Nearly 10 percent of North Carolina is underwater, and most of those 5,200 square miles of water are in the Coastal Plain in the form of inlets, sounds and rivers.
Early settlers were challenged to cross these waters by boats, and some ferries were established to transport people, wagons and livestock. Eventually, as automobiles began to roll off assembly lines in the early 20th century, people wanted to take their motorized vehicles with them on these ferries.
One of the true pioneers in North Carolina’s ferry industry was J. B. “Toby” Tillett, a commercial fisherman, who in 1924 started a tug and barge service from Wanchese on Roanoke Island to Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks, between Bodie and Pea islands in Dare County. Tillett’s barge was capable of transporting two cars at a time.
According to an article written by David Stick that appeared in the June 1949 issue of Our State magazine, Tillett asked his passengers to hoist a flag up the staff at the ferry landing when they were ready to cross. He would see the flag and come get them. Stick’s story said Tillett was running a regular schedule of seven round-trips a day by 1928.
Tillett built and launched the Barcelona in 1931, which could handle 14 cars at a time. He charged $2 per vehicle one-way, Stick wrote.
In 1934, the North Carolina Highway Commission began subsidizing Tillett’s business, and the fee was reduced to $1 each way.
The North Carolina ferry system was created in 1947, when the state purchased a ferry service operated by Thomas A. Baum that ran across Croatan Sound in Dare County, connecting Manns Harbor and Roanoke Island. This became the first “official” route operated by the state ferry operation. Hence, 2017 marks the 70-year anniversary of the establishment of the North Carolina ferry system.
In 1950, the state bought Tillett’s ferry business as well.
In 1957, the state began running regular ferry service between Hatteras Island in Dare County and Ocracoke Island in Hyde County.
Ferry access came to Carteret County in 1959, when a private company began service between Ocracoke and the Town of Atlantic in the Down East section of Carteret County. This run was abruptly halted the following year because of damage done by Hurricane Donna.
The state purchased the operation in May 1961 and soon thereafter resumed service to Ocracoke. This became the first toll ferry in the state system. In 1964, the southern docks were moved from Atlantic to Cedar Island, cutting the crossing time by 75 minutes.
The next route to be added crossed Currituck Sound between Currituck and Knotts Island in Currituck County; the route from Southport in Brunswick County to Fort Fisher in New Hanover County was established in 1965; and the Bayview-Aurora route crossing the Pamlico River in Beaufort County was added in 1966.
Beginning in 1973, service across the Neuse River was added, connecting Minnesott Beach in Pamlico County with Cherry Branch in Craven County. The Swan Quarter-Ocracoke route was the last to be added in 1977, finally providing the residents of Ocracoke with a direct link to their county seat (Swan Quarter) in Hyde County.
Over the years, certain routes became obsolete as bridges were built, providing even easier transport to and from the islands. The original Baum route was replaced by the Manns Harbor Bridge and later the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, while the original Tillett route was discontinued in 1963 upon the grand opening of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge.
Today, the NC Ferry Division is a unit of the NC Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT). There are 22 vessels in the fleet with more than 400 ferry system employees. North Carolina’s ferry operation is the second largest state-run program in the nation. Only Washington state’s is larger.
NCDOT has calculated that the economic impact of the state ferry system is about $325 million a year, contributing to the state’s travel and tourism economy. North Carolina is the sixth most-visited state in the nation, and tourism is the state’s third most important industry, after agriculture and the military. Total tourism expenditures by domestic travelers in North Carolina are expected to exceed $22 billion this year.
This economic impact is likely to increase dramatically due to new signage that was installed in the spring of 2016 along the route of the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway, which includes U.S. 70 and N.C. 12 in Carteret County. Officially, the byway is 137.8 miles in length. (For the benefit of international travelers, that translates to 221.8 kilometers.)
The scenic byway includes both the Ocracoke-Cedar Island and the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry runs.
Only 150 routes across America have attained the distinction of being labeled National Scenic Byways. The official guidebook says: “Leave the mainland behind and come to the most romantic byway in North Carolina – the Outer Banks Scenic Byway … a must for any traveler looking to escape to a time of front porch talks and simple maritime living.”
The North Carolina ferries travel about 1,200 miles each day. On an annual basis, the ferries transport nearly 1 million vehicles and more than 2 million passengers across five separate bodies of water – the Currituck and Pamlico sounds and the Cape Fear, Neuse and Pamlico rivers.
The longest ferry rides are the 26.4-mile crossing from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter (2.5 hours each way) and the 22.6-mile route from Ocracoke to Cedar Island (2.25 hours each way). Fares are charged for these routes as well as the Southport-Fort Fisher run. The other four state ferry routes are free.
A little known fact is that each state ferry is affiliated with a college or university within the State of North Carolina and is painted in the respective school’s colors and displays the school logo.
Perhaps the most colorful ferry in the fleet is the Pamlico. It’s partnered with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (school colors are Bahama blue, apple green & seance purple) – and one would not expect less from a school with a “Fighting Pickle” as its mascot.
