Each weekday morning at the bank of the Connecticut River, a short line of cars begins to form. A part of Route 148 is closed off — the river runs through it. But at 7:00 am, a gate swings open, and the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry reconnects the route.
The routine is simple: when a car pulls up to the gate on either side of the river, a light will begin to flash. When the ferry captain sees the flashing light, they’ll go pick up the car.
Cindy Pope of Chester, Connecticut, who crosses the river every weekday morning, said it’s this part of the commute she enjoys most.
“Taking the ferry in the morning is sort of a three-minute holiday on the way to work, and a three minute time-out on the way home. It’s a fantastic way to start and end your workday,” Pope said.
The view from the ferry is scenic. The boat engine hums under a buzz of insects and frogs. On the Hadlyme side, Gillette Castle peaks out from the greenery atop the most southerly of a chain of hills locally known as the Seven Sisters.
Catch a glimpse of the view off the deck of the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry in WNPR's video below.
The original ferry, launched in 1769, was pushed across the river using long poles. In 1917, the ferry was turned over to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, and the current ferry in use — the diesel-run Selden III — was built in 1949.
One of the ferry’s captains, Tom Darcy, who has been working on ferries in Connecticut for nearly three decades, said piloting the vessel is unique because there’s no bow or stern.
“The ferry is designed as a river boat, so it’s also a double-ender, it really has no keel. So there’s really no -- to put it in layman’s terms -- pointy ends and a blunt end, so it’s very difficult to maneuver,” Darcy said.
Darcy said the boat has two engines, two propellers, and two rudders that all can be used independently. Rather than turn the boat around when going to the other side of the river, Darcy switches the side of the wheel he’s standing on, and drives it in the opposite direction.
Diane Darcy, a first mate on the ferry and Tom's wife, has been working at the Chester-Hadlyme service for over twenty years. The vessel can accommodate up to nine cars and 49 passengers.
Pope said that while there's usually only a few cars on the ferry in the morning when she commutes to work, tourist service booms on weekends, and the ferry route provides traffic relief if there are problems with the swing bridge down the road or nearby highways.
“[Interstate] 95 had an accident not too long ago and they were rerouting everybody up and around. East Haddam is a tiny little village so it couldn’t take that amount of traffic so they were directing people to the ferry as well,” Pope said.
During the winter months, ferry commuters can take the East Haddam swing bridge about five miles up the river. The ferry service closes on November 30 and reopens April 1.
With operation costs exceeding revenue, Chester-Hadlyme Ferry often faces financial difficulty, and ferry commuters and local supporters have rallied in the past to keep the service running, citing its historical value and its impact on tourism in the area.
The Connecticut DOT’s most recent numbers had revenue at about $115,00 and the operating costs at about $340,000 in 2013. Pope said that commuter rates were raised recently to offset the deficit — she now pays $60 for a 20-ride package.
The DOT said the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry carried about 38,000 vehicles in 2013. The total number of passengers, including vehicle occupants, bicyclists, and pedestrians was about 78,000.
Captain Darcy said of those riders, he’s seen Hollywood movie stars and news correspondents, but the majority of people who come across are “regular joes,” simply happy to be there.