FREDERICKTOWN – Facing an operating budget deeply in the red and falling ridership, the floundering ferryboat in Fredericktown has been struggling to stay afloat. But if the historic vessel does have to be permanently shored, organizers hope it will rise to live again as a museum on the banks of the Monongahela River.
Dennis Slagle, president of Fredericktown Chamber of Commerce, held a public meeting at the East Bethlehem Volunteer fire hall Thursday along with representatives from the nonprofit River Town Program to reveal a plan to turn the aging Ferry Boat Frederick into a permanent museum.
“I believe the writing is on the wall,” Slagle said. “I don’t think, as a matter of fact, I know that if that grant is off the table, that ferry doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance.”
Slagle was speaking of a more than $900,000 grant county officials had hoped to put toward the ferryboat. He said, after speaking to both Washington and Fayette county commissioners, receiving the grant did not seem likely.
The new plan would permanently dry dock the riverboat, turning it into an outdoor museum. A nearby abandoned gas station would be razed and parking and green areas would be installed. The ramp leading up to the ferry off Water Street would be converted into a river access for boats and kayaks.
“I don’t know what else could be done after all these years,” Slagle said. “We’re trying to preserve it; we just can’t figure out any kind of way to preserve it on the water.”
Before the Mon Valley Expressway opened, the ferryboat operation averaged about 200 vehicles per day. Since the bridge over the Monongahela River on Route 43 opened in July, daily ridership has slipped to about 90. Many of the riders of the ferry work at State Correctional Institution at LaBelle, Fayette County.
A ferry has crossed the river in Fredericktown for nearly 200 years. The current steel vessel, which uses a steel line to navigate between banks, has been in operation since 1973.
The ferry has annual operating costs of about $200,000 and is roughly $145,00 in the red. Washington and Fayette counties pay an equal share of the budget.
While many at the meeting thought the idea was a good strategy under the current circumstances, some at the meeting did not want to see the ferry taken off the water.
Larry Rutherford, 50, of LaBelle, has spent the last 30 years as a ferryboat operator. He said the fiscal picture painted by news outlets was more dire than the reality.
“I don’t know if you’re going to make up the money, I really don’t,” Rutherford said. “But it’s not losing as much as they’re saying. All I got from this meeting was they wanted to clean up that building.”