Monday, March 4, 2024
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by Henry Lane Hull

Up until 1927, east of Fredericksburg the Northern Neck largely was accessible only by water. To arrive here by any other method one had to cross the Potomac on the Morgantown Ferry to Potomac Beach, or the lower Rappahannock Ferry from Urbanna to Irvington, or the upper Rappahannock Ferry from Tappahannock to Richmond County, or lastly to come by steamboat from elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

That situation changed in 1927 when the first Downing Bridge opened, crossing the Rappahannock River at Tappahannock. On the occasion of the opening two youngsters with auspicious careers ahead of them, Harry F. Byrd Jr., the son of the governor, and Tom Downing, whose progenitor was the person for whom the bridge was named, were given the honor of cutting the ribbon.

Harry Byrd, the future state and U.S senator, used scissors, but Tom Downing, later to serve nine terms in the House of Representatives, although having been born in Newport News, true to his Northern Neck heritage, used an oyster knife. At the time Harry Byrd was 13 and Tom Downing was 8. Tom’s action that day remains a seminal event in the history of what now we call The Northern Neck Oyster Trail.

Slightly over a dozen years after the inauguration of the Downing Bridge, the historic Morgantown Ferry ceased operations as the new bridge carrying U.S. 301 across the Potomac from Newburg, Md., to Dahlgren opened, fulfilling a campaign pledge of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that if reelected in 1936 he would see that a bridge would be built across the lower Potomac, and he was present for the groundbreaking for the new structure. To this day small fragments of the ferry docks remain visible at Potomac Beach. When I was a child they were still in reasonably sound condition and were a haunting testimony to the maritime history of the Northern Neck.

Many years after its opening, Maryland decided in 1967 to name the bridge for Gov. Harry W. Nice, who had served as governor during the planning stage and for most of the construction phase. Gov. Nice left another lasting legacy for Maryland in his reconfiguring of the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis from the High Victorian style to the more traditional Georgian motif, in which it remains to this day.

The lower Rappahannock crossing by bridge would not come for over another 15 years. The ferry system changed venues from Urbanna to Irvington to the new shorter crossing from Grey’s Point in Middlesex County to White Stone in Lancaster. Finally, the bridge was completed and opened in 1957, making access to the Middle Peninsula far simpler, but not without the loss of the charisma of the old ferries.

With the passage into history of these ferries, only three free ferries remain in the Commonwealth, namely, the Jamestown to Scotland Ferry across the James River, the Sunnybank Ferry across the Little Wicomico River in Northumberland County, and the Merry Point Ferry across the Corrotoman River in Lancaster County.

Perhaps the most idyllic of all Virginia ferries was the massive one that went across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay from Cape Charles to Cape Henry. Traveling on it was more akin to taking a steamboat cruise, especially as it offered excellent cuisine, with napkins no less, in the dining hall, which was not a fast food undertaking. On its upper decks one easily forgot that one’s vehicle was stowed below as a piece of cargo.

Here in the lower Northern Neck, given the frequent delays experienced crossing on the Robert O. Norris Bridge over the past 25 years, while waiting in line, particularly during the massive repaving operation from 1993 to 1995, I sometimes have thought that if we still had the ferry, I could be on my way, but, alas, such is the course of progress. Indeed, Tom Downing’s oyster knife 90 years ago began a new age for the Northern Neck.

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