I live exactly 2.2 miles from the north dock of the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. I didn’t know until yesterday that a 13-year-old Tanya Tucker, on the same album with her breakout hit “Delta Dawn,” recorded a song called “Jamestown Ferry.” How could this have happened? I mean, Kay-Kay and I love the ferry. How could we have never known of this eponymous tune before now?
Unless you’re from Tidewater Virginia or are a very dedicated (if not obsessive) Tanya Tucker fan, most of you will never have heard of the Jamestown Ferry. It’s the last highway ferry left in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is something of a big deal, since the eastern part of Virginia is a Very Watery Place. There used to be a lot of ferries in Virginia until they started building all those bridges and tunnels. And now only one survives.
The ferry service is the continuation of Route 31 and runs from right next to Jamestown—the oldest English settlement in North America that wasn’t squashed by the pre-existing locals—across the wide and slow-moving James River to a little clutch of houses on the south bank called Scotland. I’ve looked on Google Maps and there are 20 houses and three short streets in Scotland, plus the ferry dock. No businesses, not even a bait shop.
The ferry service is operated 24/7 by the Virginia Department of Transportation. And it’s free. You don’t have to have one of those E-Z Passes. There’s no toll booth. You just drive on. How cool is that?
Many people actually commute via the ferry during the week. If you live in Williamsburg on the north side of the James and work on the south side (say in Smithfield, where you can find All Manner of Pork Products), the ferry is the best way to go. The nearest bridge crossings are either 25 miles downriver in Newport News or 25 miles upriver near Berkeley Plantation, the ancestral seat of the Harrison presidents. That’s a lot of miles out of your way.
On weekends, the ferry is immensely popular with motorcycle groups of all sizes, ages, leather-cladness, and scariness. There are some truly great rides leading up to both ends of the ferry, so when the weather is fine, the bikers come out by the dozen to roll on and roll off the ferry. A lot of young families take the ferry just for fun—it’s a great place to get rid of stale baked goods by feeding the seagulls that trail the boats. These birds—Amphibious Sky Rats, to some people—are incredibly aerobatic in their pursuit of any free high-carb meal.
Kay-Kay and I like to feed the birds, but mostly we just love riding the ferryboats. It just feels good to be on the water for awhile, even if it’s only a 15-minute crossing.
The ferry service is comprised four boats:
- The Surry, named after the county on the south side of the James that encompasses the hamlet of Scotland. Non-locals probably just assume it’s named after the much better known Surry Nuclear Power Plant, whose domes you can just see above the tree line from the river. We’re reminded of this monthly when they test the “China Syndrome” nuclear meltdown evacuation sirens, for our safety and convenience.
- The Virginia, which is kind of a boring name, but the Commonwealth is picking up the tab, so fair enough. (Did you know that there are actually 46 states in the USA? The other four are officially commonwealths—VA, KY, PA, and MA.) Also, one of the most famous Confederate Navy ships was the CSS Virginia, for what that’s worth, but it somehow feels timely..
- The Pocahontas, which is my and Kay-Kay’s favorite ferryboat. We call her Pokey. She is of course named after the famous daughter of Chief Powhatan who was much less stoked than his daughter about the White Guys squatting on Jamestown Island in his would-be backyard.
- The Williamsburg, because they ran out of interesting names, so they grabbed the nearest city’s name.
It was just announced—and this counts as Big Excitement in our neck of the woods—that the 80-year-old Virginia, smallest of the four boats, will be replaced next year with a new vessel. They haven’t announced the name yet, but I’m holding out for John Rolfe, the guy who a) married Pocahontas, impregnated her, and took her to England where she promptly died of some Noxious English Disease at age 21, b) first successfully cultivated tobacco in Virginia, giving rise to a whole cluster of carcinogens and class-action lawsuits, and c) was awesomely played by Christian Bale in that latest Pocahontas movie thing they did like ten years ago.
I find it very relaxing to ride the ferry. First and foremost, I love all the big tidal rivers that pierce Virginia up and down her coastline—Potomac, Rappahannock, York, James. So much history, not all of it happy. Second, it’s slow. Really slow compared to any other form of transportation other than your feet. It does you a lot of good to get from point A to point B at a leisurely pace. It forces you to notice things around you. Of course, it also requires putting your cell phone away. The ferryboats have unfortunately good cell reception.
The ferry traverses arguably the most historic spot in America. It’s where the British Empire began in 1607. It’s also the place where the first African slaves were landed in 1619 and we still haven’t come to grips with all the collateral damage from that Really Bad Idea. Within a 25-mile radius, the first American revolution, Bacon’s Rebellion, occurred in 1676, which may or many not have anything to do with the aforementioned pork products. The Revolutionary War was won just across the peninsula at Yorktown. A slice of the Civil War was hereabout, mostly a lot of indecisive to’ing and fro’ing by General McClellan, a man who never saw a battle he didn’t want to avoid. Four of our earliest presidents were either born or educated along the James or in Williamsburg.
I’m an unabashed history geek, so I like to contemplate these things, looking out over the rail while the water slips by my feet. It puts everyday annoyances into proper perspective within the Big Scheme of Things. Sometime in the future I’d like to write historical fiction set in this area. It’d be fun to do research without having to travel very far, for sure. More importantly, it’s home for me and I don’t want to lose sight of how special a place it truly is. Our house sits on what was once the hunting grounds of Pocahontas’s people. One of the first surveyed roads in North America runs by our house, connecting Jamestown to the old Royal Governor’s plantation, Green Spring, a little over a mile away.
By American standards, the 410 years since that first English settlement is a Really Long Time and feels humbling when you think about it. Kay-Kay and I caught a performance of a Shakespeare play a couple of nights ago at Jamestown Settlement, the state-owned museum, reconstructed fort, Indian village, and reproduction ships that rather accurately recreate Jamestown as it was in its first few years. The Guild of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival actors were playing two roles—first, as 1619 colonists putting on a play, and second, as characters in “The Tempest.” That was a little trippy. Sitting under brilliant stars on a surprisingly clear first night of autumn, watching an Elizabethan story performed by torchlight inside an early 17th-century village was a remarkable experience.
I hope we never start taking any of this for granted, just because it’s our backyard. It was our nineteenth move since we got married when we came back to Virginia, joy in our hearts to be fleeing New York City. I’ve told Kay-Kay I fully intend the next move will be into assisted living. We’re going nowhere from here.
Any of you ever visit the Historic Triangle? Been dragooned here on a long-ago school trip? Forced by totally lame parents to endure colonial Williamsburg as a surly teenager? Love to hear your comments.