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Video: The fight for America’s last pole ferry

TODAY contributor
updated 9/28/2009 9:24:39 AM ET 2009-09-28T13:24:39

Growing up, I spent my summers in farm country — Kansas — with a grandfather who loved to tell stories. Perhaps that’s why I got into the storytelling business.

My grandfather told me that when he was 18, he was what used to be called “all hat and no cattle”: a kid with little money and no property. “One of my biggest thrills,” he said, “was loading my buggy and best girl on a river ferry. That was like a ride at Disneyland. The ferryman would push us across with a pole and an encylopedic knowledge of the currents. Quite an adventure in 1903!”

Grandpa would have loved Ashley Pillar. He is the last of those old-time river ferrymen.

180 pounds vs. 17 tons
Ashley makes as many as 60 trips a day, back and forth, carrying trucks, cars and people across the James River south of Scottsville, Virginia. On easy days, the trip takes about 10 minutes. But there are few easy days. When the ferry bottoms out because of low water, Ashley alone must find a way to re-float it.

“The barge weighs seventeen and a half tons,” Ashley points out, resting on his 15-foot pole.

“How much do you weigh?”

“One eighty.”

This is how we first muscled across America when rivers blocked our way: by stringing flat-bottom barges to cables, suspended about 25 feet above the water. Ashley cranks a hand winch to shorten either the front or back connecting cable, angling the barge so that the current helps him push. “The water will hit the side of the ferry, acting as a sail, propelling you in the opposite direction.”

Just as life sometimes does. 

“Ashley, you’re 30. You went to college to become a pilot. Why have you been doing this for eight years?”

"Look around you. It’s the best office in the world."

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Trying to stay afloat
It’s the kind of view that makes us all homesick for places we've never been. The James River meanders through the heart of Virginia before emptying into Chesapeake Bay. It pokes along an area of our country rich in Colonial and Civil War history.

But its voyage through the past may soon be part of the past itself, a casualty of ebbing state funds. Virginia’s Department of Transportation has to cut 900 jobs. It’s already closed 19 highway rest stops, and now, the last pole-powered ferry may vanish.    

“I don’t think any of us are saying it’s not worth keeping,” says Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “It’s what we can afford right now.”

It costs just $21,000 to keep the ferry running each year. Still, “We're looking at a three and a half billion-dollar budget shortfall,” Caldwell points out. “We have to find any bit of money that we can.”

“That's ridiculous,” snaps Frank Tapscott. History is precious to him; nearing 90, he has seen more of it. “My grandfather owned the pole ferry when I was a boy.”

Back then, there were thousands of such ferries across the country. “Now the Hatton ferry is the only one to save,” Tapscott says. “Is there anything more important than that?”

Before the ferry faded into that yellowing scrapbook of history, Albemarle county officials found enough money to keep it afloat until October 1. But they vowed it would be only a one-time bailout, because they didn't want to spend the money to run it either. The local historical society couldn't afford the liability insurance, so the fate of this little ferry depends on folks who cherish things that connect us.

Ferry godmother
Tom Freeman and Stephanie Kellogg, for instance. They’ve decided to get married on that romantic relic. “From our old life to our new life. On a little ferry," Stephanie sighs. 

Tom just lost his job. Stephanie, a nurse, decided it was time to tie the knot anyway. In a world racing full-tilt toward tomorrow, they still count on this ancient commute. Why is the past so important to them? “Because that's what has made this future,” Stephanie says with a smile.

On this, their wedding day, Tom and Stephanie are hopeful; the dreams they spin will not be swept away. I grin at Tom. “What could go wrong at a wedding on a ferry that is held by a cable in the middle of a river?”

“Well, if the cable snapped, I suppose we could end up in Richmond for our honeymoon."

That's where Tom will star a new engineering job, after the wedding. So there are two things to celebrate as Tom slips the ring on Stephanie’s finger. “This is a gesture of my commitment to you, to us — and the bank.”

The wedding guests chuckle, dozens of them seated on the Hatton Ferry, which is decked out in balloons, drifting into an autumn sunset. 

Oh, and one more thing.

Stephanie has become the ferry's, ah, ferry godmother. She asked the guests to not give wedding gifts, but instead donate that money to this tiny bit of what we once were.

There is now enough to re-open the Hatton ferry next spring — for it's 131st year.

Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .

For more information on the fate of the Hatton Ferry, contact:
Steven Meeks, President
Albemarle/Charlottesville Historical Society
(434) 296-1492

If you’d like to make a donation to save the Hatton Ferry, mail it to:
The Hatton Ferry Fund
c/o Old Dominion National Bank
P.O. Box 321
Scottsville, VA 24590

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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