FREDERICKTOWN – The ferryboat Frederick pulls from shore, heading toward Fredericktown with a few cars aboard, and, within minutes, another vehicle stops short at the ramp, just missing its chance to cross the Monongahela River on this historic vessel.
Then another motorist quickly drives down the same Fayette County ramp to the ferry to also wait for the 35-ton Frederick to recross the 400-foot river channel to haul these vehicles into Washington County in a scene often repeated one sunny late afternoon in April.
“Just like a lot of things, people just take it for granted,” said Jerry Dillinger of Clarksville, an inmate employee coordinator at the nearby State Correctional Institution-Fayette, where many employees depend on the ferry as a shortcut to and from work.
“I think it has a place in the future,” he said, before driving off the ferry ramp into Fredericktown.
With ridership down and the ferry budget in the red, commissioners in Washington and Fayette counties have been considering a permanent dry-docking of this boat, forever ending a service offered here since the late 1700s. Residents in this area have depended on a ferry to cross the Mon since James Crawford piloted a wooden shuttle on the river, catering to horse-and-buggy traffic, beginning in 1790 where water meets Fishpot Road and Route 88.
This steel ferry, however, ended last year with a budgetary loss of $28,000, a deficit that grew by $9,000 from the previous year, according to records kept by Fayette County, which shares the vessel’s cost about equally with Washington County. Frederick’s annual expenditures vary and came in at $124,831 last year.
Overall revenue from state subsidies and tolls dropped from $161,000 in 2009 to $97,000 last year, the records show. Another $73,000 bill came in last year for the boat’s mandatory five-year inspection.
Frederick is the last ferry in operation on the Monongahela and among a small number of such cable-driven vessels still operating east of the Mississippi River, and its future has been jeopardized by the new $96-million Bakewell Bridge that opened five miles to the north in July over the Mon along the Mon-Fayette Expressway between Centerville and Redstone Township.
Most riders on board this afternoon expressed more concern about the possibility of losing the convenience of a three-minute shortcut across the water rather than something quaint with an historic value.
“This $2 saves me a half-gallon of gas,” said prison manager Don Mlaker, who estimated the detours across the Bakewell Bridge or the Lane-Bane Bridge into Brownsville add between 18 and 24 miles of travel time to get from Fayette County to Fredericktown.
“The ferry makes it a lot more convenient,” Dillinger added.
Fayette County records, though, indicate there are fewer and fewer motorists who depend on the ferry to cross the river. The average monthly income from tolls – at $2 for a one-way trip – has dropped from $7,588 in 2009 to $3,555 last year. Fayette has been discussing installing a video counter on the boat to get an exact count on the number of vehicles that come aboard the boat, county records show.
Fayette Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink said both counties had yet to “sit down to discuss” the ferry’s future.
One idea has been presented, Zimmerlink said, to put the ferry in a museum in Fredericktown.
“They’re testing the water and getting feedback,” she said, adding she has received about a dozen emails or letters about the ferry and that 90 percent of their authors support keeping the vessel afloat.
Commissioners in Fayette voted unanimously in November to seek bids on refurbishing the ferry, relying on a more than $90,000 federal grant that must be used by Sept. 13 or it will be closed out, records show. A March 19 letter to Fayette from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicated the county “failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”
However, the Department of Transportation decided to keep the grant open after learning Fayette had received letters of support for rehabilitating the historic vessel and confirming that the county would request the money by June, the letter indicates.
Ferry Capt. Ron Columbus said he expects to have a job for another four years because the ferry passed its five-year inspection last year.
“I’ve not seen much of a change since the (new) bridge opened,” said Columbus, of West Brownsville. “I maybe lost four customers.”
He said business slacks off during the winter, the roughest time of the year to operate the ship.
The boat operates from 6:15 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. Frederick measures 64 feet long, 20 feet wide and a depth of 3.3 feet below the deck. It was built in 1948 by Hillman Barge & Construction Co. to hold six motor vehicles, and has been operated by the two counties since 1977.
In December it hauled 90 cars a day on round trips, and 30 for one-way travel, Fayette records show. When the prison opened in 2004, ferry traffic had peaked at about 200 cars a day.
“I wish they wouldn’t close it down,” said a motorist who declined to identify herself after boarding Frederick after her workshift ended at the prison.
“It’s like taking a page out of the history book,” she said.
John Bower, an owner of Bower Brothers Lounge next to Ferry Street in Fredericktown, said he still plans to hold a Ferry Festival this summer to draw visitors to town and support for the boat.
“I’d sure like to keep it, but I’ve damned near given up,” Bower said.
Meanwhile, Evan Williams of Stringtown in Greene County said he believes support is growing for keeping Frederick on the water.
A “Friends of the Fredericktown Ferry” Facebook page has attracted nearly 800 fans since it went live earlier this year, and its fan base has been growing, Williams said.
“It’s the end of a era and people want to see it stay,” he said.