Western Sussex County is still rural enough that once the Nanticoke River leaves Seaford on its way down to the Chesapeake Bay, there’s no bridge across until you get to Sharptown, Maryland.
The only way over unless you want to swim or kayak is the historic Woodland Ferry, a little over 3 miles downstream from Seaford. And because of staffing issues, the ferry has had to cut back on its hours. For the last week, it’s been shut down completely.
That’s not really a problem for area residents who want to get to Seaford, but if they want to travel north or south it can mean miles of extra driving.
“We’ll hopefully get back up into limited operations here before too long,” Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman C.R. McLeod said Wednesday.
The department had just announced at the end of April that it was cutting back to running 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, and closing on the weekends. Then last week, it announced the ferry was temporarily closed altogether.
McLeod said they’ve had to scale back because they are down to one captain. They usually have three captains to divide the shifts, but one captain retired and one left for another job. Now, their only remaining captain is out dealing with an unexpected medical issue.
“We’re hoping it’s not an extended leave,” McLeod said, but there is no firm return date. A travel advisory on DelDOT’s website said it would remain closed through Tuesday, May 17.
Sabrina Hearn, who lives near the ferry on the north side, uses it every day for her commute. The reduced hours mean the ferry – when it's running – closes too early for her to use it in the evenings.
She was not thrilled about the changes. “I understand it’s hard to find people (to work on the ferry), but it’s very frustrating. You know, the ferry was down for repair forever; you couldn’t go across it. We finally get it back, and now it’s shut down again till who knows when.”
The ferry allows her to cut 15 minutes off her commute and avoid construction hangups in Seaford, she said. Her commute is around 45 minutes without it.
The department is working on hiring more captains, McLeod said, but they are facing the same issues finding employees that other businesses are having around the state.
“We’ve just had a challenge filling two of those vacancies,” he said. The position pays around $40,000 a year, he said, and people who have the necessary Coast Guard certification can get more lucrative posts elsewhere.
The ferry averages about 164 vehicles a day, McLeod said. (That comes to a little under 60,000 per year.)
“If you’re coming from that area, and wanting to get over on the ferry … it saves you from going all the way to Seaford,” Rodger Hamrick, president of the Woodland Ferry Association, said.
“Even the farmers use it,” Hamrick said, calling it a main route for people in the area.
A travel situation going back to the horse and carriage days
The ferry has been a main route for locals for centuries. According to the Delaware Public Archives, it dates back to the 1740s, when it was founded by a man named James Cannon. It was called Cannon’s Ferry well into the 1800s.
The county took over running it in 1883, per the archives, and at some point it was renamed the Woodland Ferry after the unincorporated community at the site.
It’s not the oldest ferry in the country. That honor belongs to the Rocky Hill Ferry in Connecticut, which has been in continuous operation since 1655, back when the English and Dutch were still scrapping over colonies on the Delaware coast.
The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry on the Tred Avon River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is also older, dating to 1683.
Still, the Woodland Ferry also goes way back, predating the Revolutionary War. At the time it was founded, area residents would not even have been sure if they lived in Maryland or Pennsylvania, and it was remote enough they may not have cared.
The ferry’s history, the feelings of locals who would like to preserve it, and the expense of building a bridge there are some of the reasons this unusual transportation system is still going today.
The idea of a bridge has been raised many times over the years, and with news of the ferry's staffing issues some on social media brought it up again.
In 2011, during another extended ferry outage, the News Journal’s editorial page opined, “This would be a good time for the General Assembly, DelDOT and the public to agree that it’s time for a bridge at the Woodland crossing on the Nanticoke River. There really is no historical value left in the ferry itself – only the area of the crossing.” (The people in charge of the National Register of Historic Places might disagree – they have listed the ferry since 1973).
The Department of Transportation is not considering building a bridge, McLeod said. That’s partly because of the cost, the low amount of traffic, and the environmental impact.
“The footprint that would be needed to install a bridge there would be pretty significant,” he said.
Also, he said, “The ferry has a historic value to the community, and I think there’s a lot of people who are passionate about the ferry and would not want to see the ferry go away or be replaced.”
“I think that (a bridge) would really make everybody upset because of the history of it,” the ferry association’s Hamrick said. He also noted the number of properties on either side that the state would have to buy to make way for construction.
Hearn, for her part, said she would be absolutely fine replacing the ferry with a bridge.
“There’s been so many issues with (the ferry.) I mean, I’ve lived in that area now 20 years, and there’s been so many times that it’s been down for extended periods of time for who knows what … I feel a bridge would be so much easier.”
Over the years, efforts to make changes have sputtered.
Back in 1976, the Daily Times of Salisbury reported that a DelDOT official had rashly suggested simply shutting down the ferry, which “set off a furor in the Seaford area.”
The bridge conversation has been going on for a long time. In 1924, the Evening Journal wrote, “The officials of Sussex County have never deemed it advisable to erect a bridge across the river on account of the fact that the Nanticoke River is a tidewater stream and a drawbridge would have to be maintained.”
