America’s last hand-poled river crossing, the Hatton Ferry, reopened over the weekend for another season taking travelers across the James River — and into the past.
“It makes you think what a different time it was,” volunteer ferry operator Jon Anderson said Sunday as he guided a family and their silver Kia sedan over the river southwest of Scottsville. “It’s just a whole different speed.”
The only sounds on this crossing were chirping birds, the gurgle of water and human conversation. Anderson said he relishes both the journey and the history of this relic-in-motion.
“This is the only poled ferry in the country, so it’s something worth preserving,” Anderson told The Daily Progress. “There were thousands in the past.”
The Hatton Ferry began in 1870 as Brown’s Ferry and later took its name from the former depot along the C&O, now CSX, railway on the north bank. Most ferries, manual and otherwise, fell to the speedier transit afforded by bridges. While the Hatton Ferry continues to link southern Albemarle County and northern Buckingham County, it has struggled to stay afloat.
Floods in 1972 and 1985 damaged or washed away the ferry boat. More recently, the Virginia Department of Transportation decided to stop operating it in 2009, even though the expenses that year were $21,000, a rounding error on a multi-billion-dollar budget.
Since 2010, the ferry has been operated by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.
On Sunday, Boston-based construction executive Matt McCourt and his wife, Ali, drove to Buckingham side of the river in a rented Ford Explorer with their three children, ages 5, 8 and 11.
“I didn’t get insurance on the rental car, so I’m now thinking a little nervously about putting the car on there,” McCourt joked before inching the vehicle onto the ferry.
“We’re excited,” McCourt said. “We get to bring our city kids out here to do some country stuff.”
As the 200-yard voyage began, two ferry operators did some poling but let hydrodynamics do most of the work.
“We’re using the power of the river and geometry to get us across,” the captain, Sterling Powell, told The Daily Progress. “We want to turn the ferry into a water sail to allow the current of the James to push us across.”
There’s an overhead cable crossing the river with a pair of connecting wires running down to a manual winch at each end of the boat. By winching and unwinching at the bow and stern, the men change the boat’s angle to the river’s flow.
“It’s makes it a lot easier on us, and it’s a great thing to talk to visitors about,” said Powell, who is the programs manager for the historical society. “You get a little science in with your history.”
“Sometimes it gets slow, so we get the pole out and give it a push,” added Anderson.
About 10 minutes later, as it neared the Albemarle side, the boat encountered a stronger current, and that increased the speed of the ferry.
“We’re cooking now,” McCourt exclaimed to his kids.
“This requires some major manpower to get a precise landing,” said McCourt’s mother-in-law, Alicia Woodward, as she watched the boatmen spinning winches and wielding poles. “It’s a throwback to what transportation used to be like.”
The river level on Sunday was 4.8 feet, as measured by the United State Geological Survey.
“If it gets below 4 feet we can’t go because we’re gonna drag bottom, and if it’s gets over 8 feet it starts to get dangerous,” Howell said.
The James has been bridged at nearby Scottsville since 1907, but the Hatton Ferry persists. And the historical society recently announced that donations from John and Trula Wright and the Margaret Hulvey Wright Charitable Trust have created a $105,000 endowment to keep the ferry riverworthy into the future.
Except when river flow deviates from the range noted by Howell, a situation that may be noted on the ferry’s Facebook page, the society plans to operate the ferry from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through October. There is no charge for people or cars, but donations are accepted.