Ferry boats don’t come cheap. The newest vessel, the Sea Level, had a price tag of nearly $15 million in 2012.
Last year, the NC General Assembly agreed to set aside $3.65 million for the purchase of a passenger ferry that will carry pedestrian traffic only from Hatteras directly into Ocracoke, to help alleviate traffic and summertime congestion on the Hatteras Inlet vehicle ferries. Additionally, there was $2.3 million appropriated in the budget to expand the state shipyard in Manns Harbor to allow for ferry restoration.
Every now and then, the idea of privatizing North Carolina’s ferry service pops up and gets batted around in the General Assembly. Bills filed in past legislative sessions called for the state to charge for concessions and Internet service on the ferries as well as sell souvenirs and offer advertising/sponsorships on the boats. (There’s a lot more surface area on a ferry boat for NASCAR style logos and decals than on a racecar.)
Most of the North Carolina ferries are named for “places,” but five are named for “people,” including Governors Daniel Russell (1897-1901) and James B. Hunt, who served twice (1997-85 and 1993-2001). Another is named for W. Stanford White, who was a state legislator from Dare County, who was responsible for siting the ferry maintenance facilities at Manns Harbor.
Two others are named for citizens – Floyd J. Lupton, who served 26 years as chief of staff for US Rep. Walter Jones, Sr., and Thomas A. Baum. They share a distinction as “nonpoliticians” who have both ferries and buildings named in their memories. Lupton’s building is the federal post office in his native Belhaven in Beaufort County. Baum’s building is the Dare County senior center, which was built and opened in Kill Devil Hills in 1987 on land that was donated to the county by the Baum family.
Interestingly, three state ferries operated for about 10 years in western Carteret County, transporting people and vehicles back and forth between Cape Carteret to Emerald Isle (beginning in 1961), before the B. Cameron Langston Bridge on NC Route 58 was built and opened in 1971, to cross from western Carteret County to Bogue Banks.
These ferries were named the Governor Cherry, the Sandy Graham and the Emmett Winslow, all of which were built in 1957 by Barbour Boat Works, Inc., of New Bern. The shipyard on the Trent River was founded by Herbert W. Barbour in 1933 and closed in 2001. R. Gregg Cherry was North Carolina’s governor from 1945-49. Graham served twice as chairman of the State Highway Commission, first in Gov. Cherry’s administration then again under Gov. William B. Umstead from 1953-57. Winslow was a highway commission member during the Umstead administration.
The Sandy Graham was operating in Virginia in 1998, when it was purchased by the Canadian government to begin serving the native Canadian population who are members of the Beausoleil First Nation (BFN), which has a reservation on Christian Island in the southern tip of Georgian Bay in Ontario (east of Lake Huron).
The 800 year-round residents on Christian Island are descendants of Chippewa people who were first placed there in 1856. The Sandy Graham has been their lifeline from Christian Island to Cedar Point on the mainland, capable of transporting 28 vehicles. It’s a about a 30-minute ride each way.
However, after nearly 60 years of operation, the Sandy Graham is barely limping along. She is experiencing mechanical breakdowns and “metal deterioration,” caused by battering waves, wind and ice in Georgian Bay, according to Transport Canada.
BFN’s former Chief Roland Monague said that’s another way of saying the “hull is rusting.” The vessel needs extensive repairs that could take it out of service for up to four years. It’s feared repairs may prove to be cost prohibitive.
A new replacement ferry, which would be able to break through the ice, will cost $23 million plus another $10 million in upgrades to the dock. BFN has agreed to come up with $10 million. That still leaves a considerable gap for the province and the national government to cover.
Whatever is the ultimate fate of the Sandy Graham, she has lived a long and productive life on the water, having journeyed from Emerald Isle to Christian Island.
Back in North Carolina, the NC Ferry Division has ferry operations down to a science, with daily operations that rarely skip a beat, completing hundreds of trips safely every day.
Not part of the Ferry Division, but ferries nonetheless, are three other river, cable ferries at inland locations. These ferries are overseen by the NCDOT highway division offices. Each cable ferry can carry two vehicles at a time while traveling along a cable that stretches across the river and is tethered to the ferry itself.
One of these cable ferries is the Elwell Ferry, which crosses the Cape Fear River in Bladen County, between Carvers Creek and Kelly. It dates back to 1905 and is included in the NC Highway Historical Marker Program.
The other two ferries remain “markerless,” but they may be even older. Parker’s Ferry crosses the Meherrin River near Winton in Hertford County, and the Sans Souci Ferry crosses the Cashie River south of Windsor in Bertie County.
Motorists are advised: If you pull up and the ferry is docked on the other side of the river, just honk your horn to get the attention of the operator, and he will pull the ferry over to get you. Be patient.
Sans souci is French for “carefree.”
That’s a good word to apply to all the ferry rides in North Carolina. Happy 70th birthday to the North Carolina ferry system.
Officials with NCDOT say a 70-year anniversary celebratory event for the ferries later this year is “definitely in the works.” When details are available, information will be posted on the NCCOAST website, www.nccoast.com.