by Henry Lane Hull
One of my most vivid childhood memories of the Northern Neck is our family automobile excursions exploring the highways and byways of our long peninsula.
The trip began at our home in Colonial Beach, from which we meandered along, stopping to read the historical markers and looking at venerable old buildings reminding us of former glories and past everyday life.
The tangible reminders of history augmented what we read and gave direction to understanding the illustrious fabric of which the Northern Neck is made. As we trundled along two of our pivotal destinations were the Merry Point and Sunnybank ferries. Then, as now, they afforded a free outing on the water, albeit a brief one, to those tired of highway driving.
We would drive down Route 3, then upon entering Lancaster County, veer off on River Road to Ottoman, then left to the Merry Point Ferry. At the time the vehicles traveled on an old wooden barge to which was tied a very tired, ancient deadrise named “Arminta.”
On one occasion my father asked the ferry operator whether he was going to chock our wheels, to which the gentleman replied in the negative, noting that he was using all the chocks to keep several watermelons from rolling overboard. A previous crosser had given him the watermelons and he did not want to loose them. Clearly, our vehicle was of less consequence.
The same type of operation existed at Sunnybank in Northumberland County, although the crossing was shorter and the waters swifter. In each case, for a child, taking the boat was highlight of the trip. Up and down the Northern Neck, country markets—those were the days before convenience stores—and gas stations posted the hours of operation for the ferries, which was a help to those planning their journeys. They also had postings for the big ferry from White Stone to Grey’s Point, which was not free, but always a great treat to take.
In the mid-1980s the old barges and deadrises were retired, in truth probably scrapped, and replaced with modern, single-unit vessels. To welcome the new “Northumberland” at Sunnybank, a large maritime celebration took place, The Sunnybank Ferry Jubilation, that drew dozens of participating boats of all varieties. Now after 30 years those vessels themselves have been replaced with larger ones that can accommodate up to four vehicles, although I have never taken the ferry with more than one other car on board.
The two ferry routes have been designated as part of the Virginia Scenic Byway program, thereby calling further attention to them for tourists looking for the unusual in their exploratory undertakings. Most recently, the signage alerting travelers to the ferries’ hours of operation has been replaced, reportedly at a cost of $250,000, by electronic devices that flash yellow lights when the ferries are in operation.
To some this new twist might seem to be progress, which in part it is when one is in transit driving to the ferry, and sees the flashing lights indicating the voyage is currently possible. Unfortunately, in programming the change, the engineers who designed the new system did not realize that the signage also served a deeper purpose, in that from the printed signs drivers learned the hours and dates of operation, which could be especially helpful to visitors not familiar with the timetables. At present when the signs are not flashing, travelers have no way of knowing when crossings are possible unless they turn to the VDOT website, not an easy task when behind the wheel. In short, the signs need to be replaced to serve alongside the flashing yellow lights.
My father particularly liked getting the free rides that actually were paid for by his and others’ taxes.
Remembering my own childhood fascination with the two ferries, I made certain that his grandchildren, the two B.E.s, came to appreciate the ferries as well. The two crossings are seminal features of the life and heritage of the Northern Neck. May they continue to serve in that role and may they once again be heralded by proper signage.