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Ferry Tales of the Chesapeake Bay

Jul 13, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Anne McNulty 

Those were the days—the days before the Eastern Shore exploded with growth; before the newly built Chesapeake Bay Bridge arched across the Bay in a graceful curve and beckoned motorists to cross over its two lanes. It first opened on July 30, 1952, and it ended a way of life that few now remember—the days when the ferries ran. 

Boats such as the Governor Herbert O’Conor, the Governor Harry W. Nice, the John M. Dennis, and the B. Frank Sherman, plowed through the bay between Annapolis and Kent Island to deliver passengers and their automobiles. 

By 1951, these vessels worked almost around the clock to transport over a million vehicles and their passengers from Sandy Point to the Matapeake terminal on Kent Island, but when the bridge opened, the ferries stopped running. 

In earlier times, steamboats carried passengers from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore and disembarked at resorts such as Love Point on Kent Island. They could also board a train
or later a Red Star bus to Ocean City. Then in 1919, the first Chesapeake ferry route between Annapolis and Claiborne (a village north of St. Michaels) was created.

In 1930, the Matapeake Ferry Terminal opened on Kent Island. Now, delighted passengers would have a much shorter ride to Annapolis and back. The route became shorter yet when Sandy Point became the Annapolis terminal in 1943.

When motorists today complain about the long backups at the Bay Bridge, they’d grumble more if they’d had to wait to board the ferries. During the summer days in the 1940s, vehicles were backed up six or seven miles to board the boats. Cars, produce trucks, and tractor trailers all waited—sometimes for two or three ferries to leave before it was their turn. People got out of their vehicles, pulled out folding chairs or blankets, and sat at the side of Route 50.   

Finally, they were able to drive across the ramp onto the deck. Relieved, they heard the ferry whistle pierce the air as deckhands threw off the lines. Then, the engines shuddered as the boat lurched out of its slip. 

Former Queenstown resident, Dr. Michael Pelczar, remembers all of that when he was a boy living in Baltimore. His family frequently came to the shore to visit his grandparents’ farm. 

“I remember the Dennis,” Pelczar says. “That was a unique boat. We’d get out of the car, and I was all over that boat. I had the run of the place. It was lots of fun for a kid. I’ll never forget the smells of those fragrant fruits and vegetables loaded on all those produce trucks.”

“Coming home on Sundays wasn’t always too great,” he adds. “When traffic backed up, my aunts and uncles got out of their vehicles, turned on the car radios, and danced on Route 18. We were always worried about getting back on the ferry before it filled up. I’d wonder if we were going to make it in time. It was awful to hear that whistle blasting and hear the railing thumping down. We knew we’d missed it then.” 

At age 86, local writer and historian, Nick Hoxter, recalls the few years when he worked as a deckhand on the Harry Nice.

“Passengers drove their vehicles onto the boat and we directed them where to park,” he says. “They drove up one end and disembarked on the other. We were tickled to death to work on the ferries because we were furnished with uniforms and meals, and I made 32 dollars a week. You can’t believe the food they cooked for us: thick steaks, crab cakes out of this world, and oysters. Oh yes indeedy.” 

The first day the bridge opened in 1952 was the last day the ferries ran. “We didn’t realize that was the end,” Hoxter says. 

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry

A much older and humbler ferry is the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. It is owned by captains Tom and Judy Bixler who moved from upstate New York to this area to buy the ferry in 2002. After owning several car dealerships, the couple, who both have captain’s licenses, wanted a unique retirement career. 

“We don’t make a lot of money,” Judy says. “But we have a lot of fun.”

After the crew loads up passengers, bicycles, and vehicles, they make the three-quarter mile trip across the Tred Avon at five knots an hour which takes about 10 minutes.  

“Arranging the vehicles can be like a Chinese puzzle. We have to judge their position on deck by their size,” Judy says. “Once we loaded 18 Mini-Coopers on our nine-car ferry. But it’s the sheer beauty and peace of the crossing that makes this boat so popular with both tourists and celebrities. We’ve had a number of actors who starred in films such as Swimmers, Failure to Launch, and the Wedding Crashers.”

Retired dentist, Rob Leigh, and his wife, Linda, first took the ferry when they honeymooned on the Eastern Shore 52 years ago. “We stood by the rail feeling the wind on our faces while the ferry dodged around the crab boats.” Since then they’ve returned a number of times.  

This year will be the ferry’s 335th year of crossing the Tred Avon River. The trips began in 1683 when Talbot County authorized the establishment of a ferry service “for horses and men.” The county then hired founding father, 

Richard Royston, to run it for an annual salary of 2,500 pounds of tobacco (about 25 dollars). Labeled as one of Talbot County’s “most grievous sinners,” he was convicted of forgery and his punishment included a public whipping. 

After his death, the Maryland Assembly formally condemned him as a “man whose life and actions were notoriously scandalous in the province.” 

Much less sinful was Judith Bennett, who ran the ferry from 1699 to 1739. A plucky lady, she was married three times to husbands who each passed away and left her to run the ferry by herself, which she did quite nicely.

Through the years, the Tred Avon Ferry changed hands many times as did its design: from a wooden scow propelled by a brawny man grasping a 14-foot oar at the stern—to sails and oars and then to a steam tug. 

In 1931, Captain Buck Richardson built a three-car self-propelled gas-powered ferry, later named the Tred Avon that stayed in service until 1974. 

These days, the Bixlers run the Talbot, a steel, diesel-powered, double-ended ferry with two engines, two rudders, and two propellers. 

“We just turn around in the wheelhouse to use either the back or front engine,” Judy explains. “We don’t turn the boat around, which makes loading and unloading much easier.”

The Bixlers believe strongly in giving back to the community and they help to host events such as Bike MS Chesapeake Challenge, a two-day event held every June to combat Multiple Sclerosis. Usually, over 500 cyclists compete. 

In 2007, they held a charity fund raiser for cancer victims by organizing a race between Suicide Bridge’s two paddle wheelers and the ferry. “We lost,” Judy modestly says.

With their small crew, which includes part-time women pilots, Martha Effinger and Marcia Lo Verdi, retirees and students, they’re in good shape to begin their 17th season.

How long do they plan to run the ferry? “Until we can’t anymore.”

(The ferry runs daily from mid-April through October and then the first two weekends in November.)

Other Chesapeake Ferries

Somerset County: Crisfield to and from Smith Island • Wicomico County: White Haven to and from Salisbury • Wicomico County: Upper Ferry between North and South Ferry Roads