A unique piece of local history was almost sunk, but thanks to local donors and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the only poled ferry in the country could be back afloat as early as April.
John and Trula Wright, longtime Charlottesville residents, have donated $25,000 for restoration of the Hatton Ferry, an historic poled ferry across the James River between Albemarle and Buckingham counties.
John Wright, who fondly recalls his days as a Venable Elementary student and Daily Progress paper boy, says riding the ferry is part of his family’s history, and he wants it to become a part of other local families’ histories for years to come.
“We take great pride and you should too, to spread the word that the Hatton Ferry is the last poled ferry in the USA and it’s ours to enjoy, treasure and share with the rest of the world,” Wright said.
Joined at the banks by a cable and powered across the river by a ferryman pushing a pole against the river bottom, the Hatton Ferry is floating history. It started in 1870 when Buckingham County authorities ordered a public ferry to take traffic across the James to property owned by a distillery, near Totier Creek.
A land dispute moved it farther up river, where it led an economic boom, including the establishment of a post office and renaming of the area, and the ferry, to Hatton.
Historically, the Hatton Ferry was an important river crossing linking road networks to the Kanawha Canal, and later the railroad line that replaced the canal, on the north shore of the James River in Albemarle County.
The ferry is located on Hatton Ferry Road, about five miles southwest of Scottsville.
Through generations, the ferry has been operated by private enterprise and county government, and jointly operated by county governments and the Virginia Department of Transportation.
When VDOT bailed on the boat in 2010, the historical society kept the ferry afloat.
Community members in Albemarle and Buckingham Counties worked with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society in 2010 to gain formal ownership and create the “Hatton Ferry” corporation to manage operations. In 2018, this corporation separated itself from the historical society, and in May 2021 gifted the ferry and its assets to Buckingham County.
But the ferry has not operated in over two years. High water and a broken mooring chain beached and entangled the ferry in downed trees on the Buckingham County side of the river in late-2020.
With the help of local community volunteers and private donors, in June 2021, the entangled trees were removed, the ferry was crane-lifted back into the river, and repairs were made to ensure the ferry was secure.
Further needs include additional crane work to lift the ferry out of the river for a marine survey inspection report to reinstate insurance coverage and to have the cables and towers that link the ferry to the riverbanks inspected and maintained.
Because of the Wrights’ donation, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society hopes to have the ferry operable again in April.
“This is instrumental. This basically covers more and then some of what we had projected that the cost would be,” said Tom Chapman, director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. The historical society is working in partnership with the town of Scottsville, Historic Buckingham, Inc., Albemarle County and Buckingham County to save the ferry.
Wright said his father’s parents moved to Preston Place in 1930 from Alberene, in Albemarle County, where his grandfather was manager of the Alberene Soapstone Company, at that time the largest employer in the state with 1,200 employees.
“So my father taught us all about that area of the county and the nearby Hatton Ferry,” Wright said.
Wright’s mother’s parents moved to Charlottesville around 1915 so Wright’s grandfather could attend University of Virginia School of Law. He joined the faculty of the McIntire School of Commerce, which was brand new at the time.
Wright said his whole family rode the ferry throughout the years.
“The story that Mr. Wright told about his family history with Hatton Ferry is not unique. It represents one of many stories tied to this historic landmark,” Chapman said. “It is their livelihood; the ferry connected communities together.”
Chapman said the historical society is looking to interview people who saw the ferry as an important part of their life, including people who worked on it throughout the years.
“I get a phone call at least once a week asking about Hatton Ferry, is it going to be running. And they’re from all over the place,” he said. “It’s a great interest on the part of people not only because of its uniqueness, but it just seems to have a certain allure for people.”