Only a few people were on board for the first Cape May-Lewes Ferry crossing July 1, 1964, but dozens of local people managed to get golden tickets for two commemorative trips across the Delaware Bay one day before.
While some details of the early crossings have slipped away, those first journeys have left lifelong memories for many who made them.
First ride was one to remember
Sharon Walsh, a lifelong Lewes resident, said she and her relatives and friends jumped at the chance to be among the first to ride the ferry. It turned out to be more of an adventure than she bargained for. At the time, Walsh was 23 years old.
Ferry operation was nothing like it is today, she said. Neither side had a terminal; passengers had to walk through sand and over dunes to board the ferry.
“There were no cars but lots of Lewes people on board,” she said. “It was a really big party.”
She said her group's plan was to spend the day in New Jersey and eat dinner at Cape May's landmark Lobster House.
But things didn't turn out as planned. Their party contained nearly 20 people, and the waiting time was long. Everyone but Walsh and one of her sisters left the restaurant.
“A group of Portuguese fishermen asked if they could share our table and said they would buy our dinners,” she said.
By the time they were finally seated, it was 7:30 p.m. – at least a half hour past the time they were supposed to be back at the ferry dock. “The fishermen told us if we missed the ferry, they would take us in their boat back across the bay to Lewes. We weren't worried at all,” Walsh said. “They even paid for our cab ride back to the ferry.”
As it turned out, the ferry's departure from Cape May was delayed, and the pair didn't miss their ferry back to Lewes. “But our group had really been worried and was mad at us,” she said.
On the ride back, she and her sister, Marge Bakke, started talking with the crew, and by the time the crossing ended, they had made friends with the captain and engineer. “We were the last two off the ferry. We had a marvelous time,” she said.
But the story doesn't end there. For the next six or seven years that same Portuguese fishing crew came to Lewes during the summer to eat at Angler's Restaurant, which was the Walsh family business.
Part of the Milton High band
Even as a teenager, Peg Tobin of Milton knew the ferry was a big deal. At 14, she was one of 80 members of the Milton High School Band, which rode over on the first ferry crossing to take part in a parade in Cape May marking the historic event. The band used two school buses for transportation.
What she remembers most was the day was hot, and the band had no water or ice. “And we were wearing wool uniforms and dark colors,” she said. “I remember a lot of salt tablets being handed out.”
She said band members could see dignitaries on the ship sipping on cold drinks. She said the crossing took about 90 minutes. “I had never been on a big boat so it was exciting,” she said.
The ferry crossing remains a highlight of her younger years. “We were lucky because it was a wonderful time to grow up,” she said.
According to the program, it was the Lewes High School band that played the National Anthem during the commemorative event.
Holding on to a bit of history
Jim Reed, a Rehoboth Beach attorney, took the first trip over June 30 and still has the $3.50 golden ticket in mint condition to prove it.
He saved the ticket in a box stored at his family home in Rehoboth Beach. When the house was torn down five years ago to make way for a new home, he found the box and the ticket.
He said it's hard to recall much of what happened that day because he was only 10 years old. “I knew it was a big thing that a ferry was taking people to Cape May,” he said. As a youngster, his family made the drive to the resort town many times, traveling north to Wilmington and then south in New Jersey.
He recalls that passengers had to wait before disembarking because the crew was hastily building a 20-foot ramp. Because of the tide, the ferry's ramp could not drop far enough so people could get off, he said.
Reed said he recently took a ride across the ferry. “It was as pleasant today as it was back then,” he said.
'I guess I remember all the bad stuff'
Paul Carey, who grew up in Seaford and now lives near Lewes, took the first ride as a 17-year-old with his cousin Fran Dickerson and Aunt Virginia Dickerson, who were friends of the Carvel family. Delaware Gov. Elbert Carvel and New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes were among the featured speakers during ceremonies to commemorate the start of ferry operation.
Carey still has his golden ticket and a rare program from the June 30 event. “They were packed away in a box with my other high school stuff,” he said.
Carey was on the ill-fated ferry that got stuck in the Lewes slip when its propeller got entangled in a cable. Carey said the trip was delayed, and it took a tugboat to eventually get the ferry underway. He remembers that the tugboat followed the ferry across the bay.
“Then on the New Jersey side we had to get off using step ladders because the ramp didn't reach,” he said.
Carey also remembers June 30 as being an extremely hot day. “We didn't have water,” he said. Once they got off the ferry in Cape May, the tent and refreshments reserved for dignitaries were made available to everyone.
He also recalls the condition of the ferry. “It had not been maintained; it was really a rust bucket,” he said.
“I guess I remember all the bad stuff,” he said with a laugh, adding the trip over and back turned out to be an all-day affair.
Carey was not a stranger to riding ferry vessels having ridden the ferry system many times from Cape Charles, Va., to Kiptopeke, Va., before the 1964 opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
The Delaware River and Bay Authority purchased four of the Virginia ships for $3.3 million and upgraded them.
Carey said he remembers reading an old brochure dated in the 1930s describing a ferry route 30 years before the project got off the ground. “I know people had been thinking about it for many years. The problem is, it's not a major route to anywhere,” he said.