Woodland ferry: From manpower to thruster power

A photograph taken in the 1930s shows the use of a Model-T Ford engine to pull the ferry across the river. Cannon Hall is shown in the background. SOURCE DELDOT ARCHIVES
May 26, 2011

The history surrounding the Woodland ferry is a fascinating one that involves an infamous family, murder and possibly even a kidnapping gang.

The ferry has evolved with the times from using manpower to engine power to thrusters over its nearly 300 years of existence. The first ferry operators rowed or pulled patrons across the river; current operators must be licensed captains.

John Smith, one of the most famous explorers in history, may have passed by the location in 1608 during his exploration of the Nanticoke River. There is historic evidence he did go at least as far as Phillip’s Landing, which is not far from Woodland.

A ferry crossing operated by James Cannon dates back to the mid-1740s, and the Cannon family operated the private ferry until the mid-19th century.

After James died, the ferry operation was taken over by his wife, Betty, and sons Jacob and Isaac, who eventually owned more than 5,000 acres of land and a profitable fleet of ships in nearby Seaford. They also owned at least 30 slaves.

Historic records indicate the brothers obtained most of their money from foreclosures and from interest by lending money. It appears they were not the most loved residents in the area. When Jacob was murdered at the site of the ferry there was never a conviction of the assailant, a testimony to how people felt about the Cannon brothers. Isaac died a month later. Published reports showed no remorse at the brother’s passings.

From the 1840s to the 1880s, the Cannon’s sister, Luraney, operated the ferry.

If the exploits of the Cannon brothers were not notorious enough, another relative has gone down as one of the most infamous ladies in region history.

Just four miles away in Reliance, Patty Cannon, along with her husband Jesse and other gang members, used Joe Johnson’s Tavern as a place to hide kidnapped slaves and free blacks in order to sell them to slave dealers in the South. Their exploits are highlighted in the book “The Entailed Hat.”

As the story goes, Patty Cannon was able to escape capture by skipping from Maryland to Delaware and back to evade authorities. The tavern and her home were located at the intersection of Maryland’s Caroline and Dorchester counties and the Delaware state line.

Eventually, she was captured and confessed to four murders. While awaiting trial in 1829, she died in a Georgetown prison cell, purportedly by drinking poison.

In 1883, Sussex County Levy Court took over control of the ferry. Then in 1935, control was passed over to the Delaware Department of Transportation, the state agency that still operates the Woodland ferry.

The small hamlet of Woodland is only a remnant of what is once was. Still a peaceful spot to stop and enjoy the beauty of the Nanticoke River, the village once had a store, tavern and post office. Even historic Cannon Hall, built in 1820, lies in a state of disrepair following a recent fire. However, services are still held every Sunday at Woodland United Methodist Church where most of the members have strong roots to the Woodland community.

Thanks to the efforts of Woodland residents Jack and Carolyn Knowles, who have the Days Gone by Museum in their backyard, and the Woodland Ferry Association, the history of the ferry and village are kept alive.



As a private ferry in the 1800s, a fee ranging from 5 cents to 30 cents was charged to cross the river.

There has been no charge to use the ferry since 1935.

Contrary to legend, there is no evidence that Patty Cannon used Cannon Hall or any other buildings in Woodland for slave kidnapping.

Believe it or not, the ferry was briefly called the Patty Cannon in the 1950s.

The first ferries were rowboats called scows.

Complaints in the early 1800s of poor service, including long waits, have been documented.

A Model-T Ford engine powered the first mechanized ferry in 1930.

The first of two modern ferries, the Virginia C, was named after Highway Commissioner Dallas Culver of Seaford. The Virginia C was in service for 46 years until being replaced with the Tina Fallon (former state representative) in 2008.




  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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