode in a canoe or skiff they owned or hired someone to row them across Milford Haven or the Piankitank River before the larger self-propelled ferry appeared. In Mathews, the earlier fare for the horse drawn carriage was 25 cents.
In time, new owners on Gwynn’s Island moved the ferry docks from the Narrows to a Dock at Callis Wharf and to the new Cricket Hill Ferry Dock on the mainland. With the introduction of boats powered by gasoline engines, another company formed and made use of the new invention to pull their barge-like ferries. However, rather than towing them from the front, the boats lashed on to the side of the ferries. By the time ferry boats with their own engines had become available and in use on larger rivers and bays, Eleanor Powell Respress’ father, Captain Powell, agreed to appear before the Mathews Board of Supervisors to make a plea for a proper ferry to carry the many cars and people to and from the Island until a bridge could be built. The Board agreed to fund the ferry project, but laughed at the mention of a bridge ever crossing Milford Haven. Rates remained 25 cents for a vehicle and driver, but each passenger cost an additional five cents. I traveled across Milford Haven on the latter ferry many times. 

     In the 1940s and early 1950s, after we married, Kirby and I took his parents to visit his mother’s cousin, who lived near Reedsville, Virginia. So it meant a trip on the ferry across the Piankitank to Middlesex County. The wait on either side at the dock took up much more time than the ride. Since I can’t recall a second ferry, I presume by that time there was a bridge of some sort over the Rappahannock River—not the quality of today’s bridge. The ferries at both Cricket Hill and Green Point were much smaller than the ones over the York River and Hampton Roads.

     We traveled through Hopewell to go to North Carolina just for the pleasure of riding the ferry after most ferries had been replaced with bridges and tunnels. When our children were youths, Kirby and I saw that they attended our church’s youth camp at Wakefield, Virginia. It always meant one or two trips across the James River on the ferry to take the church youth to and from camp. Neither of our two children wanted to leave for the trip without a bag of stale breadcrumbs so that they could feed the sea gulls from the ferry. Unless the company was running two ferries, we didn’t want to miss the ferry because it meant an hours wait. 

     On one of our last trips, bringing our children and others back from camp on a Friday night, we knew we’d be taking the last ferry home, and we made it on schedule. But we had no way of knowing that on one of the hottest nights of that summer, the workers would have a party on the Surry side before the ferry left to dock at Jamestown. As we arrived we had met the cars leaving the ferry, but no one moved forward except workers rushing towards the boat on foot. Then people ahead of us began to open their automobile doors, many climbing out to catch any breeze that might be blowing from James River. When I left the opened station wagon door, I heard the music playing with some laughter from the upper deck. Kirby climbed out and walked toward the docked ferry to see just what was happening since we had seen another station wagon, loaded with fellow campers pull out of the line just two cars ahead. We guessed that they were going back to make the long drive through Smithfield to the James River Bridge, taking them to Newport News. Kirby had had a long work day and didn’t feel like facing the heavy traffic on that route. But he wanted to make sure the ferry was returning to Jamestown. Some of the workers had told folk in the first car they were celebrating one of the men’s last day at work. We had stood on the wharf so long that it felt good to just sit as we crossed the James River. 

     When out celebrating my daughter’s and my birthday, she and her husband have come home from Portsmouth the longer way just so we could enjoy the ferry trip one more time. However, I hear no one complaining that we have bridges at most crossings today.

© Catherine C. Brooks 2005 All Rights Reserved

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