Ferry system’s colorful history

Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, October 3, 2017

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Ferries have connected Surry County with James City on the northern shore of the James River for more than 90 years. During many of those years, the ferry system and Surry have enjoyed a love/hate relationship.

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Surry residents take great pride in having Virginia’s only remaining large-scale ferry system. But a sizeable contingent of the county has always wanted to see a bridge replace the boats.

Surry’s ferry crossing was established by a private entrepreneur, Capt. Albert Jester. He had the first ferry, named the John Smith, built in Battery Park. He constructed a dock at Scotland Wharf and another on Jamestown Island. He began carrying cars across the river in 1925.

Virginia’s Highway Department bought the system in 1945 and a decade later, when Virginia was preparing for the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, the state moved the ferry dock upriver to its current location near Glasshouse Point.
That’s when the talk of a bridge to replace boats really began to take root. The ferry dock built by the state was pointed straight across the river to the tip of Swan’s Point, which bridge supporters always thought was the only logical place to construct a bridge.

You might say 1974 was a Red Letter year for the ferry system. The Highway Department, which was renamed the Virginia Department of Transportation that year, was increasingly convinced that the ferry system should be replaced by a bridge, and state officials were beginning to plan for what was thought at that time to be inevitable. Not everyone agreed. Franz Vonschilling, who owned Mount Pleasant, located just west of Swan’s Point and, more strategically, the 130-acre tip of Swan’s Point, known as Black Duck Gut.

Vonschilling did not want to see a bridge and the growth it would likely bring. Nor did the U.S. Interior Department, which owns Jamestown Island and takes seriously the island’s viewshed.

Vonschilling offered to donate Black Duck Gut to the Interior Department under the condition that no bridge be built there. In July 1974, the federal agency accepted the gift along with a permanent scenic easement that Vonschilling placed on Mount Pleasant.

VDOT said it would continue to study construction of a crossing, but that door had been slammed shut and, in 1979, VDOT unveiled a feasibility study that determined a bridge was not economically feasible. The same year, the state purchased a new 50-car ferry named the Surry. It was the first time Virginia had purchased a new boat for the ferry run and that purchase amounted to a declaration that the ferry system would not be replaced with a bridge.

History in names

The first ferry on the Jamestown crossing was, appropriately, the John Smith. Capt. Jester continued his nod to local history when he purchased a second boat and named it the Pocahontas. That tradition seems to have ended when he added the Miss Carolina to the fleet, but after Virginia took over the system, it operated with ferries named the Jamestown, Virginia and York.

The queen of the fleet for many years was Yankee retread. Its name, the Ocean City, was not changed when it was added to the Jamestown fleet.

As the ferry service has been modernized, VDOT has consistently honored the local history angle. Joining the Surry in 1983 was the Williamsburg, and in 1995 the Pocahontas (the original Pocahontas had long since retired). Now, Powhatan will ply the James.

Meanwhile, the Surry Historical Society has reconstructed the wheelhouse and upper deck area of the original John Smith. It’s on display in Surry next to the society’s headquarters.

It’s good that the ferry system’s rich history is being preserved. There are, no doubt, additional chapters to be written.