This summer, I decided to detour from the straight line of U.S. 13 on the way from Baltimore to Crisfield, MD. Instead of staying on the interstate, I remained on business Route 50 through Salisbury and made a right onto Nanticoke Road, then a left onto Whitehaven Road.
I meandered through stands of loblolly pines and past horses and pastures until the road ended at a river. Then, I waited two minutes for a boxy-looking boat to come across the river and pick me up.
This is the Whitehaven Ferry. It’s not fancy. And at seven minutes per crossing, it’s not long. But it’s long enough to showcase some beautiful Chesapeake sights. And unlike just about every other boat that plies the Chesapeake, whether your own or someone else’s, it’s free.
While I chatted with the ferry captain, Bobby Dean, my 8-year-old daughter watched the water. She saw an osprey leave its nest, dive into the water, catch a fish and deliver it back to its chick. She declared it the “greatest thing ever” and talked about it for the rest of the summer.
Deep in conversation, I missed that scene. But I’ve had the pleasure of taking the ferry several times this summer. I’ve watched those osprey chicks grow up a little.
I’ve seen tugboats carrying raw materials down the Wicomico. I’ve enjoyed the view of tiny Whitehaven from the ferry’s deck, its lovely, modest homes enjoying the best front-porch views on the Shore. And after a short detour, I’m back on Route 13, a little more relaxed than I was before.
The Whitehaven Ferry is a cruise aboard history — the oldest continuously operating ferry boat in the United States. It once supported a vibrant fishing community that included a fleet of boats and a cannery, and it carried settlers, and later, door-to-door salesmen from Salisbury to Princess Anne.
Now, Whitehaven has about 37 residents, several arts studios and a medicinal farm. And still the ferry runs, taking tourists, commuters and construction contractors from Wicomico to Somerset County.
While millions of drivers head each summer for the Shore, few seem to know about the three-car ferry. It’s not a shortcut to Ocean City. And if a tug or a high tide delays the ferry, it’s not much of a short cut for those heading to Crisfield or the Virginia Shore towns. But it’s run perfectly all the times I’ve taken it. Many Wicomico County residents rely on it to get from their homes in Tyaskin or Bivalve to jobs in Princess Anne. Were it not for the ferry, they say, they’d have to drive 31 miles to get to the other side.
Dean has been driving the ferry for 25 years. He and the two other operators will cross the river about 100 times each day. They work long six days on, and then six days off. The ferry has an electric motor and is attached to a cable.
It’s easy to see why more people don’t take the ferry. There is no sign off U.S. 13 directing drivers to Nanticoke Road. Once you’re on Nanticoke Road, one sign gives the phone number for the ferry, but only one small sign points toward it and its sister ferry, Upper Ferry, whose crossing is much shorter. On the other end, the signage is also minimal. When driving north on U.S. 13, only one sign points to Mt. Vernon Road and the Whitehaven Ferry. But
twist around Route 362 to Whitehaven Road, and there is not even a town. It’s just a river at the end of the road.
Taking the ferry is a great respite from a highway drive, but it can also be a piece of a wonderful weekend getaway.
The Whitehaven Hotel, an elegantly restored Victorian Inn, offers bikes and kayaks to its residents. Paddle along the edges of the pretty Wicomico River. Or, take the bikes across the ferry to Princess Anne and meander along the fragile marshes.
Whether your Whitehaven stop is a few minutes or a few days, there’s plenty to see on the ferry and around it. Just remember to look up from your conversation, or you could miss it all.