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In late June of 1964 Lewes, Del. ranked as Party Town, USA. There were parades, jet fighter flyovers, military band concerts, sailboat races, gala dinners—I could go on and on. Those celebrations were all leading up to a crescendo—the grand opening of the Cape May Lewis Ferry on July 1.

That ferry service was a long time coming—and badly needed. Locals were sick of the long, laborious drive to Wilmington and across the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Local businesses were hungry for more tourists—and the money they’d spend.

There had been a couple of famously false starts in earlier decades. A railroad company started up a ferry service in the 1890s, but that company soon went bankrupt. Ferry plans arose in the 1920s, too. The businessmen behind that project had financing in place. They’d purchased three transport ships left over from World War I. They’d thrown a groundbreaking party. Then one of those boats broke loose during a storm and sunk—a mishap that ended up sinking the whole project.

Ferry proposals popped up time and again during the years that followed. Finally, in 1964, things would turn out differently. I’m posting this just a few days before the Cape May-Lewes Ferry marks its 60th birthday–and in that time the service has shuttled 45 million people and 17 million vehicles across the Delaware Bay. Have you taken the trip? If not, what are you waiting for?

It’s a ton of fun. I have a cherished memory of picking up my niece Makena in New Jersey, then taking her back to our place by way of the ferry. She was the perfect age for that adventure, spending the whole time in a state of wide-eyed wonder. Pulling the car onto the boat. Ogling the sweet scenery. And, of course, visiting the snack bar. The ferry has created memories like that in countless thousands of families through the years.

I needed to sing the praises of the ferry up front here because we are about to have a little fun with that grand opening back in 1964. Have you ever had an awful, no-good, terrible experience at a big public event? Ended up looking to crawl under a rock in shame and embarrassment? The worst part, I think, is when someone tries to help by patting you on the shoulder and offering comforting words: “Someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.” I don’t know about you, but there have been a couple of times in life when I’ve wanted to punch goofballs in the nose for uttering those words.

But then, of course, a funny thing happens. Time passes, life goes on, and you really do end up laughing. So advance apologies to folks who endured the grand opening events! I’m hoping sixty years is long enough. Someday is here, and It’s high time we got to laughing.

A Christening from Hell, Complete with Fractured Thumb

Let’s start with one of Party Town USA’s 1964 warm-up acts. The powers behind the Cape May-Lewes Ferry started out by buying three used boats from the recently closed ferry service that ran out of Kiptopeke, down near Cape Charles on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. They decided to rename those boats, so one of the events in the lead-up to the grand opening was a christening ceremony. Most people know the deal with such events—they culminate in the celebratory smashing of a champagne bottle on the bow.

Cape May Lewes Ferry Grand Opening Passengers

Time for another question: Have you ever worked with a young intern, perhaps, or a newbie employee who decided that the way things have been done for five or 10 or 20 years should be improved, that they knew a better way? That’s what happened here.

Ship christenings had worked just fine for as long as anyone could remember. The special bottles some champagne makers created for such occasions were designed to be more breakable than the ones sold in stores. Those bottles would get wrapped in some sort of nylon mesh so that the shards don’t fly everywhere and cause injuries.

Despite all this, a ferry company employee had doubts. He felt that the mesh wasn’t strong enough to hold the shards. He added tape to the mix, so it would be more secure.

Fast forward to the big event. The honor of cracking the champagne bottle for the renamed MV Delaware went to Jeanne Tribbitt, the wife of Gov. Sherman Tribbitt. As the event reached its crescendo—can you see all the flashbulbs popping, hear the newsreel cameras whirring?—she took a mighty swing.

Cape May Lewes Ferry on WaterThunk.

The bottle didn’t break. She took a mightier swing.

Thunk.

She reared back with all her might.

Thunk.

I am happy to say that chivalry was not yet dead on that summer day in 1964. A ferry company executive stepped to the First Lady’s rescue. “Ma’am, perhaps I can be of assistance.” He took that stubborn champagne bottle from the First Lady and gave it his mightiest swing.

