Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Crossing the Waters:

Ferries in Virginia


Back in 1973, John Boy Walton helped restore service on the Hatton Ferry, destroyed the year before by Hurricane Agnes. The storm almost ended the historic ferry’s service, until the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to replace the damaged vessel. At the new service’s dedication, Richard Thomas, the star of the TV series "The Waltons," took the inaugural ride. Set in the Blue Ridge mountains, the show was based on the childhood memories of nearby Schuyler, Va., resident and author Earl Hamner.


The Hatton Ferry, located on the James River near Scottsville, is one of two remaining poled ferries in the United States. Along this stretch of the James and nearby Rivanna Rivers, ferries date to 1729 and at one time there were 18 on these waterways. In the late 1870s, James A. Brown began operating a store and ferry on the Hatton Ferry site. In 1881, the store became a railroad stop and several years later, Brown was allowed to open a post office in his store. A young federal postal officer named Hatton signed the authorizing papers and lent his name to the ferry.


The state has operated the ferry since 1940 and today it can carry 12 people or two cars the 700 yards across the James. The boat has a flat-bottom with a deck a few inches above the waterline. It operates through a system of cables. A cable is attached to one end of the boat and guided by an overhead wire that connects the two river banks. The cable system helps control the boat and harness the natural power of the river. As the ferry approaches the riverbank, the ferryman rolls up the cable on the boat’s stern and uses his pole to guide the boat into the landing. 


As with many of Virginia’s ferries, in the early days, the Hatton Ferry carried everything from buggies to cattle, lumber and farm produce. Such loads could easily sink a ferry, particularly if the front end was too heavy. One such incident almost occurred when a donkey, tied to others, tried to drink from the river. A ferryman quickly cut the rope that held the animals together before the boat capsized (Scottsdale Museum).


In contrast to the tiny Hatton service, another VDOT-operated ferry, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry carries more than one million vehicles a year. It is the only 24-hour state-run ferry operation in Virginia. Four boats with capacities ranging from 28 to 70 cars ply the James between Glass House Point in Jamestown and Scotland. The boats have carried country music stars, celebrities such as the King of Sweden, as well as commuters traveling from places such as Williamsburg to Smithfield Foods. The service employs 80 people.


“I’ve been on the water since I got out of high school,” Jamestown-Scotland ferryman Bucky Stewart, a 30-year-plus veteran told the Virginia Department of Transportation Bulletin in 2003. “You meet all kinds of people.” He also admitted seeing all kinds of minor calamities, from passengers dropping their keys in the water, cars that refused to start or ferries that had run aground or out of gas.


The Hatton and Jamestown-Scotland ferries are only two of seven ferry services operated by the state or local Virginia governments. Others include the Elizabeth River Ferry between Hampton and Norfolk. It includes three 150-passenger paddle-wheel ferry boats. One of these is the world’s first natural gas-powered pedestrian ferry. There’s also the Tangier Island passenger-only ferry between Reedville on the Northern Neck and Tangier Island; White's Ferry on the Potomac between Leesburg and Poolesville, MD; the Sunnybank Ferry in Northumberland County which crosses the Little Wicomico River; and the Merry Point Ferry in Lancaster County, which crosses the western end of the Corrotoman River.


Perhaps the largest ferry service in the Old Dominion became obsolete in 1964 when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Virginia Ferry Corporation operated seven ferries that carried residents and their vehicles from Virginia’s eastern shore to the Hampton Roads area. Prior to the ferry service, the only way for vehicles to reach the Hampton Roads area and towns further south from the Eastern Shore was to go north through Maryland and then down the western shore of Virginia. The trip could take several days.


Ferries may seem quaint to many, but for others they are a way of life. Commuter Richard Bauernschmidt is so devoted to his daily ferry ride on the Jamestown- Scotland service that he has license tags that read RIVER XER.


“The Waltons” lasted only nine seasons; Virginia’s ferries may be around a bit longer.


NEXT: Emu of Virginia: Exotic Beasts in the Old Dominion.


-- July 10, 2006


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About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.