Unpoled citizens: Closure call surprises Hatton Ferry fans

hattonferryAshley Pillar helps two youngsters cross the James.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Would the state really close the famous hand-poled Hatton Ferry? Plying the James River at a site near Scottsville, it's a one-of-kind piece of mobile history that has been operating, according to its website, since the 1870s.

But to save a $21,000 per year, the Virginia Department of Transportation will close it July 1, according to VDOT spokesperson Lou Hatter. Commissioner David S. Ekern delivered the news earlier this week among a long statewide list of cost cuts.

"We're going to do everything we can to try to get them to reconsider," says Steven Meeks, the chair of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, a group that serves as clearinghouse for ferry information. Meeks calls the $21,000 figure misleadingly high because it's an annual budget.

Meeks says that high and low water renders the passage unsafe for operations and usually causes the actual cost to fall far below budget–- only around $6,700 last year. And already this spring, he says, operations were curtailed from three to two days a week, cutting costs by a third.

"So in the end, they're not saving a lot of money," says Meeks, who also notes that, contrary to oft-repeated claims that this is one of only two hand-poled ferries in America, this is the one and only.

The person who actually does the poling, Ashley Pillar, says he is urging officials to spare the ferry. He says he's contacting everyone from Albemarle Supervisors and state legislators to freshman Congressman Tom Perriello– and even the governor.

Pillar, who has been poling the boat since 2002, calls the cost savings tiny in proportion to the state transportation budget which exceeds $3.4 billion. "Just a grain of sand on a beach" is how he put it in a letter to Governor Tim Kaine.

The savings for killing the ferry would constitute two ten-thousandths of the budget cuts and three one-millionths of the total VDOT budget. Pillar notes that the state spent $35,000 earlier this year for the ferry's first painting and repairs. So pulling it out of service just a few weeks later, he says, makes no business sense.

Pillar says that now that the boat–-  which was placed in service in 1986 after a catastrophic flood–- shouldn't require any maintenance beyond merely greasing cables and winches.

There were once 140 ferries along the James River, according to one mid-19th century survey that Pillar cites. He calls Virginia's sole surviving human-powered ferry a fun and interesting field trip for area school-children and other citizens who want to learn about "eco-friendly transportation from a bygone era."

Like the Historical Society, Pillar says he was caught completely off guard by the announcement. VDOT's Hatter, however, says that there was a public hearing in Culpeper in March on planned VDOT cuts so citizens could voice their opinions on which ferries, rest stops, and other projects should be saved.

In the ensuing proposal, VDOT decided it could save over $17 million simply by mowing median grass less frequently and reduce the total number of rest areas it operates from 42 to 23, part of a savings package totaling over $44 million.

Meeks says his group didn't receive any notice that the tiny Hatton Ferry was targeted among the cuts.

"What's so frustrating is that we didn't know anything about it," says Meeks. "There was no forewarning– no nothing."

There's a glimmer of hope for Hatton, as the reductions must be approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which next meets in Richmond on June 17 and 18.

–last updated 9:28am, Monday, May 25

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9 comments

I love music but I have to disagree. Preservation of history is one of the functions of government I most value and believe my patriots are willing to support with their tax dollars

"There may be a lot of wasteful spending at VDOT but this sure isn’t one."

How is that? Are you arguing that an irrelevant bit of infrastructure that is open about half the time on weekends is worth spending tax dollars for? Let the operators start charging a toll and see how many people are interested. If enough drivers want the ferry, let them pay for it. I can't find an estimate of the number of vehicles it ferries, but I'd be surprised if it's enough to justify keeping it in operation. Kind of like how the aluminum bird replaced the iron horse that replaced the stagecoach that replaced shoe leather.

This entity is the very definition of "wasteful spending." It's a nostalgic novelty we can ill afford today. If it's to remain open, it shouldn't be at the taxpayers' expense.

It isn't like the bridge that might replace it would be built for free. Music Lover, have you ever looked at how much one of them babies goes for?

The value of Hatton Ferry is far more than the tax dollars it costs to operate. Music Lover's opinion is simply a display of cynicism and nothing more. But he should be swayed by the fact that $35,000 was just spent to paint the barge. That money will be money wasted if the barge is not continued to be used.

Hmmm.... the state could "save" about $7000 a year by wasting a $35,000 investment. You know, with this kind of financial wizardry, it's no wonder the state is in the red in the first place.

I hope Music Lover is also upset about the $300,000 the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority has spent suing Peter van der Linde for running a better recycling center than they are. Now that's government waste !

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/?s=peter+van+der+linde

What we need at Hatton is a public park. Warren is privately owned and Howardsville is just a 15 foot boat ramp. The park in Scottsville is for boaters only. It is ridiculous for Albemarle to have its entire southern border a river with a total of 300 feet of access. Too bad they didn't spend the 35k on 3 acres of land instead of painting the barge.

I know I am not objective, as my grandfather, James Benson Tindall was the last private owner of the ferry from 1914-1940. So I have a million selfish reasons for not wanting it to go away. But beyond my personal feelings, what about the importance of preserving the local history. The price does not seem like an excessive price tag. Even if not operated, just to have it there as a link to Albermarle/Buckingham past seems important

There may be a lot of wasteful spending at VDOT but this sure isn't one. Time for citizens to pick up their pens and raise their voices and save Hatton Ferry. You owe it to your kids and generations to come.

My husband and I just went for a ride on the Hatton Ferry earlier this morning. It was like stepping back in time. It would be a shame to close this historic ferry - since it is one of two that are left in the United States. A piece of history is worth so much these days. Why must we always forget the simpler things in life? Perhaps we should be given options in keeping the ferry in it's present operations instead of just saying "we're closing on July 1, 2009.