The Journal Every-Evening of Wilmington reported in 1957 that the state had again decided against building a bridge for much the same reasons it cites today: The cost ($772,700 at that time) and the low number of users. Only about 45 vehicles a day during the week and 60 vehicles a day on the weekends were using the ferry then. Even that, though, was a spike from previous years. The paper reported that about 4,500 cars used the ferry in 1951 – only 12 or so a day.
By 1972, about 2,100 vehicles a month were crossing on the ferry, and local state Sen. David H. Elliott was pushing for a bridge, the Morning News reported. But at a cost of $2 million, the state was again hesitant. Back then it cost about $31,000 a year to run the ferry; McLeod said it’s $500,000 a year now.
The Morning News predicted then, “The pressure of land development on both sides of present crossing will make a bridge look more and more desirable.”
A rich history
As the ferry creeps toward 300 years old it has piled up a lot of history and lore.
There have been rumors that the Cannons who founded it were related to the infamous mass murderer and kidnapper Patty Cannon, but she actually married a second cousin of the family, a 2014 News Journal article clarified.
However, as the stories have it Jacob and Isaac Cannon, who ran the ferry in the 1800s, were not exactly popular with their neighbors, having a reputation for greed and foreclosing on loans. It’s difficult to credit some of the stories – in one instance, for example, they supposedly bought poor people’s cooking pots at a constable’s sale, dumped out the food that was being cooked, and went on their merry way while hungry women and children wept. It’s possible these stories got started because people resented the Cannons’ ability to use the Nanticoke crossing to skim money off travelers, and so gossiped about them being misers.
Around 1800, the ferry was charging 5 cents for a person and a horse, 10 cents for a two-wheeled carriage and 30 cents for a four-wheeled carriage, according to a 2008 history. That’s something like $1 to $5 today, which isn’t astronomical.
At any rate, whether or not the Cannons were money-hungry, they definitely seem to have been wealthy and Jacob Cannon was unpopular with at least one local.
Cannon was murdered in 1843 at the ferry, shot down by a man named Owen O'Day. O'Day’s grudge is not clear, but according to the historic registry listing, Cannon had prosecuted O'Day for stealing a bee tree, and O'Day killed him in broad daylight “under the eyes of condoning neighbors.” Newspaper accounts from the time say it was over a small debt.
A couple of decades later, boys playing in an old building near the ferry discovered a bundle of Jacob Cannon’s old bank notes in a desk, which one of the enterprising lads started selling off for 10 cents apiece, the Delaware State Journal reported in 1870. It turned out the bank notes were worth around $800 (more than $15,000 today).
A freak accident on the ferry claimed two more lives in 1937, when a car fell off into the river. Alonzo and Lillian Hammond and their 15-month-old baby William were traveling back from a visit to family, the Journal Every-Evening reported, and when the ferry was halfway across Alonzo decided to warm up the engine. This was one of the old crank-start vehicles, and when Alonzo got out to crank it he accidentally left the car in reverse. When he fired it up, the car drove backward off the boat, with Alonzo and ferryman William Massey scrambling to try to stop it and Lillian Hammond screaming, “Oh, save my baby.” Both Lillian and William drowned.
Other headlines from over the years offer a glimpse of the ferry’s evolution. One 1924 news article indicates that the pay has never been lucrative for ferry operators. At that time, Sussex County commissioners voted to increase ferryman George Massey’s salary from $35 to $45 a month. In today’s terms, that would be a raise from around $585 to the whopping sum of $770, or a little over $9,000 a year. We can surmise that either Massey’s wants were few, or he had a side gig.
Friends of the ferry
The Woodland Ferry Association has helped highlight the ferry’s history and significance to the area, and it also raises money for beautification projects.
It used to hold an annual festival in Woodland that drew a couple thousand people, but Hamrick said they gave that up after they had parking issues and lost their event coordinator.
Until recently, the association also had an “Ice Cream on the Ferry” event in September, raising funds by selling ice cream and souvenirs to ferry passengers, but that has been disrupted by COVID. Hamrick said at the association's June meeting, they will discuss whether to restart that this year.
In the coming weeks, we’ll also see if the ferry’s staffing woes begin to resolve or become an ongoing barrier to local travel.
Staffing hasn’t really been an issue in the past, McLeod said. There are candidates for the captain job, he said, and “things are in motion.”
Newspaper sources include:
- April 19, 1870 Delaware State Journal
- Oct. 2, 1924 Evening Journal
- Dec. 6, 1937 Journal Every-Evening
- March 28, 1957 Journal Every-Evening
- Sept. 4 and 5, 1968 “Peninsula” supplement to Evening Journal and Morning News
- Sept. 26, 1972 Morning News
- Aug. 15, 1976 Daily Times of Salisbury
- July 12, 2014 News Journal
- March 14, 2017, Delaware Wave; Michael Morgan, citing “William Morgan’s Autobiography and Diary: Life in Sussex County, 1780-1857”
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