Cape May Lewes Ferry gears up for its 50th

A ferry boat named the USS New Jersey returns to North Cape May from Lewes, Del. There are three ferries in the fleet.
A ferry boat named the USS New Jersey returns to North Cape May from Lewes, Del. There are three ferries in the fleet. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 18, 2014

NORTH CAPE MAY - It was a big adventure 50 years ago for a young man like Capt. Billy Ray Phillips to leave the Chesapeake Bay, where he had cut his teeth piloting ferry boats, and embark on a fledgling new enterprise.

But as thousands of cheering people lined the shores of two states and hundreds more packed two ferries for the inaugural twin voyages on July 1, 1964, of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, Phillips, then 29, knew he had made the right choice to come and guide one of the vessels on that 16-mile maiden trip.

The boats had been bought and rebranded for the New Jersey-Delaware job when they were no longer needed after the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel.

"After the ferry service ended down in Virginia, I was offered a job to work on the [Chesapeake] bridge and tunnel. But I'm not a bridge and tunnel kind of guy. I just wanted to stay on boats," said Phillips, 79, one of the remaining pioneers of the transportation fleet that this year will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The centerpiece of a celebration full of events and exhibits will be a festival June 28 and 29 at the terminals in New Jersey and Delaware. It will feature live music, food, activities, and speeches from dignitaries.

Officials said the ferry service, which cost $13 to get started, has transported more than 43 million passengers and 14 million vehicles on the 80-minute voyage across the Delaware Bay in the last five decades. In 1964, a driver making a one-way crossing paid $4 - equal to about $30 today. The current rate is $44 for the same ticket.

"At the time, I did wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into, though," Phillips said. "But I can remember how excited the crowds were that day . . .. It's an experience I'll never forget, that's for sure."

Phillips remembers that, at the start, tickets were sold out of the back of a pickup truck.

"When I got here, it was so far from being completed," he said. "And at first, every voyage was a challenge,"

A picture of Phillips at the helm of the SS Cape Henlopen that day is among photos and mementos that line the walls of a small exhibit at the rear of the gift shop in the ferry's Cape May terminal. A similar display is at the terminal in Lewes, said Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the ferry.

At the time of the inaugural voyages, local newspapers called the ferry service the culmination of a "centuries-old dream" to officially connect New Jersey and Delaware at that spot.

More than 2,200 boats took part in a flotilla parade to commemorate the launch, and there was a 30-mile sailboat race from Ocean City to Cape May. A squadron of fighter jets flew over. Dignitaries included the governors of New Jersey and Delaware, along with officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ferry ridership has waxed and waned over the years, possibly because of an alternative land route available to Interstate 95 and other congested roads, said Scott A. Green, executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

Passenger traffic peaked in 1997 at 1.2 million. The next year, a high of 400,000 vehicles made the crossing. But since then, ridership has steadily declined, with a 25 percent drop in revenue and ridership between 2002 and 2012.

In the same time, expenses for the three-ferry fleet have increased by 2 percent, according to the agency's financial records.

Green acknowledged the operation had hit some rough waters over the years, particularly involving the purchase in the 1980s of larger, more luxurious vessels that cost more to run. One of those vessels, the MV Cape May, was sold last summer.

"In recent years, we've been working to streamline the operation to make it most cost-effective," Green said, noting the sale or retirement of fuel-guzzling boats that require nearly twice the crew - 17 versus 10 - to operate on a crossing.

Local lore says Native Americans started their own ferry service hundreds of years ago, accomplishing the sometimes-challenging crossing of the bay in dugout canoes. In the late 1800s, as steamships transported passengers from Philadelphia and Southern ports to the fledging New Jersey seaside resorts, a plan to connect Cape May with Cape Henlopen, in Lewes, was bandied about, but, like similar proposals in the 1920s and 1930s, it never came to fruition.

Just as the anniversary celebration is getting underway, the agency has lost its keeper of such history.

Its unofficial historian, J. Fred Coldren, who had served as the ferry's business manager before retiring in 2010 and who was Cape May city manager for 15 years, died Jan. 29. When the ferry began 50 years ago, Coldren worked as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Charles W. Sandman Jr., who represented the southern end of the state.

As historian, Coldren amassed an extensive collection of memorabilia from the time. In the months before his death, he had worked at creating the terminal exhibits using material from his personal collection and was helping Gehrke and Green plan the anniversary celebration.

"He was the ferry's biggest champion and knew everything there was to know about the Cape May-Lewes Ferry," Gehrke said. "He will truly be missed . . . he knew all the old stories."


jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382

@JacquelineUrgo

www.inquirer.com/downashore

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