In the winter of 1971, BAY TIMES writer Ralph Hoyt wrote a series of articles about the ferry systems that operated across the mid-Chesapeake Bay in the first half of the 20th century.
Ferries for foot and horseback travelers had been part of the Chesapeake region’s commercial environment since the earliest days of the colonial era, but with a growing increase in car ownership and an expanding national highway system, a need for vehicular bay transport was a sure sign that the passenger and cargo vessels of the 1800’s steamboat era were destined to soon be part of that past.
According to Hoyt, the first ferry built for the “purpose of transporting motor vehicles,” was the Governor Emerson C. Harrington. (“$4.50 for a model T”, said B. Frank Sherman, the general manager of the Chesapeake Bay Ferry System from 1928-1952, and the first president of the Historical Society of Talbot County). The Gov. Harrington‘s ran between Annapolis and Claiborne, located between St. Michael’s and Tilghman Island, from 1919 through the early 1920’s, but demand turned out to be less than anticipated, and the operation was taken over from a private out-of-state company by a group of forward-looking Marylanders.
In 1925, as business improved, the group purchased a 194’, 75-80 car, 1200 passengers, diesel ship built around 1883, modified it into a double-ender to accommodate cars, and rechristened it the “Governor Albert C. Ritchie. The Gov. Ritchie began service on the bay on July 22, 1926, and for years was considered the pride of the fleet.
The Gov. Ritchie was followed in 1929 by the launch of the newly built John M. Dennis, the line’s flagship.
In 1930, the ferry company began service between Annapolis and Matapeake on Kent Island. Many locals, including my grandfather, Frank Lewis, were employed by the system.
“Kent Island was now a stone’s throw from the Western Shore,” Hoyt wrote. “Business people of the Island were enthusiastic in their praise of the new service, and looked forward to increased revenue and prosperity.”
“Local merchants along the route brightened up their storefronts , and new gas stations sprung up overnight.”
My maternal grandparents, Grover and Virginia Clough, owned one of those gas stations until it burned down around 1938.
The Annapolis to Kent Island route was shorter, so the Claiborne leg suffered for passengers, and another terminal was added to the southern tip of Kent Island at Romancoke. The Annapolis to Romancoke ferries then went on to service Claiborne on the Governor Harrington II, which was replaced by the Governor Harry W. Nice in 1938.
In 1942, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry System was taken over by the state of Maryland.
On July 30, 1952, the day the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge opened, the Chesapeake Bay ferries ended their service. The five remaining boats were auctioned off, and after thousands of trips and tens of thousands of passengers over three decades, the era of the bay ferries was over.
“Most hearts were heavy (that day),” wrote Ralph Hoyt, “they knew that they were about to make their final docking.”