The Cape May-Lewes Ferry’s birth 50 years ago ended a long and difficult labor

By Pam George
From the July 2014 Issue

CapeMay50thPasses for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry’s inaugural voyage on June 30, 1964, were prized possessions, many of them surely destined for scrapbooks. Indeed, “Souvenir Memento” was printed above the day’s departure and arrival times, and the numbered tickets had a drawing of a ferry cruising by a lighthouse in the left corner and a blue-tinged photograph of the real vessel on the right.

But on that momentous day, holders of those free passes had to navigate bumpy roads to reach the ferry. The planned access route, the Theodore C. Freeman Highway, had yet to be built, and there was no terminal. Officials gathered at 11 a.m. at the site of the future building for a dedication ceremony. It was quick. At 11:45 a.m., the first vessel left Lewes for Cape May, where officials repeated their addresses at 2 p.m.

No doubt many attendees in both audiences thought this day would never come. The project had been full of fits and starts as far back as the 1920s. Previous ferry services had sputtered and ceased. Despite an acknowledged need for transportation between the capes, the plan over the years was often met with a mix of support and skepticism on both sides of the bay. So for the handful of unwavering advocates, the start of routine service 50 years ago was a crowning achievement.

Cape to cape
The need to bridge the watery gap between Cape May and Cape Henlopen was nothing new. Native Americans “ferried themselves across … in flimsy canoes,” according to the 1964 dedication program. “They didn’t have to depend on traffic studies to convince them of the importance of getting from one shore to another.”

Cape May’s growth as a seaside resort in the mid-19th century underscored the need. Pre-Civil War steamships chugged to the Jersey town from New York, Philadelphia and Virginia. The Philly steamers might stop at Wilmington and New Castle before continuing to the seaside resort, but they rarely paused in Lewes.

Because Maryland tourists also wanted access to Cape May, the Delaware Legislature in 1895 authorized the Maryland-based Queen Anne’s Railroad to extend a line into Lewes. That railway’s Cape May Express took passengers from Queenstown, Md., (on the Chesapeake Bay across from Annapolis) to Lewes and then across the bay via steamship. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt in 1904, four years after it began operations.

Other efforts to link Delaware with New Jersey were more successful. The Wilson Line Ferry between Wilmington and Pennsville, for instance, was launched in 1913 to transport passengers and vehicles.

In 1926, a 24-hour ferry service started between Pennsville and New Castle. Six vessels carried up to 75 cars each. It was, according to advertisements, “the shortest and fastest route between New York and Washington.”

Farther south, the ferry project rode a roller coaster of support beginning in 1921, when New Jersey Gov. Edward I. Edwards signed the authorization to create a Lewes-Cape May line. However, the attorney general of New Jersey ruled that the state had no authority to create such a service. In 1924, it was Delaware’s turn to initiate the project, but that legislative measure was defeated.

Perhaps fueled by the start of the New Castle-Pennsville line, efforts sparked again in 1926. That year, the Lewes High School newspaper reported on the groundbreaking for a ferry terminal on Lewes Beach. “When the ferry is put into operation, it is hoped that Delaware will have permanent Florida boom,” the reporter wrote.

That notion wasn’t as farfetched as it might sound. Automobiles were swiftly replacing trains as the preferred means of transportation, and the DuPont Highway (Route 13) was completed in 1924. In theory, snowbirds heading north from Florida for the summer (and vice versa) could stop in Lewes en route.
The interest in a ferry prompted Col. Jesse Rosenfeld of Baltimore to tow the SS Atlantus  — one of 12 experimental ships made of concrete — to Cape May to serve as a ferry dock. When the ship ran aground, it became a curiosity instead (a photo op, by today’s standards).

And so the quest for ferry service itself seemed grounded once again. According to the March 2, 1929, issue of the Delaware Coast Press, “there was little public interest because past efforts had failed.”

Well, not quite.

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