Polin' on the River
July 1, 2009 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Since 1870, the Hatton Ferry in Hatton, VA, has been helping people and vehicles cross the James River - under pole power [ferry is cable-assisted, and poling starts at 3:42]. Before the nation was connected by a network of bridges, pole barges like this were a common means of transportation across smaller waterways. Hatton Ferry is thought to be the very last working survivor of those thousands of the pole-driven ferries; but today, due to DOT budget constraints, it may go out of existence.

I wouldn't have known about this without having received an interesting ListServ email from Dr. Jurretta Jordan Heckscher, Research Specialist, Digital Reference Section of The Library of Congress, who provided many of the news and LOC links.

Also, best part of the video is when the raft of tubers drifts along, 12-packs cooling in the water and all.
posted by Miko (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
All that work and at the other end the dude says, "You guys wanna to get off on this side or just head back?"
posted by scottatdrake at 12:35 PM on July 1, 2009

Jeez, America, you don't have much old stuff. Look after what little you've got.
posted by rhymer at 12:37 PM on July 1, 2009

All that work and at the other end the dude says, "You guys wanna to get off on this side or just head back?"

I know! If it's a standard question, then the primary utility of this ferry is probably not transportation.

But I agree with rhymer. This an interesting piece of technological history...the last one...well maintained...and it would be nice if they manage to keep it.
posted by Miko at 12:41 PM on July 1, 2009

The water is running fast enough that it appears they could use a reaction ferry. Any idea why they don't?

A reaction ferry uses angled ... um, pontoons? ... that use the river current to push a cable-stayed platform across the river. Kind of like when you were a kid and stuck your hand out the car window to "fly" it in the air.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:45 PM on July 1, 2009

fff, you must be thinking of the lytton ferry. it's a hoot!
posted by klanawa at 12:48 PM on July 1, 2009

fff, I'm going to guess it's because the James River is tidal and the current reverses, and has slack and high tidal variation. I don't know that to be the case, but I know that is a factor on the tidal river where i live that favors some boat designs over others.

That lytton ferry is pretty counterintuitive-looking, though. NEat.
posted by Miko at 12:54 PM on July 1, 2009

Speaking of archaic modes of transportation being threatened by government action, apparently mule-drawn boat operators need federal Transportation Worker Identification Cards, presumably in order to prevent a terrorist sleeper agent from hijacking one of the boats, which can get up to about 2 miles per hour on a good day.
posted by jedicus at 12:59 PM on July 1, 2009

Appears to be a pole-assisted cable ferry to me rather than vice-versa.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:00 PM on July 1, 2009

Ah. Tidal flow certainly explains why it can't be a reaction ferry. Just wouldn't work at all most of the time!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:08 PM on July 1, 2009

Imagine the guy who is operating it, once he gets to work on his first day as "ferry captain"?

"I actually CRANK this thing all the way across the river?"



"You crank some of the way. Lemme show you the pushin' pole."

posted by orme at 1:13 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

The ferry powered by human muscle is a romantic relic and historical anachronism that hasn't been commercially significant in decades.
It now operates weekends, holidays and special occasions, provided the river is neither too high nor too low. The ride is free.

Playing the devil's advocate: why is it important to keep this last old-fashioned raft in operation? Tourist attractions and monuments to the way things were are great, but when times are tough and money is short, why not close it for the while? Just so we can say "look, we still have one!" to the rest of the world that has centuries of vivid history peeking out through the cracks and hiding around the corner?
posted by filthy light thief at 1:25 PM on July 1, 2009

In related ferry and polling news, Gees Bend Ferry service to Camden, AL resumed in 2006 44 years after it was shut down to prevent black voters from making it to polling places across the river.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:26 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Er, where's that cable going off to in the sky? I'm not clear why it's partial crank and partial pole, I guess. Pretty neat, but I wish the cameraman showed more of the operation, rather than just the physical feat.
posted by Kyol at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2009

The cranking looks pretty inefficient. I thought maybe they were cranking to get off the bank and out of the shallows, and poling for better speed.
posted by Miko at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2009

why is it important to keep this last old-fashioned raft in operation?

Well, according to the second link, public demand. There has been a similar situation at a less technologically-obsolete but still fun Merrimac Ferry^ in Wisconsin. The ferry is closed during the winter, and traffic to and from the nearby Wisconsin Dells had the state ready to finally build a bridge, but extensive opposition developed. There are people who go miles out of their way just to take the ferry -- and people who live and work on opposite sides of the river who go miles out of their way when the ferry is closed.

it appears they could use a reaction ferry. Any idea why they don't?

Because it's a museum piece, basically, not transportation. There are other ferries that are appropriately upgraded when needed (see: Merrimac). This one, upgrading would betray the entire point.
posted by dhartung at 2:17 PM on July 1, 2009

When I was an adolescent, my family lived in Luling, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Usually when we went to NOLA, we took the ferry across the river. It was attached via a cable to each side, but the river was too deep for poling, so the ferry itself was motorized. The entire loading, crossing, unloading process generally took just over an hour and the ferry pretty much ran back and forth non-stop all day. Great fun for a 13-year-old, no matter how many times we rode it.

Unfortunately, hurricane Betsy sent the ferry to Oz in 1965 and it was never there again.
posted by netbros at 2:25 PM on July 1, 2009

It is funny that it's free. But so are their modern ferries. it does seem that it might be able to produce at least some income. For many years I lived near the Chester-Hadlyme ferry in CT, a teeny tiny ferry that similarly seems like it doesn't need to exist, and we would occasionally take a ride or walk over just for fun. Taking the car was $3, walking on was $1. I doubt that covers the diesel, but it must offset it somewhat, and it definitely was a quirky tourist attraction that the town valued, which of course has other,indirect benefits for the state budget.
posted by Miko at 2:26 PM on July 1, 2009

'Well, Mr. Carpetbagger. We got somethin' in this territory called the Missouri boat ride."

*shoots cable*
posted by D_I at 3:40 PM on July 1, 2009

The James can get pretty low there by the Ferry; the pole gives them more ability to manage the crossing. The tubers are a pretty regular sight 7 months of the year; there are several tubing companies just up the river.

The County Supervisors are trying to find a way to save the Ferry with a $8000 appropriation now and plan to solicit locals for funds to help support it going forward. From what I hear tomorrow's appropriation vote is pretty much a slam dunk, after which the VDOT will be able to take action.

The $8000 gets them through to October, when they normally shut down for the season.
posted by julen at 4:22 PM on July 1, 2009

"fff, you must be thinking of the lytton ferry. it's a hoot!"

The McClure ferry is also a reaction job.
posted by Mitheral at 6:16 PM on July 1, 2009

Well, according to the second link, public demand.

While I am never happy to see a part of my state's heritage fade away, I just can't see that there is much demand even for a free ferry when there's a bridge not a few miles downriver.

Couldn't they charge a nominal fee to pedestrians and bikers -- say, $1 -- to help support it? If there really is enough demand to keep it around, I would expect a nonprofit group to step in to take it over, as the article suggests.
posted by armage at 7:22 PM on July 1, 2009

« Older You See, In Order to Save the Village America, We...   |   The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments