Ferry Poised to Shut Down For Season Until Spring
Captain Herman Hause stared at the choppy waters as he stood on the deck of City of Sistersville II, the only ferry remaining on the Ohio River in West Virginia.
“Whitecaps there is a strong wind coming in, so there must be a storm coming,” he said of the ferry crossing that is about an eighth of a mile wide. “No matter what the weather, no trip across the river is ever the same. Whether it be the current of the river or the traffic on board the ferry’s barge, nothing is ever the same when you cross the river.
“That makes it a challenge. And I enjoy a challenge,” Hause said.
The ferry’s last day before it closes for the season is Nov. 15. Until then, weather permitting, the ferry remains open Thursday through Sunday. For nearly 200 years, the ferry crossing has been a critical link between two states.
“Because Tyler County does not have a bridge across the Ohio, you have to drive at least 15 minutes north or 20 miles south to cross the river,” said Barbara Gage, director of the Sistersville Ferry Board. “That ferry is the only transportation across the river in Tyler County and for the Ohio side too. We have a number of people who use the ferry to commute to their jobs.”
The ferry connects jobs and markets between two states.
“The ferry is important because it is our link to employment opportunities on the Ohio side of the river and likewise to a labor market for our companies in Tyler County,” said Eric Peters, executive director of the Tyler County Development Authority.
Gage said the ferry is closing a few weeks earlier this year to conserve funds.
“We’ve been able to stay in the black ink this year,” she said. “By closing early, we’re better able to pay our bills during the winter.”
Gage said the ferry does not receive any funding from the city and limited funds for repairs from state and federal grants. In 2011, the state jumped into provide about $25,000 of assistance to save the ferry which was slowly sinking in a sea of red ink. Gage said operational expenses to maintain the ferry are provided by fares and donations from area businesses and individuals.
“We are very grateful for their help,” she said.
Gage said in recent years, operations costs have increased because insurance premiums cost more than when the ferry was insured for a nominal cost through the city’s insurance plan. She said roughly one-third of the ferry’s annual $50,000 operations budget $17,000 is paid toward special marine insurance. Last year, the ferry closed in October instead of November because of funding issues, Gage said.
“The ferry has been struggling financially in recent years,” she said. “We’re doing better than last year. We had to work hard to accomplish that. The board has done diligent work to maintain this historic ferry.”
Gage took a moment to reflect on the recent death of John Eckels, a longtime active member and former president of the Sistersville Ferry Board.
“He was instrumental in keeping the ferry going for a number of years.,” she said. “Anyone I’ve spoken to is deeply saddened with his passing.”
A few years ago, Sisterville City Council along the city’s mayor Dave Fox and the ferry board dedicated a stone marker and named the West Virginia ferry landing in honor of Eckels.
“He dedicated a great deal of time and effort to preserving the ferry service,” Peters said.
Tourists and commuters utilize the ferry each year when service resumes in early spring.
“Sometimes we get more than a 100 cars a day and that number doesn’t count motorcycles or those people who walk on without a car,” Hause said.
Gage said the ferry board wants to hire an additional pilot so as to provide more service, but that is proving difficult. Though people have expressed interest in the job, applicants need enough water experience in order to qualify at the bare minimum so as to be trained how to pilot the ferry, she said.
Hause’s rank was chief boatswain before he retired after nearly 30 years from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011. During Hause’s time at sea, he was responsible for steering ships, navigation among other duties.
“I enjoy being a pilot,” he said. “I love water. I’ve been around water my whole life.”
Hause, 52, said he grew up on the New Jersey coast and joined the coast guard when he was 19-years-old. His wife, Sue, is originally from St. Marys, which is how a New Jersey boy who has sailed all over the world knows about Tyler County. In recent weeks, the couple moved to Sistersville to be closer to family. Hause has been the ferry captain since July 2012.
“Being a boat captain was something I looked forward to when I retired,” he said. “I enjoy what I do because I get to meet a lot of nice people and I enjoy working on the water.”
The ferry operates from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The 198-year-old ferry draws people from near and far to Tyler County.
“The ferry is probably the biggest tourist attraction we have in the county, so it must be preserved,” Peters said. “We are going to keep working to improve the ferry’s viability.”