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Farewell To The Ferry

July 2024
2min read

The nation’s waterways, once crisscrossed by countless ferries, are now bridged or tunnelled, and all but a few of the romantic old surface shuttles are, alas, sounding their final whistles and bells

Like closing enemy pincers on a battle map, the unfinished steel of a new bridge across the Hudson River brackets the ferryboat Orange as she steams toward Newburgh from Beacon, New York, in the year-old photo above. The scene was due to be repeated for a few months more—with Dutchess or Beacon , as often as not, cast in the role of the encircled victim. Then, early last November the bridge ends joined, the three boats were sold, and ferrying on the Hudson north of Manhattan Island came to an end.

It was no tiny fragment of American enterprise and history which died that November day. During most of the century and a half since Fulton, and less formally for decades before, the Hudson had been cross-hatched from the Battery to Troy by ferry lines numbering in the dozens. Every city or town of consequence could claim, at one time or another, at least one ferry slip. But bridges and tunnels came, and multiplied. Each killed a ferry line, or three, or five. Now only two lines ply the Hudson proper, both taking commuters to lower Manhattan. Here, for a little longer, on borrowed time, ferryboat pilots can look down on the familiar rush-hour scene at the right.

Populous as it has been, though, the Hudson is only one of a thousand battle areas in a long, losing world war that began when some primitive engineer first bridged an unfordable water barrier. On hundreds of other rivers, bays, lakes, and straits, this war raged on into our lifetimes. Now, for most American waters, it is over.

What will be the last American ferryboat? An educated guess might say a very sizable vessel—really a ship—which will be finally idled when we learn to bridge the mouth of the Delaware, or tunnel the Bay of Fundy, or fly heavy highway traffic across Lake Michigan. But it could just as well be a cable-guided, hand-propelled scow where some dusty county road runs down to a backwoods riverbank. Such boats still exist, as if neither Fidton nor Diesel had been born. Whatever its size or shape, there is at least a chance that the last of all our ferries may be among the survivors pictured on the following pages.

Leaving the Delaware at Port Jervis, U.S. 209 slants 150 miles through the Pennsylvania coal country to dead-end at the Susquehanna. Here the motorist must turn right or left on Pa. 14— unless he wants to ferry. If so, a finger sign will take him to the plank landing-ramp of either Falcon or Roaring Bull , rough-and-ready sternwheelers with no family resemblance whatever to a Staten Island ferryboat or a Great Lakes car ferry. A quarter-hour will find him back in the twentieth century, on U.S. 11 ; but for the interval, if he can forget that steam has given way to internal combustion, he will have been in the rural America of 1864.

Equally unsophisticated, yet more of our time, is the ubiquitous cable ferry. With some adjustment of skyline but none of boat, the view opposite could be (but is not) the Ohio in Pennsylvania, the WiIlamette in Oregon, the Nanticoke in Delaware, or the Wabash in Indiana.

Only her fore and aft radar scanners imply, as the Orange sits in the lay-up berth at Beacon, that these are the ig6o’s, when ferries are an anachronism. But the loading ramps beyond her are now quiet, and the cars which once rolled down them are lined up to pay their bridge tolls.

For the Orange herself there may yet be a few years of answering engine-room bells added to the even fifty she has already put in. At the auction which saw her sisters sold for scrap, she was bid in for $2,850 by Myles Rosenthal, a consulting engineer for whom she had become a femme fatale . Late last fall, he and a group of friends fired up her coal-burning boilers and brought her down the Hudson to Jersey City, where he plans to refit her for charter trips. En route, her whistle defied the enemy by saluting every river town that had once had a ferry.

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