After 50 years, Del.-NJ ferry runs like clockwork

By Rachael Pacella

The Daily Times

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18 2014 8:00 p.m. MST

"Anytime you get young people and a lot of money, you see drugs," Macomber said.

The grueling schedule pulled them away from shore for weeks, with only a few days on land in between.

It was a young man's game, and they didn't want to do it anymore. They both wished they could find a job on the water where they could work and still come home every night.

"Once you work on the water, you don't want to work on land," Vance said.

Macomber started working for the ferry in the summer and went back to fishing in the offseason until he was offered a permanent job. He has worked for the ferry 24 years.

He said the most memorable event for him was the Escape the Cape Triathlon held last June, in which 1,000 athletes jumped off the ferry to swim to shore for the start of the race.

"I spent my entire career trying to keep people on the boat, and had 1,000 jump off," he said.

Vance remembers something from the start of his career — an 18-wheeler's brakes released and pushed a Volkswagen Rabbit into the bay, along with a poodle inside.

"Crew went down, rescued the poodle, lost the Rabbit," he said.

Numerous attempts preceded today's ferry, and all failed for one reason or another: bureaucratic mistakes, bankruptcy, sinking ships. In Lewes, local businessman and resident Paul Carpenter started campaigning for a ferry in the 1920s. It took almost 40 years to see his efforts realized.

A half-century ago, things finally lined up at exactly the right time — the menhaden fishing industry was shutting down in Lewes. Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo said Lewes, then a "blue-collar" town, was trying to figure out what it would become.

"In the early '60s, there were a lot of things coming and going," DiPaolo said. "It's kind of like a teenager: 'What are we gonna be?'"

The ferry created jobs for the town, which DiPaolo said had a hard time embracing a tourism-based economy.

"There were plans to have Cape Henlopen Park become a heavy industrial center," DiPaolo said. "We'd be a vastly different place."

In 1962, the Lewes Historical Society was founded, and Cape Henlopen State Park opened in October 1964. The society, the park and the ferry became the foundation of Lewes' tourism industry.

Lifelong Lewes resident and historian Hazel Brittingham, 86, remembers the change.

"One thing stops and there is a cycle, something else seems to come in," she said.

Ruth Macintire was there on July 1, 1964, to take the first trip out of Lewes.

"I thought it was a disaster," Macintire said. "They simply weren't ready to start."

The first day of operation also included the first accident; trying to dock the ship in Lewes, a captain got a propeller stuck on a cable below the water, delaying the trip, according to "A Ferry Tale," written by former Delaware River and Bridge Authority Executive Director William Miller.

"We were there quite a while waiting to get home," Macintire said.

A poor first impression didn't stop her from returning, though.

"It was a great thing to entertain you, watching people getting on and off the ferry," she said.

In 1974, three new vessels were commissioned to replace the old fleet, and two additional vessels were added throughout the years.

Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations for the authority, said passenger traffic peaked in 1997 at 1.2 million, and vehicle traffic peaked in 1998 at more than 400,000.

Since then, ridership has steadily declined. Financial reports indicate a 25 percent drop in ridership and revenue between 2002 and 2012, while expenses have gone up about 2 percent. Because of the decline in ridership, the MV Cape May was sold in July.

Gehrke said the authority has been making changes to the ferries and terminal to modernize the spaces and bring in new customers. The authority has added more comfortable "airline style" seating to three of the ferries. This fall, two glass walkways leading to the ferry were completed.

Gehrke said the ferry carries some commercial traffic and commuters, but many people take the ferry just because it's fun.

"We have some of the best sunsets on the Eastern seaboard," he said.

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

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