Hatton farewell? End looms for America's last poled ferry
For nearly 140 years the Hatton Ferry has been taking passengers across the James River near Scottsville, but unless local government or private funds can be raised by the end of the year, it's curtains for America’s last remaining pole-driven ferry.
Although the historic ferry was rebuilt twice, once after it was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and again after a record flood in 1985, it’s finally being done in by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, which has already claimed over 600 jobs and 19 highway rest stops.
“Despite the national attention in September, VDOT doesn’t want to save it,” says Steven Meeks, president of the Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society, who had hoped that VDOT might reconsider, given the ferry's annual budget of just $21,000. But VDOT, which owns and operates the vessel, has sentenced it to the scrap heap unless the County and/or the Society step forward to take ownership before December 31.
Back in May, Meeks said the operating cost was actually less than half its $21,000 budget, due to river conditions that often shut the ferry down and a sparse spring-time operating schedule. What’s more, VDOT actually spent $40,000 re-painting and repairing the ferry this past spring, just months before deciding to close it down.
In September, the Today Show did a story on the ferry and its plight, interviewing pole man Ashley Pillar, as well as Frank Tapscott, whose grandfather operated the boat from 1914 to 1940. The story also featured a couple who decided to get married while crossing.
Pillar says the story sparked renewed interest in the ferry, including some donations to a fund the Society set up, but so far none of the state officials he has written to, including Governor Tim Kaine, have shown an interest in saving the ferry.
Pillar says he can’t understand why state officials won't fight for the historic value of the one-of-a-kind ferry, which he says does not lack from use, and has become a popular tourist attraction. Crossing on the ferry is currently free, but if a small fee was charged, Pillar says the ferry could easily pay for itself.
Tethered to a steel cable that spans 200 yards across the river, the 17.5-ton ferry is propelled across by the current that presses against it, while the ferry’s pilot uses a 15-foot pole to push it through calmer water, a wheel to raise and lower the aprons that let cars on and off, and a hand winch to guide it in and out of the current. It’s a simple design that’s been functional for nearly a century-and-half. Of course, it’s clearly not as fast as crossing by bridge, but that’s never been the point of keeping the ferry running anyway.
“When you’re in the middle of the James, you look up stream, and it could be 400 years ago,” says Pillar. “You can hear the rapids up the stream at Hatton. It’s a serene, beautiful place.”
“Now the Hatton Ferry is the only one to save,” Tapscott told the Today Show. “Is there anything more important than that?”
In July, the County coughed up $9,300 to help keep the ferry running for the season after VDOT announced funding had been permanently slashed, but VDOT officials said they would not continue to operate the ferry after the season ended. Now, additional funds, along with someone's willingness to take ownership, will be needed to keep it afloat.
So far, the Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society has raised only $20,000, just short of the operating budget for one season, which runs from mid-April to mid-October.
“We’re trying to decide if the Historical Society can swing it,” says Meeks, “or if we could have a joint venture with the County.”
Last Wednesday, November 4, County Supervisors discussed ways to fund the operation, including a public-private partnership in which the County would match donations, according to a Charlottesville Tomorrow report. Supervisor Ken Boyd suggested that money from the Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) program might be used, since it was designed to protect historic and cultural resources. However, Supervisor Dennis Rooker wondered how the ferry could be funded in light of expected County 5.7-million budget shortfall.
“In a $307 million budget, I think we can find $10,000,” Boyd countered.
However, County attorney Larry Davis expressed concerns about a County-Society partnership, suggesting that the County could get stuck with the long-term bill.
“In the current budget climate," says Supe Ann Mallek, "I don’t think the County can take on the yearly expense involved, but the [Supervisors] discussed and supported receiving the ferry from VDOT and immediately transferring it to the Historical Society and/or the Town of Scottsville.”
If you’re interested in helping to keep the ferry afloat, you can send donations to: The Hatton Ferry Fund c/o Old Dominion National Bank, P.O. Box 32, Scottsville, VA 24590.