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Last pole-driven ferry faces murky future

For more than 130 years, ferrymen have jammed poles into the James River's gravelly shallows to push the Hatton Ferry across to other side. The unique calling is now possibly days from extinction.
Image: Hatton ferry operator Ashley Pillar
Hatton Ferry operator Ashley Pillar jams a pole into the James River near Scottsville, Va., on Saturday. A funding crisis means that its last crossing is scheduled for this weekend.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For more than 130 years, ferrymen have jammed poles into the James River's gravelly shallows to push the Hatton Ferry slowly across to other side.

The unique calling is now possibly days from extinction: America's last known hand-poled ferry is a casualty of ebbing state finances and politics.

On July 1, Virginia stops funding the Hatton Ferry. Unless private donors, nonprofits or local governments find the cash to keep it open, its last crossing is Sunday afternoon, weather permitting.

"The future is your kids, our kids, our grandkids, and when this is gone, it's gone forever," said Ashley Pillar, 30, who grew up around Hatton's ferrymen on the flat-bottomed steel barge. He became its operator in 2002.

The ferry powered by human muscle is a romantic relic and historical anachronism that hasn't been commercially significant in decades.

'It was like going into a candy store'
But amid the unspoiled Blue Ridge foothills that harbor Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate and that inspired television's nostalgic series "The Waltons," the Hatton Ferry is a treasure of the heart, not a balance sheet asset.

"I grew up with that ferry," said Frank Tapscott, 89 and four years widowed, who remembers taking mule-drawn wagonloads of railroad timbers across the ferry a lifetime ago when an uncle owned it.

"We took it when we'd go buying things at Christmas time, and crossing that ferry was always the highlight. It was like going into a candy store," Tapscott said. "It just had a wonderful meaning to the people who crossed on it."

The ferry links a narrow, winding backroad in Albemarle and Buckingham counties across a river that that flows parallel to the Kanawha Canal, which linked Ohio River and the Atlantic Ocean before railroads rendered it obsolete. Rails were built on the canal's tow path. Sixty miles downstream lies Richmond, with the 400-year-old English settlement Jamestown 60 miles farther.

Through the mid-20th century, the ferry crossed 80 to 100 times a day, Pillar said. The general store, post office and railroad depot served by four passenger trains a day at the Albemarle landing vanished long ago.

The state took over the ferry in 1941, Pillar said. In 1972, flooding from Hurricane Agnes destroyed the ferry and the state considered closing it, but a local outcry championed by Richard Thomas, the actor who portrayed John Boy in "The Waltons," spared it.

This time the state acted swiftly, with barely a month's notice before the decisive June 18 vote.

With state and federal transportation dollars evaporating, Virginia axed the $21,000 annual Hatton Ferry allocation along with dozens of new road projects, 19 Interstate rest areas and reduced roadside mowing

"You have to decide what's a transportation initiative and that's a historic initiative, not transportation," said state transportation board member John J. "Butch" Davies. "Now the focus is where it should have been in the first place: with historical groups."

No charge
Albemarle's board of supervisors votes July 1 on spending $5,000 to keep the ferry afloat through September, hoping private or nonprofit benefactors will step in and defray the cost.

It now operates weekends, holidays and special occasions, provided the river is neither too high nor too low. The ride is free.

Sherry Zak and Virginia Mawyer of Charlottesville for years had wanted to ride the ferry. On perhaps its penultimate weekend, they did.

"We really are afraid they're going to close it, so we want to ride it and see what it's all about," Zak said as the barge glided smoothly through the swirling current. "I mean, look at this. Wow."

Allen and Michele Hauptman drove in from nearby Palmyra, incredulous that so inexpensive an operation is losing state money. A hot dog roast, Allen Hauptman joked, could almost raise the cash. His wife suggested a toll or a donation box.

"You know why this is a good time for that? Because people want to hang on to America, and they feel it slipping away," Michele Hauptman said.

Tom Freeman, 50, who lives just a couple of miles from the ferry, may have the most compelling interest in its survival. He booked it for his Sept. 5 wedding to Stephanie Kellogg, 46, who just moved to Virginia from Wisconsin.

"I figured we'd go halfway out on the river, pause it there and do our vows with close friends and family — well, as many as we can put on the ferry," Freeman said. "She took one look at it and said, 'That's perfect.'"

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