CRASH!

Yes, the bottle finally broke. Oh, and one more thing happened: The chivalrous executive fractured a thumb. I wonder how that intern who’d wrapped tape on that nylon bag felt as that executive headed off in search of medical treatment.

First Crossing: A Steamy, Stranded, and Snake-Bitten

A bigger fiasco followed come opening day. One smidge of background: Construction work on the ferry terminals and landings went slower than expected, but the powers behind the project decided they had to open anyway, even in such an imperfect state. They needed money to start coming in. They couldn’t let another whole tourism season go by.

Cape May Lewes Ferry OverviewThe ferry terminals weren’t open yet, and the berths where the boats would dock weren’t finished either. Those berths were in what you might call “close-enough shape,” a condition experts thought workable and safe even if there was more work ahead.

The big day dawned—July 1. It was hot as blazes, 100 degrees without counting any of our modern-day measures of the heat index. This was 1964, remember. Folks tended to be a little more formal back then. The men in old photos are mostly wearing sports jackets and dress shoes, the women long dresses. No one showed up the way we would today, in shorts and t-shirts.

Hundreds of people had vied for the honor of being on that first ride. In order to fit more of them aboard, the ferry powers that be decided that there would be no cars allowed. For that first trip, everyone would enjoy a round-trip sail.

But first, the overdressed horde of people had to stand under a blazing, oppressive mid-afternoon sun and listen to speech after speech after speech. And then a couple of more speeches. Finally, at 4pm, the ferry departed Cape May and made its steamy 45-minute journey to Lewes. Upon arriving, the captain pulled his boat into the harbor, then spun around so as to back into that “good enough” parking spot.

A big drum stood in the water nearby. It was kind of a caution sign, designed to alert captains to the location of a no-go zone where an underwater pipeline ran. That drum was held in place by thin steel cables running underwater.

First noise: THUNK!

Next noises: SCHWIP! SCHWIP! SCHWIP!

One of the propellors had brushed into that underwater steel cable, which then wrapped itself around the propeller shaft. This wasn’t as bad as you might be thinking. The boat had a second engine, and the captain was able to wiggle his way out of this mess and get into that unfinished-but-good-enough berth.

Cape May Lewes Ferry Interior 1970s

Riding the ferry in the 1970s

But no one on-site understood how much damage had been done. They weren’t sure if the boat was safe enough to make the return trip. Which brings us back to the beginning of the day. It’s 100 degrees. The ferry terminal isn’t open. No one was planning on refreshments. No cars were allowed on the ferry—everyone’s vehicles are back in Cape May. Air conditioning? Ha!

No one in the local maritime business had the expertise or the diving gear needed to check that propeller shaft. The powers that be placed an emergency call to a shipyard in Norfolk, Va. That shipyard figured things out—they found a pilot who would fly a technician up to Lewes, armed with diving gear and tools.

He arrived in three hours, which seems like a pretty quick turnaround after a surprise call. But then again I wasn’t one of the overdressed hordes stranded on the Lewes waterfront on a three-digit day, with no comfy terminal affording a refuge. That technician finished unspooling whatever bits of metal cable remained on the shaft and soon declared the ship sea-worthy.

It was 9pm by the time all those VIPs and eager-beaver first-trip customers finally dragged their sweat-soaked bodies back onto the vessel for the return trip to Cape May. As you might expect, newspapers and television stations had a whole lot of fun with this little fiasco, and we’re having fun with it now. That’s OK—in between then and now are those 45 million happy passengers, lots of them tourists spending money and boosting economic development in Sussex County.

So cheers and happy birthday to everyone who’s done their part over the years to make the Cape May Louis Ferry such a success. I hope those of you who had family members at the event agree that 60 years is long enough. Someday is here, and we really can look back and laugh.

–written and posted in June 2024 by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Thank you so much for spending a little time with this story and, perhaps, wandering around this site and discovering more Delmarva stories, trips, and, well, secrets.

 

 

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