A Ferry for Two…

Cars, That Is.

There are two ways to get from Ophelia, Virginia to Sunnybank, Virginia: either Hacks Neck Road to US 360 (18 miles) or via State Rt 644 (2 miles). A no-brainer, you say; “down State Rt 644!” Well, yes and no.

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The Sunnybank Ferry, the Northumberland, begins its ten-minute journey across the Little Wicomico River toward Sunnybank.

It is like this. The Little Wicomico River, some 300 yards wide, separates the two communities. But, there is a ferry for cars, so problem solved. Well sort of—yes during the daytime hours, and in good weather.

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A motor pulls the ferry along a cable to make the crossing.

Recently, visiting friends Ginger and Miller in eastern Virginia, we set out to explore coastal areas around the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Miller mentioned a two-car “cable-ferry” near the town of Ophelia. Ferry boats are almost as strong an attraction for me as lighthouses.

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The Northumberland begins its 10-minute journey across the Little Wicomico River, near the Chesapeake Bay.

Cable ferries were common in the 1800s, but only a few still exist, and most are maintained for their historical and tourism value. The Sunnybank Ferry started out in much the same way in 1903. It was a privately-owned hand-pulled cable ferry to transport people, wagons, horses, cattle—whatever could be herded onto the ferry—for the 10-15-minute ride across the river. Later in 1912, a power boat was lashed to the side of the ferry to power it across the river.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) took over operation of the ferry in the 1930s. The ferry remained in service until 1954 when it was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. In 1955, a new ferry, appropriately named Hazel, was built and service resumed. The Hazel was retired and replaced by the Northumberland, the Sunnybank ferry that is still in service today. Until 1985, the ferry continued to be tied to a workboat to drive it across the river, after which it was converted to a powered cable-ferry.

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A view of the Wicomico River. This is Chesapeake oyster country. One of the cables (left side of the ferry) can be seen being pulled out of the water.

The Northumberland crosses the river via two stationary cables stretched some 300 yards across the river. An engine-driven motor and pulleys pull the ferry along the cable. The cable lies on the bottom of the river–as the ferry moves along, it pulls the cable up in “front” of the ferry, and lets it return to the bottom behind the boat as it “crawls” along the cable.

The crossing takes about ten minutes. The free Sunnybank Ferry is something of a novelty, but it is a working ferry. Although, not just a tourist attraction, it may be worth the trip to experience one of only two working, powered cable ferries. There are other similar ferries across the country, but they are operated more for their historical and tourist value.

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The ferry is operated by one person. Here, he prepares to return to the other side to pick up more cars.

The Sunnybank ferry runs on a “casual schedule”—my words. If there is no traffic, the operator waits until a car arrives. If a car arrives on the other side of the river, he takes the ferry over to pick it up.

The ferry operates from sunrise to sunset, unless weather or high tides make the crossing unsafe. Typically, the ferry is shut down from 12:00 noon to 12:30 for the operator’s lunch break. Along the route to the ferry there are electronic signs indicating if the ferry is in operation.

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An Osprey nest guards the Sunnybank side of the river as we approach the landing.

There is one other similar VDOT cable-ferry in Virginia. The Merry Point Ferry on Rt 604, runs across the Corrotoman River between the towns of Merry Point and Ottoman in Lancaster County.

Incidentally, Virginia operates these two ferries as well as the more conventional diesel powered Jamestown ferries (some capable of hauling 40+ vehicles) at no charge.

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4 Responses to A Ferry for Two…

  1. axelan says:

    Enjoyed this posting. I’ve seen (in pictures only) this type of ferry, but never ran into one! Ridden the Washington State ferry system, the international Seattle to Vancouver Island car ferry, and a huge intracoastal ferry from Vancouver Island to Vancouver BC (probably the most breathtaking views of them all!)

  2. There’s a ferry similar to this crossing the River Dart in Devon, England. In my younger years before the road bridge opened, I used it many times. In my cautious dotage, my first thought was ‘what’s the insurance like?’

    • merlinjr01 says:

      Thanks for the comment. There were few worries about this ferry, despite its “primitive” mode of operation and small size, it looked like a sturdy little vessel.

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